Let’s talk about wild food.
I’m in favor of wild food. If we can get our sustenance from what grows around us, and help ease the burden on our food supply, that’s a good thing. But here’s the dirty little secret of wild food: most of it isn’t very good.
If I had a little more gumption, and a lot more technical skill, I’d create a section here on Starving where you get to rate wild foods the way you rate books on Amazon. Bluefin tuna? Five stars! Purslane? One star, or maybe two. Cattail shoots? One star. Sorrel? Two. Chickweed, plantain, and burdock? Blech, blech, and blech!
Wild fruits are a little better, but not much. Until humans tinkered with them, fruits tended to be small, seedy, and not nearly as sweet as the fruits we’ve come to love. If you’re out there harvesting wild grapes, cranberries, or gooseberries, chances are there’s going to be a significant amount of sugar introduced, somewhere down the line. Just how wholesome is that?
You do better when you leave the plant world. Fish, for the most part, are delicious. Fluke, bluefish, striped bass, and sea bass are part of the regular rotation around here. There’s one fish we don’t eat, except for that one time, and it’s false albacore. Only Hank Shaw eats false albacore.
Birds and mammals are a mixed bag. Venison is pretty good, once you get the hang of cooking a meat with almost no fat. Ditto wild turkey. There are lots of ducks I’ve never tasted, but am willing to take their deliciousness on faith. The one wild duck I did taste, because I shot it, was an eider. One star!
Mushrooms, though, mushrooms run the gamut. Yeah, sure, some can kill you. But the best of them are astonishingly good, meaty and earthy, and way better than anything you can buy. We have a very dependable hen-of-the-wood tree, growing at the side of a parking lot in an undisclosed location, and harvest several pounds almost every year. But when Jen Yu or Butter Wilde posts a picture of yet another porcini, a mushroom I have yet to find, from their apparently limitless supply, i takes all the resources of my better nature to smile and wish them well. If there were some concrete step I could take to turn the benevolent smiles of the mushroom gods away from them and toward me, I have no doubt I’d do it. On my last mushroom hunt, I came home with one — count it, one! — marginally edible bolete, with a big hole from which I’d evicted a slug.
But I know that’s not what keeps people from hunting mushrooms. I get it — while the upside is a tasty ingredient, the downside is an excruciating death. And figuring out which of those in store for you, if you eat that thing poking out from under the mulch, isn’t so easy
Several mushroom hunters have developed flow charts that detail the decision-making process. I have tried to use the one by David Arora, author of All That the Rain Promises, and More … (which is my candidate for the Worst Title for an Excellent Book award), but have found it cumbersome. It is, for starters, long, and it involves steps that are difficult, like determining whether the mushroom has a “more or less central stalk,” or tedious, like making spore prints.
There has to be a better way.
Kevin’s daughter, Fallon, suggested the Magic 8-Ball. Is that mushroom edible? “Signs point to yes.” Should I add this to my lamb ragout? “Outlook not so good.”
Alternatively, you could try this Universal Edibility Test, which sounds like an excellent thing to try until you read what actually goes into it. It’s not like a litmus test, or a pregnancy test, where you just watch something turn color. The Universal Edibility Test involves first pressing a molecule of the substance to your lips, and then waiting. If nothing bad happens, then you press it to your tongue, and wait some more. Then you chew, but don’t swallow. Then you chew, and swallow. Then you go through the cycle with two molecules. And, of course, you have to do this with every part of the plant separately. The stem could be safe, but the leaf is a whole different story.
The advantage to the Universal Edibility Test is that it does, indeed, tell you whether a plant is edible. The disadvantage is that it takes seventeen years. There is some consolation in knowing that you’ll be able to pass this information on to your grandchildren, but the Universal Edibility Test isn’t much use when it comes to figuring out what’s for dinner.
I have, over the course of my rather spotty mushroom-hunting career, developed a mushroom-identifying heuristic that borrows a little from all of these strategies. I will share it with you, although it exposes me as a crude anti-intellectual because I am interested only in edibility. Mycological knowledge for mycological knowledge’s sake? Sadly, I’m no Linnaeus.
I do, however, make a mean lamb ragout.