Columbia Memorial Health (1) Careers

THROUGH THE WOODS: Fall is fungi time

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THE TREE FUNGI in the photo form a beautiful, six-foot-long mass of orange and yellow growing out of tree bark, and probably what is commonly called the “hen of the woods.” It is a friend’s favorite, and it is said to taste just like chicken! I have declined offers to try it and will stick with real chicken for my meals.

There are recipes for the fungi, slicing it, soaking it in a mix of something like teriyaki sauce and olive oil and crisping it on the BBQ grill. Cooked portions can also be frozen.

Long before the magic mushrooms of the 1970s a neighbor’s Italian father-in-law was in the habit of collecting and eating wild mushrooms. He had done this in his homeland and continued the practice at his weekend home in Austerlitz. There were several incidences of strange aftereffects from these mushroom meals, including heart palpitations, dizziness, plus fear and great anxiety. The neighbor was a Columbia University Professor of optical physics, not a mycologist, so he sought out suitable colleagues and field guides for information on mushrooms. Since this was a matter of life and possibly death, he worked out a suspension of family mushroom eating until he became an expert on the subject. He was a good friend and shared his findings and sometimes took us kids with him to search out different types of fungi around the woods, lawns, and fields. We decided that with a very few exceptions we would not eat wild mushrooms and enjoy the perfectly delicious varieties from the grocery store.

Orange tree fungi. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

Years later, while working at a medical laboratory, there were several cases of people dying from poisonous mushrooms. One was a grandfather and grandson, and another resulted in a long and painful death. This was again a warning to use great caution in eating wild mushrooms. Sometimes symptoms do not manifest for several days. Sometimes poison can be absorbed through the skin while handling them.

The best approach for collecting and possibly eating mushrooms is to join a group of experts such as the New York Mycological Society or a local mushroom club. A useful field guide is North American Mushrooms by Dr. Orson K. Miller, Jr. or the Roger’s Mushrooms App. It is fun to learn about mushrooms, but I still rely on commercial stores for my edible mushrooms. I guess I am a better safe than sorry, human “chicken of the woods.”

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