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Seven Ways You Can Make Yourself Sick Eating Wild Mushrooms

This is a speech I give during mushroom walks when there’s a lull between cool discoveries. I’m doing a mushroom walk for the first time in a few months this weekend so I could use a refresher, and hey maybe you’ll like it too.

1. The mushroom was poisonous. There’s a significant number of mushroom species out there that are poisonous. You can’t necessarily tell by the way they look, taste, or smell, or by cooking them with silver spoons. The only way to tell is to positively identify the mushroom, to species or at least species complex. It’s a difficult skill that can only be developed though study and especially experience. When in doubt, throw it out.

2. The mushroom itself wasn’t poisonous but it grew somewhere that provided some poison that the fungus put in the mushroom. There are some perfectly edible mushrooms out there that become sickening when they grow on Eucalyptus or Pine. There is one case I know of where a morel hunter gave himself heavy metal poisoning by collecting and eating lots of morels that all happened to be growing in old apple orchards that had been treated with Lead Arsenate decades earlier. Some people avoid collecting mushrooms along roads or railroad tracks for fear of fuel additives and other contaminants.

3.The mushroom wasn’t poisonous until you had booze with it. There are a few kinds of mushrooms that are considered edible but when you eat them within some time after (OR BEFORE) drinking alcohol, the reaction can make you sick. The anti-alcoholic drug Antabuse works the same way. Also, alcohol is a known poison, so if you drink more than you are used to you can make yourself sick—just because you happen to throw up mushroom fragments doesn’t mean the mushrooms are the culprit. If you are trying a new wild mushroom that you have positively identified, don’t have booze at the same time.

4.You are allergic. Some people are sensitive to some species of wild mushroom that are considered edible. Don’t try more than one new wild mushroom at a time. Did I mention that it should be positively identified as an edible species yet?

5. The mushroom is too old. Imagine you found a steak or a carrot in the woods—it just has a little slimy rotten part on it, just cut it off and eat the rest right? An old mushroom is probably growing bacteria, and you have no way of knowing if it will make you sick. Eat only fresh mushrooms that you have positively identified as an edible species.

6. You ate too much. But I had three pounds of chanterelles! The dry weight of mushrooms is mostly chitin, the indigestible polysaccharide that also forms the skins of insects, the beaks of squid, and the horrible mouthparts of some parasitic worms. If you load your stomach with it, it’s as if you ate a heaping casserole of shredded newspaper. Also keep in mind that the dose is the poison—people who die from Amanita poisoning usually ate a ton of them. Survivors report that they taste good. There are some edible Amanitas, but I will never eat them, why chance it?

7. You didn’t cook it long enough. Some cultures call certain mushroom species edible—but only when they are cooked. I avoid these. Remember the chitin? The longer you cook it the more digestible it becomes. Chicken mushroom (Laetiporus sp.) is a highly prized edible—I lightly sautéed some because I didn’t want to lose the chicken-like texture, and got made myself real sick. If you are going to collect wild mushrooms for food, get a reputable guide—something made of paper, not some weirdo’s web page—and follow the most timid instructions. I should have cooked the Chicken mushroom for at least 20 minutes at high temperature. Now I know.
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