The edible qualities of toadstools and mushrooms have been known since ancient days. The ancient Greeks and Romans were experts in the discrimination of edible species.
The common opinion, that there is but one edible fungus, the mushroom, and that all others are undesirable toadstools, is a mistake. There is undoubtedly a greater number of edible fungi growing in United States than there are truly poisonous ones.
However, before trying any new fungus make sure that you are completely satisfied that it really is an edible variety. If there is any doubt take some of the mushrooms to an expert, not a “my grandmother told me” expert, but a specialist. We are fortunate that there are such specialists in University and Government departments.
Remember also that all so-called tests supposed to distinguish between edible and poisonous species; such as peeling of the cap or blackening of a silver spoon, are quite useless. The only safe approach is to learn the various kinds, just as you learn to distinguish the different kinds of fruits and vegetables.
In collecting specimens, both for your own use or for expert identification, get the whole plant including the base of the stem instead of cutting it off at ground level. The belief that another mushroom will sprout from the stem is a fallacy and digging up the plant will in no way affect the later production of more mushrooms.
On your first toadstool hunt gather only fresh specimens and discard any that are affected by insects, which can be readily seen by the presence of pinholes in the flesh. Discard also any that are old or look in the least unusual.
The Field Mushroom and the coarser Horse Mushroom are abundant and require little comment. These could conceivably be mistaken for the less desirable Yellow Staining Mushroom. The Wood Mushroom is also common, but is not recommended as a number of cases of mild poisoning have resulted from eating this species.
One very common woodland species, the Honey Mushroom Armillaria mellea, occurs in clusters, often at the base of slumps. It is edible and choice, being particularly suitable for pickling in vinegar and for flavoring soups. The cap is honey yellow to brown, often with a somewhat scaly center and the gills are while to cream. The stem is long, yellowish or brown, often with a greenish tinge and with a distinct ring.
The pinewoods are often carpeted with Boletus. These toadstools have pores underneath instead of gills. The two commonest species, Suillus luteus and Suillus granulatus are both edible and choice, and may be used for frying or pickling, or in soups.
Before eating, the tubes should be removed and any stickiness washed from the cap. A recommended recipe is to slice into thin pieces, roll in beaten egg and bread crumbs and fry as you would egg-plant. Dust with salt and pepper and serve dotted with butter.
Another desirable species, although not a common one, from the pinewoods is Lactarius deliciosus. This is a large and beautiful toadstool which may be readily recognized by its salmon to reddish-orange color, a tendency to turn greenish where damaged, and the appearance of a carrot-colored juice when broken, it is a most piquant mushroom when pickled in vinegar, but is also excellent when stewed or fried. A little lemon juice added during preparation brings out the flavor.
Despite the dryness of the present season, a particularly good edible toadstool, the Shaggy Cap, Coprinus comatus, has appeared in abundance on well-watered lawns and parks. It is readily recognized by the elongated scaly cap, the ring on the stalk and the blackening of the gills when old. For eating, only young specimens in which the gills have not darkened should be collected.
The related Coprinus atramentarius which is readily distinguished by its smooth cap and scaly base to the stalk should be avoided. This latter species can be eaten by many people without ill effect, but if alcohol is taken at the same time or soon after eating, disagreeable effects often result. The mushroom contains a substance similar to Antabuse, a compound used for curing alcoholism.
It has often been stated that the food value of mushrooms is practically negligible. However, analysis by modern methods has shown that they are comparable with most green vegetables.
As with the commonest foods, a few people show varying degrees of allergy towards mushrooms. This is as true of the cultivated mushrooms as of the wild species or the edible toadstools. It is a good rule when trying a new variety, to start with a reasonably small quantity, even if its harmlessness is assured by other people from their own personal experience.
There are at least a dozen other varieties occurring around that are good eating. So take up your basket and good hunting.