The Long-lived Wild Mushroom Eater’s Golden Rules

Regular readers of this blog (and newcomers who put “mushrooms” in the search field) know we are enthusiastic wild mushroom collectors and consumers, and  that one of us –  Bill – is an expert who writes and lectures on mycology and is a consultant for the New York and New England Poison Control centers.

Calls are coming in almost daily, mostly concerning pre-verbal children exploring things before their parents can stop them, most of them, thank goodness, turning out fine. But as the recent Leccinum Warning shows, sometimes not so fine and that led Bill to ask me whether we’d ever posted the elementary rules of safe mushroom eating. Now we have.

Rules for the Eating of Mushrooms

By Bill Bakaitis

There are old mushroom eaters, and there are bold mushroom eaters, but there are no old and bold ones!

Here are 5 rules that the prudent Mycophage might employ:

1. DO NOT EAT ANY MUSHROOM UNLESS YOU ARE 100% CERTAIN OF ITS IDENTITY AS A SAFE SPECIES.  CHECK IT OUT IN RELIABLE TEXTS.

2. TEST YOUR OWN REACTION TO EACH MUSHROOM BY EATING ONLY A SMALL PORTION OF A SINGLE SPECIES AT A TIME. REPEAT A FEW DAYS LATER TO TEST FOR DEVELOPED ALLERGIC REACTIONS.

3. MAKE SURE THE MUSHROOM IS THOROUGHLY COOKED BEFORE YOU EAT IT.

4. WHEN TESTING YOUR TOLERANCE FOR A NEW SPECIES, DO NOT CONSUME ANY ALCOHOL WITH THE MEAL OR FOR A FEW DAYS AFTER.

5. KEEP A FEW UNCOOKED MYSHROOMS IN THE FRIDGE FOR IDENTIFICATION SHOULD A TOXIC REACTION DEVELOP.

Why do these rules work?

Consider for a moment that there are thousands of species of fungi that fruit in any given area.  Some may appear nowhere else in the world. Some are edible, some toxic, and some are so variable that they are at times edible and at other times toxic. Often there is no good way to differentiate between species without hours or days of long tedious chemical and microscopic work.  Furthermore, the toxicity of mushrooms is unknown until they are actually eaten by fellow mushroom collectors. There are no good animal models.

Consider also that the edibility of mushrooms is often contingent upon the particular biology of the mushroom eater. Some mushrooms are edible to some but poison to others. And being like meat in composition, mushrooms are subject to rapid bacterial decay.  While the heat of cooking will destroy some of the toxins, other toxins will survive, especially if the cook attempts a delicate presentation, such as a light sauté or stir-fry!

Consider further that some mushrooms, edible in themselves, contain substances that interact with other foods making them poison! Perhaps the most well known interaction of this type is the way certain mushrooms interact with alcohol.  Alcohol consumed for up to a week or two after the meal cannot be fully metabolized and toxic metabolites accumulate in the body in amounts sufficient to cause extreme discomfort or death.

Mushrooms also differ with regard to the speed with which their toxins operate. Some go to work immediately, while others have reactions delayed by hours, days, weeks or months.  In addition carcinogenic compounds which presumably would not show their true effect for years are known to be present in mushrooms, even in the common store-bought variety.

POISON CONTROL EMERGENCY:  800-222-1222

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10 Comments »

  • Cynthia Said,

    Many years ago I attended a worshop at Maine Audubon led by Sam Ristich. I have always remembered his advice to never eat a mushroom unless you are 110% sure that you know what it is.

    Unfortunately, that workshop was held in a very dry year and I have not taken another opportunity to get myself educated on identifying wild mushrooms. Recently, however, I have been reading some writings of Paul Stamets and my interest in wild mushrooms has been rekindled. Can you recommend a source here in Maine where one might find occasional workshops on the topic – I am not keen to try wild mushrooms on the basis of books alone. I was kind of taken with that 110% notion.

    Thanks – always enjoye your blog (not just the mushroom topics)

  • Bill Said,

    Hi Cynthia,

    Welcome to the blog. Yes Sam was something. He passed recently at the age of 92, active to the end. A fitting obit from the New York Mycological Association can be found here http://www.newyorkmyc.org/nymsfusion/news.php?readmore=9

    To learn more about Maine Mushrpoms you might try MIchaeline Mulvey at the Maine Mycological Association. http://www.megalink.net/~swampie/mma.htm The club has walks and talks suited for both beginners and advanced collectors. This is the club that Sam started.

    Greg Marley conducts hands on classes in the Rockland area. mushroom@midcoast.com

    For Intermediate and advanced mycology try Dr. Laurance Leonard, lleonar1@maine.rr.com He and Roz Lowen are teaching a course on Maine mushrooms at this very moment! Hurry!!! http://www.eaglehill.us/programs/nhs/nhs-calendar.shtml

    Thanks for your encouraging words about Leslie’s blog and our articles.

    Remember mushrooming is in some way like birding: some are easy to identify, some difficult. If you can tell a robin from a crow, you can easily be 110% certain with some of the easy ones.

    Let us know how well you made out!

    Bill

  • Cynthia Said,

    Thanks for the great links! I can indeed tell a crow from a robin (was watching a kildeer family in our field this afternoon – they don’t look like crows OR robins :-)) So that sounds promising.

    The link for Michaeline Mulvey gave me a “Page Not Found” error, but I found the Maine Mycological Association using Google.

    I had seen an obit when Sam died. A loss to the mushroom world, for certain. I thoroughly enjoyed his enthusiasm at the workshop I attended.

    I will let you know how I make out. Might take awhile as the calendar is too full so I have to plan WAAAYYY ahead.

  • Bill Said,

    Hi Again Cynthia….

    Well, the reply to your second comment has somehow wandered away during the transition to the new web design, so, let me again say that the mistake in posting a link that didn’t work is entirely my own mistake. I was so much in a hurry to tell you about Roz and Lauri’s course at Eagle Hill that I neglected to check the MMA link. I am glad that you found their site via alternative pathways.

    And, to help you plan in advance, if not WAAAYYY in advance, I can recommend two other courses at Eagle Hill this fall; these are:

    Sep 6 – 11 Biodiversity and Biological Surveys for Studying
    Mushrooms and Other Fungi: Optional Followup Bioblitz at Acadia
    National Park David Porter

    Oct 10 – 15 Mushrooms of Coastal Maine During the Fall Foliage
    Season Gary Lincoff

    Gary, as you may know is the popular author of the most popular and useful mushroom field guide used in the Northeast: The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms. Gary and Sam were great friends and colleagues, and word is that they still talk to one another about mushrooms on both sides of the great beyond!

    David Porter has taught academic mycology at major universities along the east coast, but don’t let that frighten you. He and I were roommates at a Foray in Maine a few years ago and I can assure you he is as easy going and down to earth as they come. You can’t go wrong with either of these superb teachers.

    I hope you are finding mushrooms. Here in the mid-coast area of Maine, the mushrooms are surprisingly scarce in this the wettest of recent years. This can quickly change however, and when it does I hope to see the entire summer and fall spectrum on display at the same time. I am getting ready.

    Bill

  • lisa Said,

    just ate some pinkies i very much trusted the harvester. not without hours of online research. Half hour still ok,these are “field mushrooms” with pink or and brownisj gill. I also have a bachseat full of maitake
    .

  • lisa Said,

    These are the first wild mushrooms i have tried,awesome, im extremely interested

  • Bill Said,

    Hi Lisa,

    Welcome to the blog (and also the wonderful world of mushrooms).I can see that you are very excited by the thrill and adventure of this sport. Please remember that there are thousands of mushroom species to be found and that the difference between safe and not-safe, even deadly, species can be very subtle, even microscopic at times.

    I take it your ‘pinkies’ are a species of the genus called Agaricus. The common store mushroom is a cultivated species within this genus, but it is very difficult, even for experts, to distinguish among wild ones.

    Be careful. Join a local group, get hands-on training, and begin to learn the characteristics which differentiate one species from another. The ‘pinkie’ Agaricus arvensis may satisfy your appetite, but the ‘pinkie’ Agaricus placomyces will make you wish you had never tried wild mushrooms.

    And also be careful with what you find ‘online’. Distinguishing sound advice from ignorant opinion can be just as difficult as telling safe mushrooms from ones that are toxic.

    When learning a new species of mushroom, I like to follow it for a season or two, learning which characteristics are stable and which change with the temperature, humidity, substrate, etc. before I commit it to the test of my gut.

    I am old, not bold. Call me a fuddy-duddy, but here I am, safe and sound after collecting and eating wild mushrooms for the past fifty odd years!

    Good luck, good learning, and good hunting.

    Bill

  • Diana Libby Said,

    It’s been a few years since I went out hunting with the group but hope to hook up with Maine Mycological Association this fall. I was one of the founding members when our small group went to a lecture given by Sam at the Audubon Society. We had such a good time that we decided to start the MMA group/club…..goodness, has it really been THAT long?? I am wondering who of the original gang is still active – Diane? Carol? Mimi? Chris? I know we lost Sam – but hopefully, some of these members have kept active. Hope to see you on a trek! Diana Libby

  • Bill Bakaitis Said,

    Hey Diana,

    Nice to hear from one of Sam’s old buddies and founding member of MMA. You might check with Greg Marley (mushroom@midcoast.com)about the mushrooming crowd in Maine. He gives frequent classes and seems to be as active as anyone in the Mid-Coast area. I’ll bet he knows as many mushroomers as he does mushrooms.

    I have to tell you though that it has been very dry in the Mid-Coast areas I have investigated this summer. And that means few mushrooms. Even in the Rockland Bog, where I checked today, the water table is down a good two feet or more leaving only damp mud opening up in wide cracks where streams and foot deep standing water are in normal years.

    Greg points out in his recent Newsletter that all is waiting for a deluge, which might be true. It is my experience however that once the soil moisture falls to a certain point, a series of heavy rains is necessary to first save, then nourish the mycelium prior to the rains which flush the fruiting bodies from the duff.

    But Maine is a big state and if you follow the radio thunderstorm warnings can probably find good mushrooming where the storms have passed.

    Good Luck,

    You will know me when you see me in the woods, basket at my side, camera on my chest! Whoops, that must describe
    nearly every other mushroomer as well, doesn’t it?

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