contributed by OMS Board Member Bryan Lewis
Like so many, I came to mushrooms by foraging – specifically, for morels. Morels are delicious and relatively easy to safely identify for beginners. After some years of that (years!) I graduated to the also delicious and spectacularly more abundant chanterelle. And then I was hooked, drawn into the world of fungi.
Something about fungi is infectious; once you learn a little bit about identifying this or that you want to learn more and more. Shortly after just eating mushrooms, you start to notice how colorful and strangely beautiful they are, then you’re stupefied by their importance to ecology, their weirdness, and so on and on. Very quickly you encounter and start hanging out with others in the equally colorful, weird and amazing mushroom subculture. From professors to photographers to psychonauts – not to mention gourmands – the mushroom people are quite a wild group. This happened to me, and like a node in a mycelial network, I quickly relayed knowledge I learned from my new mushroom friends back to others whenever I happened to be out on a hike or in nature…
A few years ago I worked at an office kind of job in Boston. When there I was usually cooped up inside working a lot. I took any spare moment I could to escape out into woods and explore, sometimes with co-workers. Of course, on those walks I would find many mushrooms and regale my friends with stories I learned from Walt Sturgeon, Gary Lincoff and others. Perhaps my friends thought I was a bit out-there, but I think that they appreciated my passion and enjoyed the stories and information. Because I forage, they also saw me occasionally pick edible mushrooms.
I keep in touch with many friends from that job. One, in particular, occasionally sent me a photo, usually of a marasmius oreades or some such fungus just prior to being mowed over. Once he found a morel (especially rare in Boston!). But generally speaking, nothing all that interesting. And then, more recently, one day late in the fall I got a text from him with this photo and this exact message:
“Local harvest. Safe to eat?”
YIKES! Now, even the most greenhorn mushroom forager knows that a cutting board in a kitchen is NOT THE BEST PLACE TO IDENTIFY A MUSHROOM. From a photo. In a text. On a phone.
As soon as I saw the text I tried to call my friend to discourage this crazy, irresponsible foraging behavior, but no answer! Judging from the season and the photo – cap appearance, thick flesh, overall shape – I figured these were *probably* late-fall oyster mushrooms. But still! Did my over-enthusiasm for mushroom foraging lead my friend to this fate? And, just what fate would that be? Distressed, I sent detailed texts of possible similar mushrooms (oysters , lentinellus, etc.) and also scarier but less-likely possibilities, and obvious questions asking where, exactly, were these mushrooms growing, do they have a particular odor or taste, and so on. But each text began the same way: Don’t eat the mushrooms!
Finally later that evening, he called back and said he picked them with another friend, apparently a local mushroom forager, who identified and helped to prepare them. And after all, no one got sick, but the meal was only so-so. I could’ve told them that late fall oysters aren’t the greatest-tasting shrooms and saved them the trouble. Now, I’ve learned something. When wandering in the woods with friends not yet indoctrinated into the mushroom culture, I say don’t eat any mushrooms! Or plants for that matter. It’s a good strategy for at least two reasons: peace of mind, and more for me!