This section is from the book "Our Edible Toadstools and Mushrooms and How to Distinguish Them", by W. Hamilton Gibson. Also available from Amazon: Our Edible Toadstools And Mushrooms And How To Distinguish Them.
Pleasant taste and odor (1) is a conspicuous feature in the regular "mushroom" (Agaricus campestris), and most other edible fungi, but as a criterion for safety it is a mockery. The deadly Agaricus amanita, already mentioned, has an inviting odor and to most people a pleasant taste when raw, and being cooked and eaten gives no token of its fatal resources until from six to twelve hours after, when its unfortunate victim is past hope. (See p. 68.)
The ready peeling of the skin (2) is one of the most widely prevalent proofs of probation, and is often considered a sufficient test; yet the Amanita will be found to peel with a degree of accommodation which would thus at once settle its claims as a "mushroom." Indeed, a large number of species, including several poisonous kinds, will peel as perfectly as the Campestris.
The pink gills turning brown (3) is a marked characteristic of the "mushroom" (a. campestris, Plate 5), and, being a rare tint among the fungus tribe, is really one of the most valuable of the tests, especially as it is limited by rules affecting other pink-gilled species.
The stem being easily pulled out of the cap (4) applies to several edible species, but equally to the poisonous.
The notion that edible mushrooms have solid stems (5) would be a very unsafe talisman for us to take to the woods in our search for fundus-food. Many poisonous species are thus solid - the emetic Russula, for example - while the alleged importance of the morning specimens (6) is without the slightest foundation.
The passage quoted here (7), or a statement to the same effect, was quite widely circulated in the newspapers a dozen or more years ago, in an article which bore all the indications of authoritative utterance, the assumption being that the poisonous mushroom would invariably give some forbidding token to the senses by which it might be discriminated.
Woe to the fungus epicure who should sample his mushrooms and toadstools on such a criterion as this, as the most fatal of all mushrooms, the Amanita vermis, would fulfil all these requisites.
The discoloration of silver (8) is a test as old as Pliny at least, a world-wide popular touchstone for the detection of deleterious fungi, but useful only in the fact that it will often exclude a poison not contemplated in the discrimination. On this point, especially as it affords opportunity to emphasize a common disappointment of the mushroom-eater, I quote from a recent work by Julius a. Palmer (see Bibliography, No. 3): "Mushrooms decay very rapidly. In a short time a fair, solid fungus becomes a mass of maggots which eat its tissue until its substance is honeycombed; these cells, on a warm day, are charged with the vapors of decomposition. Now you put such mushrooms as these (and I have seen just such on the markets of Boston and London) over the fire. In boiling, sulphuretted hydrogen or other noxious gases are liberated; you stir with a bright spoon and it is discolored; proud of your test, you throw away your stew. Now this is right, but if from this you conclude that all fungus which discolors silver is poisonous and that which leaves it bright is esculent, you are in dangerous error. It is the same with fish at sea. Tradition says that you must fry a piece of silver with them and throw them away if it discolors. Certainly the experiment does no harm, and shows a decomposition in both cases which might have been detected without the charm." Opposed to this so-called talisman, how grim is the fact that the deadliest of all mushrooms, the Amanita, in its fresh condition, has no effect upon silver.
The change of color in fracture (9) has long been a ban to the fungus as food. But this would exclude several very delicious species, which turn bluish, greenish, and red when broken - viz., Boletus sub-tomentosus (Plate 22), Boletus strobilaceus (Plate 23), and Lactarius (Plate 18).
The "toadstools" with "sticky tops" thus discriminated against (10) include a number of esculent species, Boleti and Russulae, and others, as do also the varieties with side-stems (11) - viz., Agaricus ulma-rius (Plate 15), Fistulina hepatica (Plate 25), Agaricus ostreatus (Plate 14), etc.
The clustered fungi (12) have long been included in the black-list without reason, as witness the following esteemed esculent species: The Shaggy-mane (Plate 16), Coprinus atramen-tarius (Plate 17), Oyster mushroom (Plate 14), Elm mushroom (Plate 15), Puff-balls (Plate 34), and Champignon (Plate 8).
To exclude all fungi which grow in dark, damp places (13) is a singular inconsistency, as in some localities this would eliminate the very one species of "mushroom" admittedly eatable by popular favor. In many countries these are regularly cultivated for market in dark, damp, subterranean caverns or in cellars. Indeed, the "dark, damp place" would appear to be the ideal habitat of this the "only mushroom!" Equally absurd is the discrimination against those growing on wood (14), which again deprives us of the delicious Hydnum (Plate 27), the Beefsteak (Plate 25), Oyster mushroom (Plate 14), Elm mushroom (Plate 15), and many others, including Puff-balls (Plate 34). If we exclude those growing upon or near manure (15), we shall be obliged to omit the Coprinus group (Plates 16 and 17), and often the "reel mushroom" as well.
Among the bright-colored species (16), it is true, are many dangerous individuals, as, for instance, the deadly Fly Amanita of Plate 4, and the emetic Russula (Plate 13), but on this fiat we should have to reject the other brilliant esculent Russuke (Plates 11 and 12), the brilliant yellow Chantarelle (Plate 19), the Lactarius (Plate 18), and various other equally palatable and wholesome species.
The objection against milky mushrooms (17) would serve to exclude the poisonous species of Lactarius, but would thus include at least two of the delicious species of the group, L. deliciosus, with orange milk (Plate 18), and L. piperatus, another species with white milk not figured in this volume.
The group of Russulae, most of which are esculent, is notable for their gills of even length (18), though not all the species are thus characterized. This discrimination, however, especially applies to the Shaggy-mane (Plate 16), which is conspicuously even-gilled, and is a decided delicacy.
This species, together with its congener, the edible Coprinus atramentarius (Plate 17), are notorious for their melting into black fluid(19), which is thus of no significance as a test, although the mushrooms are not supposed to be eaten in this stage of deliquescence.
A fungus which bites the tongue (20) when tasted would naturally be excluded from our mushroom diet, as would also, of course, those of a bitter or nauseat-ing taste; but several species, notably the Lactarius piperatus, as its name implies, is very hot and peppery when raw - a characteristic which disappears in cooking, after which it is perfectly esculent. The same applies in a scarcely less degree to the Agaricus melleus, and less so to the Hydnum repandum (Plate 27), and other mushrooms. But the poisonous Rus-stcla emetica (Plate 13) gives this same hot, warning tang, and this rule (17) would at least thus exclude the harmful species, and is thus contributive to popular safety.
The salt test (21), with that of the silver charm, is also a relic of the dim past, but is absolutely useless as a touchstone. Many poisonous species, notably the Amanita, fail to answer to it. All authorities agree, however, that the addition of salt in cooking, or the preparatory soaking of specimens in brine, has a tendency to render poisonous species innocuous. Indeed, it is claimed that in Russia and elsewhere on the Continent many admittedly poisonous species, even the deadly Fly Amanita, is habitually eaten subsequent to this semi-corning process, by which the poisonous chemical principle is neutralized.
Among this long list, and many other equally arbitrary and ignorant prejudicial traditions, many of which date back to the earliest times, it is indeed astonishing to note the conspicuous absence of the one and only valuable sign by which the fatal species could be unmistakably determined - a symbol which was reserved for botanical science to discover: the presence of the "cup" in the Amanita, which is pointedly emphasized in my Frontispiece, and the importance of which as a botanical and cautionary distinction is considered at more length in the following chapter.
It is well to consider for a moment what is implied in "A Poisonous Mushroom"