Stayin' Alive: Identifying a New Wild Mushroom


Elise Bauer

Some of you know I work with Elise at Simply Recipes a couple days a week, working on new recipes that are more mainstream than those I create for my site. Several Tuesdays ago, I walked into her kitchen, as I always do, and Elise began telling me about her weekend. I listened intently, until, behind her, out in her back yard, I caught a glimpse of something: Mushrooms! Lots of mushrooms!

I found myself struggling to keep my attention with Elise. My eyes kept focusing on these beguiling mushrooms. I could almost feel them calling me: "Come hither, Hank, we're yummy mushrooms ... Eat us, eat us!" That's what it sounded like in my warped little brain. Okay, maybe not exactly like that, but close enough.

As the saying goes, there are old mushroom hunters, and there are bold mushroom hunters—but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters.

"I'm sorry, Elise. But I've just noticed those mushrooms behind you...."

Elise shrieked in delight. "They're here!" Elise, few people know, is as crazy about wild mushrooms as I am. She'd seen these mushrooms flush the previous year and her brother, also a mushroom hunter, had pronounced them fried chicken mushrooms, lyophyllum decastes. Edible. She let me pick as many as I wanted.

"Fried chicken mushrooms, eh? You sure?" Elise hemmed. She didn't eat them last year because she was most definitely not sure. Both of us are wise enough to not take the eating of an unknown mushroom lightly. As the saying goes, there are old mushroom hunters, and there are bold mushroom hunters—but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters.

Still, these shrooms were calling me. This happens from time to time, as, I think, it does to many mushroom hunters. I often feel when I am out looking for mushrooms that the Force guides me to the good ones.

It happened to me twice, just recently: I spotted some pine spikes, chroogomphus vinicolor, while out looking for slippery caps, suillus pungens. I picked the ruddy mushrooms without totally knowing what sort they were but with a gut feeling that they were edible. I didn't positively ID them as pine spikes until I got home and consulted the bible, David Arora's Mushrooms Demystified.

The second time it happened, however, I ignored the Force. I saw some mushrooms with a silky brown cap and slightly lilac-colored gills. Something sorta told me these were good to eat, but they looked so much like the inedible russulas and lactarias I'd been seeing all over that I passed them by. Apparently, I blewit—that's what they were, lepista nuda. Blewits. Sigh.


Holly A. Heyser

Mercifully, I did not ignore the Force with the mushrooms from Elise's back yard. But that does not mean I simply popped a few into my mouth and began chewing. I wanted to be damn sure about what variety of mushroom this was before I'd go eating it. So I began keying them out, thinking they were fried chicken mushrooms.

To "key out" a mushroom is to use a book like Arora's, which contains long "keys" consisting of scores of "if-then" statements. For example, if the mushroom has a ring on the stalk, go to No. 12. If not, go to No. 18, and so on. You start with guidebook pictures to get you in the ballpark, then move on to the more detailed key to confirm your guess. This is absolutely necessary when you are trying to see if a mushroom that is new to you will taste good, be boring—or will dissolve your liver.

Here's how I keyed out these shrooms. First, they were beige-tan, growing in a clump on a rotted stump. They had a dark patch in the center of the cap. Fried chicken mushrooms have this trait.

Then I cut a bunch and set them in a sheet pan.

Huh. These mushrooms all had a ring on the stalk. Fried chicken mushrooms don't. In most other respects, these mushrooms look like lyophyllum decastes, but this ring disqualifies them. That's a problem. Now I needed to figure out what in fact they were.

A little more reading led me to the honey mushroom, armillaria mellea. Similar in a lot of respects to the fried chicken mushroom, and also edible. At this point I began feeling that mycological siren song that traps many a mushroom hunter: I wanted these to be honey mushrooms, so I could eat them. It is a common—and potentially lethal—mistake to make a square peg fit into a round hole, mentally downplaying one aspect of a mushroom so it can fit into the edible hole you want it to be in. Dangerous. So I took a closer look at these mushrooms.

What makes a honey mushroom a honey mushroom? Lots of things, but there are two important markers to look for beyond the three easy ones (where it's growing, is it in a cluster, and does it have the ring?). The first important marker is whether the cap has five o'clock shadow (left)


Holly A. Heyser

These little hairs, or speckly fuzzy things on the cap, are a hallmark of a honey mushroom—which, incidentally, is so named for the range of colors it can have on the cap rather than its flavor. Look for these markings.

Presented by

Hank Shaw runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in 2009 and 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. More

A former line cook, veteran political reporter, and fisherman, Hank Shaw is a freelance food writer who runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, which chronicles Shaw's search for what he calls the Forgotten Feast: The seasonal foods--mostly wild--we once delighted in, but are now curiosities at best. Game, wild mushrooms, seafood, and wild plants all have a place in modern cooking, and Shaw spends his days exploring their possibilities on the plate.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook was nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in both 2009 and 2010 and by the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. His work has appeared in magazines such as The Art of Eating, Field & Stream, and Gastronomica. He hunts, fishes, forages, and gardens in Northern California with his girlfriend--and photographer--Holly A. Heyser.

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