"Bayou Bill" Scifres
Dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of Indiana's natural resources
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Gastronomically Safe Fungi
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Scifres

"I wouldn't touch 'em with a 10-foot pole," my friend said. "How do you know which ones are poisonous . . . and which ones ain't?" 

I was telling my friend that spring mushroom season is knocking on our door, and that this interesting activity would occupy my free moments in the next month or so.

In so doing I was quick to point out that there are some poisonous fungi out there, but that if one sticks to the morel species, he/she can be safe in enjoying these culinary delights.

This part of my presentation (touting) of spring morels always includes the fact that if a person has never eaten mushrooms (even the favored morel species), it is a good idea to consume them a little at a time and with other foods until you are sure they agree with your body.

I have never known anyone who became ill from eating morels, but caution still is the word to live by.

I have always contended that while there certainly are poisonous fungi out there, it is likely that there are far more fungi species that are gastronomically safe. And many of them--beyond the morels--are downright tasty.

I have always tried to impress on those seeking advice on separating the good (non-poisonous) mushrooms from the bad (poisonous to humans) that the safest way to go is to hunt with someone who knows good from bad until the neophyte hunter feels proficient.
I feel advice is a good today as it ever has been.

However, last summer a boyhood chum told me about a lady who has a method of determining whether a specific mushroom is/is not toxic.

I had to get it from the horse's mouth, so to speak, so I joined my friend for lunch one afternoon at the Fortune House, a Chinese restaurant near the Pyramids in Indianapolis. There I met Doreen Zhou, manager of the restaurant.

Ed Kiewit, my high school friend, and wife Naoma, had enjoyed the cuisine at the Fortune House for some time. He was very aware of the use of mushrooms by Fortune House cooks, and he told Mrs. Zhou about my interest in wild mushrooms.

Mrs. Zhou uses only commercially produced mushrooms in her kitchen, but she had told Ed about a test the people of her homeland used to determine the edibility of wild mushrooms.

She had been born in the eastern part of China, but had moved to the southern part of the country as a teenager. She said conventional foods were very scarce in the southern part of China, but the damp area produced many species of wild mushrooms. Residents of the area depended heavily on wild mushrooms for food, she said.

To separate edible mushrooms from those that were poisonous, the people simply boiled the mushrooms in water with some corms (cloves) of garlic. If the garlic turned black, the mushrooms were poisonous. If the garlic remained light colored the mushrooms were edible. It was a test, she said, that had come down through the ages.

When Ed (Lynn to me) told me about the wild mushroom test it was like waving a red flag at a bull.

My first question: "Would Mrs. Zhou test some mushrooms for me?

Probably," he said, adding that he would check it out. 

Mrs. Zhou would, indeed, test some mushrooms for me, and in a matter of days I sent her a sizeable chunk of  "breast meat" of a four-pound hen-of-the-woods.

The hen, not surprisingly to me, passed the test. And she liked the mushroom for her own culinary uses, although she emphasized that she serves only commercial mushrooms at her restaurant. Incidentally, her mushroom dishes are delicious, as are her other culinary creations.

Caution still is the watchword for those who hunt and consume wild mushrooms. For example, for many years I ate the mushroom known to Hoosier "morellers" as "spearhead" (and a few other names). It is the one with the long stem and the tiny dark cap. The stem of this mushroom attaches to the cap above the outer perimeter of the cap. In choice, safest species of morels, the stem attaches at the outer perimeter of the cap.

One day several years back I came in from mushroom hunting at mid-afternoon with a big bag of spearheads and hungry as a bear. To sate my appetite I fried up a skillet of spearheads and ate them. 

It was a great bait of fried mushrooms, but a few hours later I noticed that I was quite nervous, somewhat like being very hungry. I have not consumed spearheads since, although some of my morel-hunting friends swear by them.

Click on thumbnail photo to see enlarged image.

Mrs. Zhou inspects commercial mushrooms she uses at her restaurant.
The stem of favored and safest morel species joins the cap at its outer perimeter (below). At the top the other side of the top half of this gray depicts what morel hunters usually see. 

All columns, essays, and photos are copyrighted by Bill Scifres and may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the Scifres Family.  For reproduction permission and media usage fees, contact: Scifres Family, 6420 East 116th Street, Fishers, IN 46038, E-mail: billscifres@aol.com

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