Edible Fungi

PREJUDICE is stronger than reason, and it is often impossible to persuade men to do what is manifestly for their own interest, if there is any lingering memory or superstition which attaches a bad odor to the thing we want them to do. The tenacity with which we cling to prejudice is illustrated by nothing better than the contempt and dread with which the community treats the Fungus family, condemning all varieties as unfit to eat, excepting the Agaricus campestris, or common mushroom.

English and European fungi have been carefully studied and classed, and their edible and poisonous qualities ascertained by a few men of science and enterprise. Badham, Berkley, Cooke, Johnson, Smith, Bell, and a Mrs. Hussey have devoted a great deal of time to the subject, and have published books with profuse illustrations, showing to the eye by color and form what words fail to convey. No American has as yet published any treatise on the subject, which leaves our inquirers in the dark. We have distinguished mycologists who doubtless have arranged our fungi scientifically, and can give the name to any form they may see ; but their labors have not yet been published in such a form as to become a common guide, nor do we know whether those who have made their classification a science have ever demonstrated by actual experiment their edible value.

The writer has tried the edible qualities of forty kinds of fungi, but is ignorant of the specific names of American fungi, so that possibly to the scientific ear his descriptions may seem incorrect. Armed with plates of English and French fungi, and works giving their scientific names, he has collected some very bad and poisonous kinds, and some which were very delicious. Many of those eaten have resembled the named European kinds ; others differ widely from them, and lack a name ; with diffidence then he gives scientific names, but can vouch for the accuracy of the physical facts. When names of European kinds are applied to the American fungi, it is because the resemblance is so close as to seem to warrant it.

The edible qualities of various Agarics are well known on the continent of Europe to the common people, who eat them freely and make money by their sale, whilst in Great Britain scientific men only have ventured to explore the field and the forest in search of additions to the table.

On the continent, eaten fresh, dried, preserved in oil, vinegar, or salt, fungi constitute, for weeks together, the food of many people ; and in Rome there is an inspector of fungi who daily examines the supplies which come in from the country, and condemns all that are unsound or unsafe, to be thrown away; and, curiously enough, the law points out by name our favorite Agaricus campestris as poisonous, and orders it to be thrown into the Tiber.

It is commonly supposed that fungi are the consequence of decay, and we do find the greatest number on decaying substances ; but we find them also on glass, flints, metals, in poisonous solutions, in pure and undecomposed water. An instance is given of a blacksmith who threw aside a piece of iron at night fresh forged, and found it in the morning covered with an Ethalium two feet in length. Gunbarrels and sword - scabbards left in damp, close rooms have become covered with a blue mould in a few days. The rapidity with which many if not all fungi grow baffles calculation ; the great puff-ball, Lycoperdon giganteum, will grow as large as a peck measure in forty-eight hours ; and specimens of Agaricus campestris have developed from the button which is a bud of the size of a pea to a mushroom as large as a coffee-saucer in a night ; but it must not be supposed that all this increase of size is a single night’s actual growth. Agarics are many weeks forming under the surface ; their cells are small and closely packed, and ready to expand when the moisture and temperature are favorable. When the auspicious moment arrives, the cells absorb abundant moisture, and, stimulated by heat, swell out to their full size.

Any vegetable productions which can increase so fast, and are so omnipresent, are worth studying to find out their good and bad qualities ; and it is probable that amongst the poisonous fungi there are many which are as valuable to the pharmacopœia as others are to the table. The poisonous effects manifest themselves very soon after the fungi are eaten, causing heat and pricking in the fauces of the throat, burning and severe sickness at the stomach. In light cases the sickness is relieved by vomiting before any serious injury is done, but at other times the victim is sick for many days, and occasionally dies from the dose. One species, Amanita muscaria, is used to cause intoxication. “ Upon some it produces ludicrous effects ; a talkative person cannot keep silence or secrets, one fond of music is perpetually singing, and if a person under its influence wishes to step across a straw or a small stick he takes strides or jumps sufficient to clear the trunk of a tree.” The juices of Agaricus muscarius will kill flies ; the fumes of the dried puffball, when burned, will stupefy bees and small animals ; even a few of the spores of the Agaricus vellereus made one experimenter very sick ; a few grains of a freshly gathered Amanita verna will kill a dog. Rupula emetica, as its name shows, is a violent emetic, and a large dose will kill.

With so much that is dangerous, there is little real risk attendant on the use of varied forms of fungi, for they can be easily classified, and are quite distinct in their appearance and effects. There are certain simple rules which, carefully applied, greatly reduce the chances of mistake, and simplify choice. Any fungus which smells disagreeably should be avoided ; for although there are a few bad smelling which are good kinds, they are very rare. It may be asked, what is a bad-smelling fungus ; it will be easier answered by saying that a mushroom has a good smell; it has a decided earthy fresh odor, reminding one of cool shady nooks in the forest, amongst the ferns and lichens. To describe the odor in words would be impossible ; find a good mushroom and smell of it, and the standard will be forever established. Every good fungus will smell like a mushroom, though often with a difference, but no one will ever call the odor unpleasant or impure. Bad kinds will have a peculiar sharpness in their woody smell, or a dirty smell like decaying flesh ; thus, Phallus impudicus, Rupula foetens, and Clathrus cancellatus are so bad smelling that their presence cannot be endured in a room. If the odor of the fungus is satisfactory, look at its color; nearly all the edible fungi are pleasant colored,— white with tints of rose, delicate shades of yellow and orange, light brown and gray ; but the majority are white, pink, and orange or drab.

All of the fungi have a general resemblance in form, but differ considerably in detail ; they all have a stem and cap, but no true root; they grow from what is called spawn, or mycelium, a white, thread-like substance which spreads through the earth, and is often seen in old sods, decaying wood, and dried manure ; when this spawn finds suitable conditions of warmth and moisture, there appears first below the surface a little knob or bud and a stout, short stem, — the knob or future cap, — which with the stem is in the early stages covered by a thin epidermis, which, as the plant develops, separates at the edge of the cap, and shows a surface under the cap quite different from the top. The under part is divided in the Agarics by a multitude of thin gills or plates, which radiate from the centre to the edge, and are close together or separated according to the species. These gills are generally of a different color from the outer skin, and are the seed-bearing part of the plant. On the sides of the gills a myriad of minute, dust-like seeds are borne, almost microscopic in size, and appearing, when shaken down in quantities on white paper or plate, like delicate dust. The spores commonly take the color of the gills which bear them ; minute as they are, each spore is a true seed, and will produce perfect plants. The difference in the gills marks the species more distinctly than any other single feature, and we may make the distinctions of genera more obvious if we class together Agaricus, Cantharellus, Lactarius, Marasimus, Coprinus, Rupula, which have gills that are thin and blade-like, and either begin at the centre and radiate to the edge, or at the edge and converge towards the centre,— their color, contiguity relative to the stem, the edge, or centre, make specific distinctions.

The Boletus is unlike the Agarics in color, particularly in its gills, which are small tubes closely packed together ; these gills will break across in any direction without separating, and can be taken out from the cap, leaving a flat receptacle, just as we can take out the centre rays from a white-weed or aster, and leave the smooth disk below. There are but few Boleti fit to eat, and as a family they are not attractive looking, are viscous, and not very pleasant smelling ; few will care to try them.

The Hydnums are entirely unlike the Boleti and the Agarics; their gills are awl-shaped spines, and are easily distinguished; most of this group are good to eat. Helbella and Morchella differ from all the rest; they seem like Agarics turned inside out, bearing their gills on the upper or outer surface. Fistulina may exist in this country, but must be rare. The Lycoperdon are puff-balls, which have no inner and outer surface, no cap and stem ; they seem like bundles of different sizes tightly compressed in thin linen or cotton cloth, and set securely on the ground ; and few realize that, whether small or large, this bunch of fungitic growth, commonly kicked to pieces by every traveller, is a delicate article of food.

The treatises on fungi give many methods for cooking them to make them palatable, and most of the processes are so compound, and require so many additions of condiments, or spices, butter, etc., that a piece of sole leather so cooked would probably be very good. The simplest method is the best for real relish, and is an easy way of ascertaining whether any fungus which seems safe is flavorous enough to be worth eating. Peel off the outer skin, break out the stem, and set the cap top down on a hot stove. In the spot where the stem formerly stood put a little salt, and, if desired, a small bit of butter. Scatter some salt over the gills. When the butter or salt melts, the cooking is done ; and as soon as it is cool enough the fungus should be eaten, carefully saving the juice. Agaricus campestris cooked in this way and eaten hot will make one wish that he was all mouth and palate, and that his mouth might never be in want of a “ mushroom.”

This is the simple Irish way of cooking the mushroom, and all its allies can be treated in that way. Some fungi which do not seem particularly delicious when thus cooked will, when slowly stewed with a little butter, and flour dredged in, with salt and pepper, make most delicious stews.

The mushrooms, Cantharellus, Marasimus, Boletus, indeed all of the fungi named, will stew together, and form a dish that, alone or as an entrée, cannot be surpassed in delicacy of flavor and gastronomic satisfaction.

In testing new fungi one eats a little of the cap with salt to ascertain whether it tastes good, and whether it affects the fauces of the throat disagreeably; when a burning or stinging sensation accompanies or follows the swallowing, eat no more, but take a copious dose of common salt, which generally neutralizes the poison. Some species which are unpleasant or slightly injurious when raw lose their harsh qualities in cooking; but as there are so many that are delicious, it is as well to give up the doubtful kinds. The common mushroom, Agaricus campestris, sold in our markets, used for ketchup and flavoring, is cultivated very extensively in England and France. In Paris vast caves under the city, whence building-stone has been quarried, are now devoted to growing mushrooms, and thousands of pounds a year are grown and sold, making large revenues for those who grow them. This is not the place-to give details for their culture, as it is rather our object to show that there are many kinds equally good but neglected, which might be gathered wild, or cultivated for the table. To begin the enumeration, using, as before said, the scientific names of English species to describe like American species, we will name firstly the Agaricus campestris. This mushroom is decidedly white in general appearance ; “ bona fide mushrooms are known by their beautiful pink gills (in which state they are best fit for use), ultimately becoming deep brown, and not reaching the stem, which carries a well-marked, white, woolly ring ; by the very fleshy, down-covered top, the delicious and enticing fragrance, and firm, white flesh, sometimes inclined to change to pink when cut or broken.” Some persons suppose that a distinctive mark of the true mushroom is the ready separation of the skin of the cap from the flesh ; but that is ready no distinction at all, as any fungus which has a decided cuticle on top, with a fleshy part below between the skin and the gills, will readily peel. The peeling has been thought important, because unless peeled when broiled on the stove the mushroom is apt to be a little tough. The common mushroom is very abundant in autumns which follow a rather dry summer ; and old pastures, particularly those which have been fed by horses and sheep, will be dotted with them every morning for several weeks, especially after light showers. The clay pastures of the shores of Lake Champlain, well-manured lawns and kitchen-gardens, avenues, parks, and commons, are annually enriched with this most delicious vegetable.

In some parts of the country in the autumn we find old ploughed fields which have been well fertilized with horse-manure whitened with Agaricus arvensis. This Agaric is very nearly allied to the meadow mushroom, and frequently grows with it, but is coarser, and has not the same delicious flavor. It is usually much larger, often attaining enormous dimensions. “The top in good specimens is smooth and snowy white ; the gills are not the pure pink of the meadow mushroom, but dirty brownish-white, ultimately becoming brown-black. It has a large, ragged, floccose ring, and the pithy stem is inclined to be hollow.” It is not uncommon to gather one or two bushels at a time of Agaricus arvensis, which, though not so highly flavored when boiled or stewed as Agaricus campestris, is very good and makes a first-rate ketchup. Where Agaricus arvensis grows we often find two quite distinct varieties, one having a collar around the stem where the skin of the cap broke as it expanded, leaving the cuticle like a ragged fringe, the stem rather bulbous near the ground and gently tapering ; the other variety has no collar, the stem is more nearly solid, not bulbous, and quite straight.

Agaricus procerus.—This Agaric is tall, has a movable ring round the stem ; its stem and cap are a light buff; its gills yellowish white, the cap a little rough or scaly ; it is not common, and is usually found on roadsides and under pine-trees ; it is autumnal like the preceding kinds, and very highly flavored. There is a similar species of most beautiful orange-yellow color, which looks, smells, and tastes well, but the only time we have known it to be eaten it made all who tried it slightly sick. The bad Agaric grows in clumps ; a dozen or more, in all stages from the bud to the full-sized plant, being found in the same place. Agaricus procerus, so far as we know, comes up singly, only two or three being found together.

Agaricus ostreatus grows on old elm trunks, “although it is far from particular as to its habitat, often appearing on other trees, and sometimes on the ground. It usually grows in large masses, one plant above another, forming a very handsome object on old tree stems. The gills and spores are white, the former running down the stem, and the top dingy, sometimes nearly white. The flesh possesses a certain amount of firmness, and produces an abundant and savory juice ; it is a species of least value for culinary purposes.”

Agaricus nebularis “comes up late in the autumn, on dead leaves in moist places, principally on the borders of woods ; the top is lead-color or gray, at first clouded gray, hence its name ; the stem is stout, elastic, and straight, with the white gills running considerably down the ringless stem. When gathered it has a wholesome and powerful odor, and when cooked the firm and fragrant flesh has a particularly agreeable and palatable taste.”

Agaricus dealbatus is a little fungus which commonly grows in or near the neighborhood of fir plantations, but will occasionally come up elsewhere. Its top is white, smooth, and exceedingly like ivory. It is shining, waved, fleshy, and inclined to be irregular; the gills are thin, white, and run down the stem. When clean, young, and fresh specimens are broiled with butter, it is a delicacy of the very highest degree, at once tender and juicy.

Marasimus oreades, or the fairy ring, is better than the last, and no recommendation can be too strong for it. “ It is firmer than the meadow mushroom, and, whilst having its peculiar aroma, it possesses it in a concentrated form.” They may be pickled, used for ketchup, or dried for future use. They grow in rings in old pastures and by roadsides everywhere (but never in woods). They are somewhat tough, the solid stem particularly so, the gills wide apart and cream-colored. This species has no downy hairs at the base of the stem. Certain species of Marasimus, frequently found growing on dead leaves in the woods, and possessing this hairy down, are to be avoided. The fairy ring has been the subject of poetry and superstition. Coming up in nearly the same place, the circle widening each year, the peasantry of Europe believed they marked the place where the Fairies dance by night ; they are as familiar to every countryman as buttercups, and as little esteemed ; but they are, when stewed, equal to the mushroom, and may be dried and preserved for winter if desired. Some species which grow in the woods, with yellowish stems, rather dark or greenish at the base, and slightly hairy, the line of the edge of the cap quite circular, the gills fine and even, sting the throat when eaten raw, and should be avoided.

Coprinus comatus is unlike the others we have described in shape, being in the form of a rather long egg, the stem inserted in the large end; where the stem enters the cap, the cuticle is broken, leaving a ring, and showing the gills, which are light pink when fresh, but soon turn black. The Coprinus is dirty white, its cuticle being torn or split into long and pointed patches, as if the cone burst the skin by expansion. This fungus deliquesces as it grows old, and should be eaten fresh. It is found in rich garden soil, old lawns, bottoms of manure heaps, and on manure piles. All the fungi, so far described, are white or yellowish with a tendency to buff, the true mushroom alone having pink gills. The next to be noticed are the Lactarians.

Lactarius deliciosus. — There are but few species of Lactarius, or milkbearing group, that can be recommended for culinary purposes. This species, however, and Lactarius volemum are exceptions, and there can be no fear of mistaking the orange milkmushroom for any other species ; it is at once known by the orange-colored milk it exudes on being bruised, cut, or broken, this milk soon becoming dull green. The plant is solid, almost corky, and the richly colored top is commonly, but not always, marked with deeper colored zones. It is somewhat local, and cannot be called a common fungus, although at times it grows in large numbers, but always in the woods. Like several other excellent species, the taste is at times rather sharp when raw. When cooked with care, it is one of the greatest delicacies of the vegetable kingdom, its flesh being more crisp and solid than many other species. One or two milk-mushrooms bear brimstone - colored milk, or milk that changes to a brimstone or burnt sienna color, —they had better be avoided ; but Lactarius deliciosus can never be mistaken for anything else, if the deep orange (or red) and ultimately green milk be observed.

Next the Cantharellus cibarius. The Cantharellus is not abundant in many districts ; its solid, ringless stem, fleshy body, thick, swollen veins in place of gills, and its brilliant yellowish color, at once serve to distinguish it from every other species. “ Its smell,” says Berkley, “is like that of ripe apricots.” Cantharelli are oftenest found in this country in beech woods, particularly on sloping banks under beech-trees, and though not so highly flavored as their English congeners, are very delicious.

Rupula heterophylla is a very common species in the woods, found mostly in July, “known by its sweet, nutty taste, white, rigid, sometimes branched gills ; white flesh ; white, solid, fleshy, ringless stem ; and firm top, variable in color, which is at first convex, becoming concave. The color of the thin, viscid skin covering the top of the fungus is commonly subdued green ; but (as its name indicates) the color is variable ; at one time it approaches greenish yellow or lilac, and at another gray or obscure purple ; but it is so common and well marked that there is no fear of mistaking it. It is certainly one of the sweetest and mildest species we have.”

Rupula alutacea is a very abundant fungus in the midsummer woods, and when found in a perfect condition is excellent eating. Its thick and almost rich tissue exposes it to the attacks of insects, and it is often too wormy for use. It is easily recognized by its thick gills, which are of a subdued, but decided buff-yellow color, and the somewhat viscid red or rather pale crimson top. The stem is stout, white, or rose-color, ringless and solid ; the whole plant fleshy and frequently very large. The gills distinguish it from the emetic mushroom, as in the latter they are pure white and always remain so.”

Rupula emetica is one of the most poisonous fungi, and is at the same time so handsome and inoffensive in its smell, that it should be described. The skin is scarlet, and may be readily peeled off, showing the white flesh beneath; the gills are pure white, and do not reach the stem ; the top is highly polished, and varies from scarlet and crimson to a faint rose-color, and may now and then be found shaded with purple. It attains a large size, loves damp places in the woods, and is acrid.”

Boletus edulis is one of our commonest, and a very delicious, species. It grows in woods and forests ; it is generally very stout, with a smooth, umber, cushion-shaped top ; tubes at first white, and ultimately pale yellowish green ; stem whitish brown, bearing a minute white and very elegant reticulated network, principally near the top of the ringless stem ; when cut or broken, the fleshy body of the plant remains white. In this as in every other species, sound young specimens should be selected, and it is perhaps as well to scrape away the tubes before preparation. All the Boleti that are bad, when broken across, oxidize as it were, and soon take a purplish or green lurid color. Boletus edulis when broken, like any other fungus, grows dark colored, but there is no particular change in the character of the color.

Hydnum repandum. — There is little fear of mistaking this for any other species, as the awl-shaped spines on the under surface are a characteristic feature of the very small group of Hydnums. Hydnum repandum, the only one commonly found, is slightly pungent when uncooked ; when stewed its flesh is very firm and delicious, yet, being somewhat dry, the addition of some sauce or gravy lends an improved relish to the stew. The color of the fungus is exactly like that of a cracker ; the smooth top is frequently irregular, and the solid stem often at one side of the centre. Hydnums come about July 1st, and may be dried for winter use.

There are two species of Lycoperdons, or puff-balls, equally good to eat, but varying in size and shape. The smallest is found mostly in woods in groups of four or five, pure white, and covered with minute rugosities that give it a warty appearance. When dry, the top opens, and clouds of spores blow into the air like smoke whenever the skin is pressed, whence the name, puff-ball. This species is not sufficiently common to attract attention or to be much used ; its flesh when fresh is rather viscous like the Boletus.

Lycoperdon gigantum, though called a giant, is frequently and most commonly found about the size of a man’s fist ; it sometimes grows as large as a water-pail, and we have known specimens twenty-four inches in diameter, and nearly round. These large Lycoperdons are covered with a thick, tough skin or shell, which can be peeled off like leather ; the interior resembles a hard custard, and can be cut in thin slices and fried in a little butter, when it closely resembles an omelet, only it is not as tender. It makes a good, though not highly flavored stew.

With the Helvella and Morel we shall close our enumeration of the kinds of fungi which we have found good to eat. These are very peculiar and at first seem to bear no resemblance to the usual type of edible fungi.

Helvella crispa has a stem full of wrinkles and holes, seeming to be semidecayed, looking like a piece of wood affected by dry-rot and bored by worms ; on top of the stem is a ragged, muchlobed, and deflexed collection of gills without any cap ; all parts are brown in color, but the gills are rather darker than the stem ; this is very flavorous, and retains its qualities when dry, and may be preserved for winter use.

The Morel, Morchella esculenta, of America, differs very much from the European varieties in size and color. They are the earliest of the fungi, coming up in the woods before the trees are in leaf, and are so nearly the color of the dried leaves of the last year as to be easily passed by. The Morel we have found and eaten in New England is about four inches high, the stem hollowed and pitted like the Helvella, but the top or cap is conical, and has its gills on the upper surface in a kind of network spread over the surface ; the reticulated gills are on the edges of pits, which make ear-shaped cavities all over the top, but which do not communicate with each other or the hollow of the centre. The stem and cap are hollow inside ; the stem is light brown, the cavities light yellow-brown, but the edges a dark brown. The English species is a golden orange cap on a light brown stem ; and in the Western United States a Morel abounds which is more like the English than the American in color.

There is a good field for investigation in the fungi ; and as the edible fungi are very numerous, both as individuals and species, and might add a great deal of food as well as flavor to our culinary resources, we hope some other inquirers will carry our experiments further. There is no more reason for rejecting the good fungi because of the bad species than for declining to eat apples, pears, peaches, and strawberries, because strawberries poison some people, and bitter almonds everybody. There is hardly a family of edible plants that is without some offending member ; and were the bad to exclude the good, the list of useful plants would shrink into very narrow compass.

Robert Morris Copeland.