Having spent three years living wild in the woodlands close to the Daniel Boone National Forest in Northeast Kentucky, I rediscovered some of the Earth’s bounty that my ancestors survived on. Despite the depredation of the flora and fauna in the region caused by the clear cutting of the forests in the early 20th Century for pig-iron furnaces, a goodly number of edible plants still survive. Mushrooms are still fairly common and are an excellent source of minerals and other trace nutrients necessary for good health.
Realize that before you go ‘shrooming, you need to study the types that are supposed to grow in the area you hunt and take along a good illustrated field guide even then. Always double-check and be sure you know what you are eating since it truly can be a matter of life or death if you make a mistake. But when you know what you are hunting, you can find choice mushrooms that are better than anything you will ever buy in a grocery store.
The most well-known of the wild mushrooms is the morel. Locally known as the “dryland fish” it is mostly found in the spring. The honeycomb-like heads look like little brains sticking up from the leaf-mold and are colored from a golden yellow to tan to dark brown (called black morels). It is very important to thoroughly wash morels as the multitude of folds and crevasses are perfect hiding places for small insects. They are best when they are sliced, breaded and then deep-fried.
If you are lucky enough to have an area rich in morels, you can find eager markets for the ones you have to sell. There is a toxic look-alike (as most edible mushrooms have) that you need to avoid as more than a few will cause gastrointestinal distress and a loss of muscular control, including the cardiac muscles. Of the three ways to distinguish false morels, looking in the stalk is the easiest method. The stalk of a false morel will be filled with a cotton-like substance while a true morel has a hollow stalk.
My personal favorite is the Gem-Studded Puffball! While these choice mushrooms grow less edible the older they get, the heads of the young ones are about as big around as a quarter. They are off-white and the top of the ball is covered in darker bumpy formations that can be easily brushed off to leave a depression in the surface. The interior of the young gem-studded puffballs is a very homogenous spongy material. As it ages this turns yellow and eventually into a liquidy grey-green mass that is totally inedible.
Studies on the nutrient value of these awesome little tidbits show them to be highly nutritious. They contain high amounts of protein, carbohydrates, fatty acids and other micronutrients. The gem studded puffball tastes like the deep woods in early morning smells. Be warned, however, that there are several look-alike species including an immature form of amanita. Study this one well and you will be in for a real treat when you can find them.
It is a matter of personal opinion if the bracket fungi Laetiporus actually tastes like chicken. Its most common moniker is “Chicken of the Woods” and it is prepared and used just like you would chicken meat. Growing in shelves ranging from 2′ to nearly a foot across, the fungus is bright yellow on the bottom and edges with a soft orange top. Young brackets are the most edible with the individual shelves growing more brittle and inedible with time.
This tasty fungus can even be frozen and stored if you are not living electricity-free. Not only can it be cut up and prepared like meat, the bright coloration adds a pleasing aesthetic to your meal when added to rice, soups or stews.
In addition to the nutritional value of the fungus, laboratory tests have shown that Laetiporus is extremely good at inhibiting the growth of Staphylococcus aureus. It is best to start out with a small portion of chicken of the woods as there can be various allergic reactions depending on the type of tree it is growing on. This is most common if found on cedar or eucalyptus trees.
I could go on about more great forest fungi but these three top almost everybody’s lists if they forage wild food in the Eastern woodlands of the USA. They are well worth it to me to use them as an excuse to dive back into the woods even though I do live back in civilization again.