Fungi gone wild!

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.

11 people are having a conversation about “Fungi gone wild!

  1. Interstingly enough I never bat an eye at buying any fungi from a store. How can you be sure that it isn’t a poisonous version of an edible? Some of them are frightfully alike to the edible version. Humans are the ones checking them and well, we all make mistakes.

    So of course we’re researching starting a small mushroom growing operation to sell to local businesses, restaurants, and farmer’s markets. LOL!

    • Marcy, no need to do ID at the market — I’ll go out on a limb and bet that no one, in the history of mankind, has died from a mushroom bought at the market.

      I actually love the idea of a small mushroom operation. We grew shiitakes, and considered it. In the end, we went with oysters instead.

    • Stephanie! Muster your courage! There are quite a few excellent mushrooms with no deadly lookalikes. And, if you’re really not sure, just send a photo to Hank. The miracle of modern technology means he can help all of us.

  2. Chanterelles at the local farmer’s market — I’ll pay good money every day and twice on Sundays for the fresh results of someone else’s expertise…as far as small mushroom operations go, my first/ex husband grew magic mushrooms in my darkroom. It was quite an interesting process and they were weirdly beautiful. But my not being a fan of the product, the risk, nor some of the customers, it all came to naught. As did he.

  3. Love your decision tree. You forgot one detail. In every tribe there is one low ranking member who gets to eat first. They’re the official taste test. New food? Let Oog try it! Oog likes everything! Oops, Oog not feeling so good. Guess we won’t try that food! 🙂 🙂 🙂 This may explain the very conservative traditional diets. Nobody wants to be Oog. Of course, the benefit is Oog gets to eat first. When there is new food to be tested.

    As to the wild fruits, we do a lot of wild harvesting and there is a great deal that is very sweet and delicious of the wild fare that has not been tinkered with. Although, perhaps my taste buds are off, I’m not heavily into sugar so even a little in the raspberries, strawberries and such seems like a lot. Most of our wild fruits are berries here on Sugar Mountain. Hmm… Berries and maple sugar. Does maple sugar count as wild? That’s very sweet and not human tinkered.

  4. Hoosier Girl says:

    I hunt morels every year, and this past year is the first time I have ever come across false morels, which may be varying levels of poisonous depending on the type and your tolerance. I was reaching out my hand to one when I stopped in my tracks and realized something wasn’t right. There is a lot to be said for a trained eye.

    Anyway, morels are definitely a 5, as are black raspberries that grow around here in huge thorny patches. Blackberries are prolific too, but I would rank those more a 3. Elder flower tea is a 5, while elder berries are a 2, except for medicinal purposes. For greens, steamed stinging nettle is surprisingly good–I’d give it a solid 5 in the greens category. Plantain is also supposed to be absolutely delicious when steamed, but I haven’t tried this yet. Ramps another 5; paw paws probably a 3 but they definitely don’t need any more sugar. My kids give sorrel a 5 and it is close to being the only green thing they eat willingly, and by that I mean tearing it up by the handful and devouring it.

    For game, mourning dove is by far the most delicious game I have ever had. Outside of toro sashimi, that is, but I don’t think sashimi counts. Tiny, tender, and perfectly cooked….oh, how awful to eat mourning doves, but they are so very, very delicious.

    • I would have to disagree with you on the raspberries/blackberries ratings, blackberries are by far taster then raspberries. Raspberries are like eating vaguely sweet little balls of mushy, seedy, cardboard, where as blackberries are richly spicy, sweet, and delectable. Miner’s Lettuce, and purslane are good (not bitter like most greens). Pigeon is remarkably good (known by the name Rock Dove), and Eurasian Collared Doves are about twice the size of Morning Doves and just as tasty.

  5. Love the flow chart. I have yet to find black trumpets or hen-of-the-woods …morels and boletes top my list of wild mushrooms.

  6. Personally, I’d give both purslane and chickweed fives, but would have to agree that much of what’s listed as “edible” in wild foods books ranges from barely edible (as in, in might not totally ruin a pot of store veggies) to bitter as aspirin and impossible to swallow. Even so, with the little self-training I’ve had, I’ve been able to find endless amounts of very edible greens (along with other stuff) everywhere I’ve lived. On the west coast, for example, mustard greens, which are pretty similar to store-bought greens, are everywhere in copious amounts. Cleaning and processing things takes time, but it makes walks through the forest more fun as we look for the latest discovery.

    • I think that last part of your comment hit the nail on the head. A hike or a boat ride is a lot more interesting to me if it means I might find something good to eat!

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