There’s A Fungus Among Us

August 31, 2012

Most days when I come home there are mushrooms in the yard. I have to pick them or the dogs might eat them or just grab them up with their mouths, and they could be poisonous. The mushrooms, that is, not the dogs’ mouths. If you think that’s a dumb thing to do remember that dogs don’t have opposable thumbs so they can’t pull out a mushroom reference book and say, "Oh, that’s an Amanita phalloides, I’d better not eat that."

Not that reference books are necessarily a lot of help either, at least when it comes to mushrooms, because so many mushrooms look alike. When I was a kid we had a next door neighbor who had a whole shelf of mushroom books. I used to love looking through them, amazed that fungi come in such a staggering array of shapes and every color of the rainbow. They’re still absolutely amazing to me. I think it’s because I’ve always liked eating mushrooms, but also when I was young, even before our neighbor with all the mushroom books had moved in, my mother had a big ficus tree in the living room. One late spring three perfect bright yellow mushrooms popped up in it. They were so beautiful my mother thought I’d made them out of clay, but they were real mushrooms. Why’d they appear just then? Probably because mushrooms need to have all conditions optimally in their favor. They’re just like the Chicago Cubs winning a game.

Mushrooms will only appear when everything–light, temperature, humidity, real estate prices–is exactly right. I also remember the first fairy ring I ever saw. People sometimes ask me, because they know I’m a trove of useless information, how mushrooms manage to form fairy rings. And it’s really simple: the mushrooms are merely the fruit of a much larger organism. Imagine an apple tree underground and pushing its apples up through the soil. I learned that from my neighbors’ mushroom books. I also learned that there are a few mushrooms that are not only edible but have some really interesting side effects. They can allow you to taste colors for a few hours, or cause you to strip naked and run through public parks while singing Harry Nilsson’s "I Will Take You There". That’s why you have to be careful about the mushrooms you eat. If decide to make a gourmet organic pizza one night with vegetables from your own garden and you wake up in the okapi exhibit at the zoo with no idea of how you got there you probably picked the wrong kind of mushrooms.

According to my neighbor there are a few kinds of edible wild mushrooms that anybody can identify that are delicious. Morels, he told me, are a good example of this, although you should cut them in half to make sure they’re not false morels, which can be poisonous. Inky caps are also easy to identify because after a few hours they turn into a completely inedible mush. And puffballs, he told me, are excellent when fried, but, like morels, you have to cut them in half because what looks like a puffball might really be an immature destroying angel, which can kill you in a matter of hours. That always makes me wonder how people figured out which mushrooms were edible and which weren’t in the first place. There must have been a lot of trial and error, and when the error didn’t result in sitting back and saying, "Mmmm, pumpkin!" while the walls melted around you it resulted in nausea, convulsions, kidney failure, and death. It’s been said that the first person to eat an oyster must have been very brave. I’d say the second person to eat a mushroom was braver. And even a long time after people thought they had a pretty good idea which mushrooms were poisonous and which weren’t mistakes were made.

There’s a theory that emperor Claudius died from eating poisonous mushrooms, although so many people wanted Claudius dead at that point that his wife probably gave the cook some mushrooms and said "Don’t bother cutting these in half." You’d have to be pretty sadistic to rub someone out with mushrooms, though, because it’s a horrible way to die. Claudius’s predecessor was Caligula, who was stabbed more than fifty times by his own guards, and his last words were "Well at least I didn’t have to eat any mushrooms."

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