He ate a puffball mushroom and lived to tell about it

October 21, 1998

I have a nagging feeling as I start writing this column that I might not live to finish it.

I shouldn't worry, for I've taken all sorts of precautions. Still, my mother taught me how to worry, and I guess I'll never get the habit completely out of my system.

What I'm worried about is dying of mushroom poisoning, because I just ate a mushroom that I found growing at the edge of my front yard. But that was about two hours ago, and I'm still feeling fine, so I think I'm safe.

I'd always vowed not to eat wild mushrooms, because a few of them are poisonous. I have eaten morels that friends gave me, but I knew those were OK. I've also been told that puffballs - those big, round white things that pop up overnight - are safe. But I figured better safe than sorry and bought my mushrooms in the supermarket.


But recently I got a book from the library about eating foods in the wild, called "The Foraging Gourmet" by Katie Letcher Lyle. It told about many wild plants that are not only free for the taking, but also full of vitamins and minerals and very tasty.

I started to think seriously about foraging. The idea appealed to the environmentalist in me. I could eat food that grows wild, without fertilizers or pesticides, and doesn't have to be trucked across the continent, contributing to air pollution.

I'd eaten a few wild things over the years, such as blueberries and blackberries, watercress from the stream and dandelion or violet leaves in a salad. But not mushrooms.

Early this month, however, I thought I was given a sign. Not 10 minutes after I finished reading about puffball mushrooms, I walked out into the front yard and almost tripped over one. That mushroom was telling me something. It was saying, "Eat Me!"

I eyed it doubtfully for a couple of minutes, then went inside and re-read the section on puffballs. My mushroom matched the photo in the book perfectly. But the author gave one clear warning:

"For heaven's sake, never taste a mushroom you can't identify. Do not try and identify any mushroom by my description only."

So next I checked a field guide to mushrooms, noting every little detail.

The only poisonous mushroom it might be confused with, when it was small, had gills and a cap. My mushroom didn't have those, and it was huge. I was convinced it was a puffball.

I carefully picked, cleaned and sliced it. Everything about it still said puffball: "firm and foamlike inside, something like dense angel food cake in both weight and consistency."

I vowed to take the plunge. I sauteed it in olive oil with a touch of soy sauce, and sprinkled it with lemon and pepper seasoning. I dished it out on a plate and got ready to dig in.

But for the next few minutes, all I did was stare at it. I thought about my mother and about how much I loved life, and I wondered if I weren't taking this foraging a bit too far. But I was sure I had all the bases covered, so I raised the fork to my mouth and took a small bite.

My first thought was that it was delicious. My second thought was that I was still alive. So I got bold and ate the rest of it and then started to write this column.

If you're reading this, and it's not accompanied by an editor's note about my premature death and a warning about wild mushrooms, then you'll know I survived to eat puffballs again.

Dennis Shaw is a former Herald-Mail editor. Write him at P.O. Box 276, Clear Spring, Md. 21722, or call 301-842-3863.

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