It's a classic plot device of murder mysteries: An evil killer slips poisonous mushrooms into the frying pan of an unsuspecting victim who dies an agonizing death.
But in real life, poisonous fungi typically sicken and occasionally kill people for quite different reasons.
Recently I learned a lot about what can go wrong in the world of mushrooms from Dr. Denis Benjamin, a medical doctor who is also a fungi and poison expert. As the weather improves over so much of the nation, this seems like a good time to review how you can avoid having yourself or members of your family join the ranks of those who eat the wrong mushrooms.
Very young children (think toddlers) and dogs are two groups that mange to poison themselves each year. What 3-year-olds and Fido have in common is that they are natural omnivores, moving around and putting most everything they find into their mouths. Often they have the sense to spit out odd-tasting objects with unfamiliar textures, but not always. Luckily, most mushrooms that grow in places like your backyard are not highly toxic, so a large majority of both toddlers and canines survive their experiments with fungi. But parents and dog owners sometimes get quite the scare when they see the objects of their love chewing blobs of fungal material.
Older kids can get into trouble because they dare one another to eat mushrooms they stumble across. Being brave in such games can lead to a stomach ache or even serious medical problems.
Immigrants also run real danger of eating the wrong mushrooms. While they may know safe mushrooms overseas, here in the U.S. some similar-looking fungi can be quite poisonous. A variation on this theme are mushroom pickers who hail from one part of the U.S. but use a mushroom field guide for another part of the country. That mistake is sometimes made even by experienced mushroom experts who fail to think through their methods.
In a related vein, it's worth emphasizing that matching a photo in a field guide or internet source with what you pick isn't a good way of guarding your life. Many poisonous fungi are look-alikes for safe ones. Sometimes only microscopic differences separate the two -- so don't go by photos as you decide what to eat for supper tonight.
Then there are the truly careless adults who end up each year in emergency rooms courtesy of mushrooms. It's no surprise that campers who are drinking heavily while spending time in the woods sometimes fry up what they pick among the trees. As the police blotter says about a variety of emergency situations, "alcohol was a factor."
Even sober, professional chefs make mistakes with mushrooms. The expensive morel mushroom is a case in point. It must be cooked to decrease the toxin in its flesh. Unfortunately, from time to time, even professional chefs fail to remember this point, inadvertently poisoning their patrons with raw morels in salads.
I once picked a whole hatful of what I hoped were morels that had sprung up literally overnight next to the building where I worked. I'm no gourmet, so I knew if what I had were really morels, I wouldn't fully appreciate them. I therefore took them to a friend who really cares about food (and wine). He was delighted to get them, but I made it clear as I handed him the fungi that I took no moral responsibility for my gift. Still, overnight I had plenty of time to question my judgment in giving someone mushrooms I was in no position to truly identify.
My friend cooked and ate the mushrooms in the company of another gourmet the same day I picked them. The mushrooms were delicious, he told me the next morning, and I was relieved the meal had led to no ill effects.
That brings up an interesting question Dr. Benjamin highlighted in my mind. Why do we always wonder, when we see a mushroom, if we (or our friends) could eat it and live to tell the tale?
Maybe we've all been reading too many murder mysteries.
E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. Peters can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.