Popular Science Monthly/Volume 11/May 1877/Toadstool-Eating

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



I DO not mean in this article to consider the origin, reproduction, nature, and extent of the family of Cryptogamous plants called Fungi; for I do not claim the culture of the scientist, or the disinterested enthusiasm of the naturalist. "Art for art's sake" is not my war-cry. I propose to detail in popular language the experiences of an amateur toadstool-eater who desires to encourage personal investigation of a neglected subject.

Not long since, a course of lectures was announced on "Fungi." My call for circulars and tickets revealed the fact that the lecturer proposed to explain all about smut in distinction from potato-rot; the difference between blue-mould, black-mould, and white-mould, was also to be clearly defined, for which purpose a microscope of wonderful power had been provided. It seemed to me that, after people were able to tell healthful food from certain poison, it would be in place to give them a popular course on microscopic organisms.

Three years ago, I was detaching a large fungus from the famous Liberty-Tree on Boston Common. An over-cautious stranger tapped my shoulder and said, "My friend, that is not a mushroom!"

"Now that looks to me like a big toadstool," exclaimed another by-stander.

"Every mushroom is a toadstool, and every toadstool is a mushroom," I replied, and I repeat the answer here. You might as well call a beet a "vegetable," and every other representative, from the garden a "plant," as to consider one fungus a "mushroom," and all others of a thousand species "toadstools."

Yet, people cannot be blamed for ignorance where there are so few sources of information. The difficulties experienced by the amateur can scarcely be overrated. Excepting the writings of Dr. Curtis, of South Carolina, I have not seen an original contribution to American literature on this obscure topic. Even Dr. Curtis (in a very interesting correspondence with Charles James Sprague, deposited at the rooms of the Boston Society of Natural History) gives little information regarding toadstools, devoting most of his letters to the revelations made by the microscope. I, however, procured from London the works whose titles I give in the note at the end of this paper, and began the study of fungology as a science.

Still, discrepancies and obscurities will confront the student. The descriptions are by no means exact. All these authorities describe fungi of foreign parts, i. e., not necessarily American species. The classification is not even harmonious, as the generic names of the different species vary with leading authorities, from the time of Sowerby to the present. When you have placed a specimen in the proper family, you have not in any way defined its quality, since one mushroom may be esculent, and its twin brother poisonous. Yet, the work of Berkeley is a book easily procured, and, having a number of colored plates, is readily understood by persons with botanical tastes. Such will find no study more fascinating. It is surprising how quickly the hand and eye acquire a delicacy in analysis, impossible to communicate in words. This talent is essential. No one should attempt to gather mushrooms who has not the power to fix in his mind the exact characteristics of any specimen, so as not to be in the least danger of confounding it with its nearest neighbor.

The student must sweep the brain clear of various charms and traditional lore. There is no magical way of identifying good mushrooms; no infallible test for healthful varieties. Here are some specimens of newspaper paragraphs:

"Every mushroom," says one (meaning every edible mushroom), "should peel like a potato."

Agreed, but nearly all the fungi peel readily.

"But the stem ought to come out like an umbrella-handle."

Whole classes (many of them noxious) have free gills, which is the only reason why the stem leaves the cap so easily.

Then, on the negative side, you will hear such attempts at classification as the following, taken from a widely-circulated weekly:

"As a general rule, all found in damp, dark places, or on decaying animal matter, are poisonous. Those that have a very thin cap, or the stem growing from the side instead of the middle, should be avoided. All milky mushrooms, with the single exception of the orange milk-mushroom, are extremely dangerous. So also are those which have the gills of equal length, those which run speedily into a dark, watery liquid, which taste bitter or burn the mouth, or have a fetid, sickly smell. If a mushroom turns a variety of colors when bruised, or is marked by the trail of a snail, it can under no circumstances be eaten."

Excepting, perhaps, the phrase I have italicized, the above is a tissue of misapprehension. Damp, dark places produce the very best mushrooms. The edible champignon (Marasmius oreades) has a very thin cap. The elm-tree mushroom (Agaricus ulmarius) has an eccentric stem. The brown milk-mushroom (Lactarius volemum) is unquestioned, and several others are doubtless esculent. A whole family (Russulæ) have equal gills. The maned mushroom (Coprinus comatus), most delicious, and easily recognized, turns to ink without the addition of any fluid. The honey-colored mushroom (Agaricus melleus) is very acrid raw, as are also others, equally harmless when cooked. Several esculent Agarics turn red when bruised, and many edible Boleti change color. I never saw a snail on a mushroom. Presuming that the writer means to refer to slugs, I would add that I have often cut them out of mushrooms, rejecting only the part they had spoiled.

I have given but one example of each inconsistency, but they might be multiplied almost indefinitely. Then comes your believer in charms: dropping salt on the mushroom to see if it turns black or yellow, or stirring them with a coin spoon to watch for evidences of discoloration. Another rejects all which grow from wood. But no test of any kind, in form, color, or basis of growth, will distinguish healthful from harmful fungi.

"What, then?" despairingly asks an inquirer—"what, then, can be done?"

Exactly what is done in every other department from domestic economy to high art. How does Mr. Jarves tell the difference between a painting by Leonardo da Vinci and one by Guide Reni? How could you explain (to one who had never seen either) the difference between a hyacinth-bulb and an onion? From essays on the early painters, you draw conclusions which enable you to distinguish at sight the works of two artists. In kitchen-lore, the child acquires distinctions with its earliest lessons at the mother's apron-string. Only by these two means can practical knowledge of the kingdom of Fungi be increased: first, exact scientific analysis; second, the circulation of arbitrary, traditional information, such as saying to ignoramus:

"There, sir, that is an elm-tree mushroom; mark it well: whenever you find one just like it on your elm, eat it."

With a view of encouraging research, I shall make an attempt at an original but very limited classification, and also describe a few varieties of mushrooms. The first distinction is in the nature of the surface bearing the reproductive bodies or spores. Pick the next toadstool you find; look under the top or cap. You will observe one of four things:

1. There is a series of thin plates set on their edges running in to a common centre, like the spokes of a wheel. The spokes are called the gills; the stem corresponds to the hub. This is the largest family of mushrooms, the Agaricini or Agarics.

2. In the place of gills, your specimen may have a substance resembling fine sponge. It is then a pore-bearing mushroom, generically a Polyporus. Supposing the stem to be distinctly defined, of ordinary length, and the pores or tubes easily separable from each other, it is a Boletus.

3. Instead of the sponge, you may find a number of small points or spines. It belongs then to the teeth-bearing fungi, generically the Hydnei.

4. When you invert the mushroom, you may find neither gills, pores, nor teeth. It may be globular. In the three other classes, the spores are borne externally; here they are inclosed. If young, the skin is filled with a substance, white, yellowish, purple, or black. If old, the contents are discharged in dust at a smart squeeze. It is a Puff-ball.

As the object of this article is to interest those having no knowledge whatever of the subject, I shall not allude to other families. It is probable that your toadstool will come within one of these four grand divisions. If not, select another at once.

The puff-balls are the safest mushrooms for the beginner. When you find one, with a smooth skin, perfectly white inside, it is the giant puff-ball (Lycoperdum giganteum) in an infantile state. The color of the skin varies from pure white to a shade almost black. If the knife leaves a stain of yellow, it is too old to eat. Otherwise, you may eat it without fear. There are several smaller varieties, which my wife and I eat indiscriminately.

I believe all white puff-balls may be safely used if cooked at once. They change very rapidly after gathering, and should only be eaten in their freshest state. There is no poisonous fungus resembling them.

The teeth-bearing toadstools are also safe fungi for the experiments of the amateur. I have found only one variety, but Smith says all the species of any size enjoy a good character. The spreading hydnum (Hydnum repandum) is usually yellow, sometimes reddish, always firm-fleshed; stem deformed, indistinct, or eccentric; and one side of the disk, or top, is frequently much higher than the point diametrically opposite. The peculiarity of the teeth, or spines (which in young specimens easily rub off), is enough to distinguish it.

The Boleti can only be confounded with their twin brothers, the Polyporei. The latter grow mostly on wood, with abortive stems, while the boletus of the edible kind grows from the ground, has a distinct stem, and the tubes of the sponge are easily separable from each other. If these tubes or pores are brown, yellowish, or greenish, the top being russet-color, or any shade of brown, and on cutting the flesh it remains white, it is an edible, or at least a harmless, variety. If the plant is brilliant-colored, red or yellow, or turns blue when bruised, it is best to reject it. If the tubes are red at the orifice, it is doubtless poisonous.

The Agaricini (those with gills) cannot be thus generalized, and I regard them as the least safe for the amateur, although it is to this class that the celebrated individual honored by English-speaking people with the title of "a mushroom" belongs. How can I describe this species, it varies so widely with its circumstances?

Two varieties, the meadow-mushroom (Agaricus campestris) and the horse-mushroom (Agaricus arvensis), run into each other by intermediate types so closely that professional cooks and gardeners may be forgiven that they entirely ignore any difference between them. There is a theory that the horse-mushroom is propagated from spores of the meadow-mushroom after these latter have passed through the system of the horse.

At first, this mushroom resembles a puff-ball, but it soon discloses under the cap a veil or web, which ruptures and exposes the gills free from the stem, with a faint shade of pink. This color deepens more and more, passing through purple into black. When pink, the ring around the stem is quite perfect, but I have found older specimens with not a trace of ring or veil. The top is every shade from pure white to deep brown; and, altogether, I can only advise the amateur to have one identified by an expert, if possible. Though difficult to describe, the taste and smell are so peculiar to the species that there is not much danger of deception when once you have made their acquaintance.

The most easily-recognized agaric is the maned mushroom (Coprinus comatus). When fit for food, it is the shape of a turtle's egg; that is, ovate, but alike at each end. The top is brown and smooth but toward the earth the outer skin ruffles up, making a white mane or fringe of concentric layers around it. The stem is hollow, and on being cut appears, as it cooks, like macaroni. There is a ring round the stem, which is movable in the well-developed plant. Very soon after acquiring its growth the points of the gills turn black, sometimes running into pink; then it opens umbrella-like, and melts into an inky fluid. This was the first fungus we dared to eat on our own recognition, and has no poisonous counterpart. It should never be eaten either stale or having black gills, or when found around dust heaps or other offal.

The second experiment was made on the elm-tree mushroom (Agaricus ulmarius). It grows only in fall on the elm, has a thick, solid stem (sometimes set in the side), broad white gills, firm white flesh, and a light-yellow top, at first smooth, finally spotted and cracked. Older, the gills turn yellow and the top very leathery. I know of no other large fungus with gills and white flesh growing from the elm. It is most common in a cleft, or where a limb has been sawed off, and often reappears yearly in the same spot.

The family of the Russulæ is quite safe for beginners. In the common mushroom you will notice the gills are pliable; the flesh also can be bent without breaking. The milk-mushrooms and the Russulæ are very brittle; the gills do not mat down like the horse-mushroom, or the elm-tree mushroom; they break into small pieces, while the whole fungus snaps suddenly on being bent. If milk or juice comes, I advise the amateur to reject the specimens. A novice should not attempt to cook them. If they are perfectly dry, taste a small piece. If it is not an edible russula, it will be likely to bite and sting the tongue, while all the esculent varieties of the genus are tasteless, mild, or with the flavor of chestnuts. There is one very common variety (Russula alutacea) with a bright-red top, buff-colored gills, and stout, short stem. But two others (Russula emetica and Russula rosacea) resemble it so closely that, to this day, as I wash them, I invariably put a little piece of the stem of each into my mouth, in order to avoid all possibility of mistake.

I am in hopes to establish the truth of this theory: namely, that no fungus which, unspiced, being plainly cooked with dry heat, commends itself to the taste, can be dangerous to human life.

I advance this proposition with hesitation, because many people have so little sense in such matters. Mushrooms are mixed with gravies, fried in batter, simmered in fat, seasoned with black pepper or parsley-leaves, and their delicate flavor destroyed by compounding them with other food. The cook, thereby, disguises the very alarm which Nature has placed at the gateway. One of the most common signs of hurtful fungus is a stinging sensation affecting the tongue but little, the throat and tonsils more, and probably having the most effect upon the stomach and bowels. Let the mushroom absorb fat enough to cover this, or disguise the taste either by spice or by mixing one variety with another, and you may easily eat enough of a poisonous fungus to cause death.

Julie and I have tested perhaps forty varieties of toadstools; of these, we eat regularly, whenever found, considerably more than one half, and are daily making additions to our bill of fare. Yet, I would not have the reader infer that we act carelessly. In whatever cause, reckless disregard of consequences is not bravery, although no two elements are oftener confounded. After tracing a specimen to its family, we broil it with the addition of salt and butter (no pepper), and eat a small piece on an empty stomach. We then increase the quantity in successive experiments until we feel perfectly safe, or experience unpleasant sensations. Usually, the non-edible fungus discloses its character over the charcoal: nauseous slime weeps from the stem, a grassy and disagreeable odor arises as it heats, or, on being tasted, there is no desire to take another mouthful. The intuition of woman, the cleverness with which the feminine mind grasps at an idea over which the stronger sex will reason mentally for hours, is nowhere more valuable than in the pursuit of this study.

We have never yet been deceived into making a meal of poisonous fungus. From the sparkling coprinus (Coprinus micaceus), a little toadstool very common about old stumps, and one or two other kinds, we have received evidence that condemned them as esculents. But we were once poisoned by some common mushrooms contaminated by being sent in a box containing a large number of another kind. The latter (Coprinus deliquescens) were in a state of decomposition. They eventually turn to ink, independent of contact with any fluid substance. In passing, I would say that the manuscript of this article is written with the result of such deliquescence. We had scarcely swallowed the edible ones before we felt the effects of the poison. Our symptoms were not unlike those exhibited in a person using tobacco for the first time. Dizziness, nausea, purging, perspiration with alternate cold spells, all passed over us within an hour, so rapid is the effect of the mushroom-virus. Two wineglasses of whiskey and sweet-oil (equal parts) neutralized the poison, and in a few hours we were no worse for the experience.

I would prescribe this remedy in all cases rather than the use of emetics. Omit the whiskey, if you please, or substitute vinegar for spirits, but take sweet-oil liberally in case of a mistake. I believe the Italians eat many dangerous fungi with impunity, because, when fresh, their properties are changed by sweet-oil; preserved, they are neutralized by pickle. Either of these elements renders harmless the peculiar alkali, to a superfluity of which mushrooms owe their noxious qualities.

We must use the same discretion daily employed in selecting other food. Who would willingly eat tainted meat? Is it so very uncommon to find a goose or duck too strong to be palatable? Who has not been poisoned by bad oysters, stale fish, or overripe fruit?

Because many mushrooms do not agree with the human system, it does not follow that they are deadly poisons. I have friends who do not pretend to distinguish varieties, but eat whatever has an appetizing flavor. (I do not consider this safe ground, because the inability to identify any one variety is doubtless the cause of many cases of poisoning.) Yet, although they claim to have made their breakfast from such obscurely known kinds as that which I afterward classified as the smeared cortinarius (Cortinarius collinitus), I have never known them to acknowledge any other sensation than an intense desire to hunt for more. Julie and I had one day eaten plentifully of the honey-colored mushroom (Agaricus melleus). On looking it up in Greville, a well-known Scotch authority, I found the following notice: "This species is said to be freely eaten on the Continent; at least Fries quotes the authority of Trattinick for the fact. But, on the other hand, Persoon gives it a bad character. In this he is supported by Paulet, who tried its effect upon a dog. The poor animal died twelve hours after receiving the poisonous fungus."

Notwithstanding such a warning, it continues to be a favorite article of diet with us to-day. I think it may be noxious raw, but that the heat kills the virus. It must be remembered that toadstool eating is by no means an exact science. Fungus-eaters are daily making discoveries. Twenty years ago the two leading authorities of England and America, Berkeley and Curtis, considered the Coprinus comatus poisonous.

There are but two ways in which it is proper to cook mushrooms. By far the majority are best broiled on a fine-wire gridiron. They should be sprinkled with salt and (if the species is well known as an esculent) red pepper, buttered as the fire browns them. Otherwise, stew them in milk, exactly as you would make an oyster-stew. The elm-tree mushroom, the honey-colored mushroom, and any others tasting raw of grass or trees, are only good broiled. The meadow-mushroom, horse-mushroom, or coprinus, are excellent cooked either way. There is no doubt of the wholesome character of esculent fungus. During the season, we eat them at our table three times a day; sometimes of a half-dozen kinds at a meal. We never enjoy better digestion than during toadstool-time. They furnish a natural alkali which in some systems is greatly needed.

We also dry them for use in winter. The Chinese and Japanese make dried fungus a very general article of diet. I speak here from personal acquaintance with their habits, acquired by a residence in San Francisco and Honolulu, as well as in their native land. No better substitute for meat than fungus can be found. Neither its odor when cooking, nor the gravy it makes, resembles any form of vegetable food. This is but natural, since the plant absorbs oxygen from the air, after the manner of animals.

Mushrooms grow above the ground, like any other plants. I have carefully watched all kinds, both in a natural state and when raised in my own closet. The common mushroom (supposed to spring up in a night, and which, says vulgar error, must be gathered with the dew on it) takes about ten days to mature from a button the size of a pin-head to a disk three or four inches in diameter, although most of this time the cap is just beneath the soil. This is the average period needed in acquiring perfection by other kinds, although some, as the Coprinarii, do not consume half that time.

Note.—Outlines of British Fungology, by Rev. M. J. Berkeley. London: L. Reeve & Co., 1860.
Handbook of British Fungi, by M. C. Cooke. London: Macmillan & Co., 1871.
A Plain and Easy Account of British Fungi, by M. C. Cooke. London: Robert Hardwicke, 1871.
Mushrooms and Toadstools. Illustrated with Two Large Charts. By Worthington G. Smith. London: Robert Hardwicke, 1867.
The Esculent Funguses of England, by C. D. Badham. London: L. Reeve & Co., 1870.
Fungi: their Nature and Uses, by M. C. Cooke. Edited by Rev. M. J. Berkeley. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1875.