All the non-mushroom people I know who read “Breakfast of Champignons” (5/12) concluded that Huan Hsu did an extraordinarily artful job of digesting the strange, quirky world of wild-mushroom hunting. “So that’s why you look for these things,” they often said, followed by, “Can I go with you on a foray?” While the article understandably focused on the zealous springtime search for the highly valued morels, it also warrants a few cautionary notes.
In the realm of the natural sciences, searching for edible wild mushrooms is one of the nearest things to an extreme sport. There are poisonous look-alikes for just about every choice edible mushroom. Even morels are toxic if eaten raw. All edible wild mushrooms must be cooked before eating. Always be certain about what you have identified before eating. In the case of something like an Amanita phalloides—absent an organ transplant from a genetically matched donor—you’re not likely to have a second chance.
Thousands of mushrooms that look similar to commercially grown portobello mushrooms pop up in yards and playgrounds all over this area every summer. One of them, the poisonous Chlorophyllum molybdites, accounts for more trips to hospital emergency rooms than any other. To make it even more challenging, this green-gilled fungus often grows right next to at least one edible species that is distinguished by little more than the color of the gills.
While I am accurately described in the City Paper article as casually chewing on a turkey-tail polypore (Trametes versicolor) before remarking that it tastes “like paper,” that was in the midst of talking about how this particular fungi, long touted for medicinal qualities in Asia but often dismissed here for its culinary value, has been found by major medical research institutions to help attack some cancers, makes a fine tea, and has also been used to, yes, make paper. I should have added the words often used for television—“Hey kids, don’t try this at home.” To learn more about mushrooms and how to forage for them safely, a good place to start is the Mycological Association of Washington: mawdc.org. Happy hunting.