MycoBank Taxonomy: Fungi, Dikarya, Ascomycota, Pezizomycotina, Pezizomycetes, Pezizomycetidae, Pezizales, Sarcoscyphaceae, Sarcoscypha
I wanted to start the 1001 Mushrooms Project on the right foot by eating a morel. However, it is fitting that Sarcoscypha dudleyi was my first. This is one of the very first mushrooms that fruit in the spring in northern United States. Seeing this red dollop on the forest floor is a little unbelievable after six months of white snow and brown plant debris. Furthermore, S. dudleyi represents the bizarre culinary possibilities of fungi as well as the strange mushrooms that will constitute a large portion of the 1001 mushrooms that I eat.
According to Michael Kuo at MushroomExpert.Com, Sarcoscypha dudleyi is widely distributed east of the Rocky Mountains. However, in most field guides it is falsely treated as S. coccinea. S. coccinea is identical to S. dudleyi but is only found in the Pacific Northwest. S. austriaca, on the other hand, is identical and is also found in eastern North America. So for this specimen, I was able to rule out S. coccinea with certainty but had to use a microscope to look at the spores to determine that it was S. dudleyi and not S. austriaca. It will be interesting to find S. austriaca in the future and to test whether there is anything appreciatively different about the taste of the two species.
With microscopy, I could determine that this species was Sarcoscypha dudleyi and not Sarcoscypha austriaca, the other eastern scarlet cup fungus. Note the rounded ends of the spores, the two polar oil droplets, and the mucilage sheath around the spore, which are all characteristics of S. dudleyi.
The truth is that I collected this specimen not knowing that I was going to eat it. Various sources give it a lackluster edibility score of "nonpoisonous". Ascomycete Fungi of North America reports S. austriaca as "nonpoisonous, but not recommended" and have no edibility information for S. dudleyi (possibly because it is less common). Other online sources write that S. dudleyi it is said to be edible but offer no firsthand experience with the species. With this information in hand, I felt like a small tasting would be safe.
I prepared the fungus by rinsing off the dirt, chopping it into thin sections, and sautéing it with a little oil, finally topping it with some salt to brighten the flavor. The flavor and smell were both decidedly mushroomy, in a subtle, not-unpleasant way. Over all, it was very mild. The few cups I collected turned into a much smaller quantity of food. It really shone as a garnish, though.
I'm excited to keep experimenting with this atypical edible mushroom. However, I would recommend caution if you are going to try this species. While the species group is easily identified and I had no adverse reactions to eating a small quantity of this fungus, it is clearly untested in large quantities. Comment below and let me know if you have tried this fungus and what your feelings on it are!
Beug, M. W., Bessette, A. E., & Bessette, A. R. (2014). Ascomycete Fungi of North America - A Mushroom Reference Guide. University of Texas Press.
Kuo, M., & Methven, A. S. (2014). Mushrooms of the Midwest. University of Illinois Press.
I divide up the mushrooms I eat into three simple categories of edibility: bad, good, and great. I do not seek out mushrooms that taste bad to me. I will not hesitate to collect mushrooms that I think are good. And mushrooms that are great - I am on the hunt! If the mushroom is poisonous or possibly poisonous, I will simply avoid eating it again unless enough evidence accumulates to suggest that mushroom is actually safe to eat, and I recommend you do the same.
A score of years ago I was living in the mountains of West Virginia. While riding on horseback through the dense forests of that great unfenced state, I saw on every side luxuriant growths of fungi, so inviting in color, cleanliness and flesh that it occurred to me they ought to be eaten.
So wrote Charles McIlvaine in the preface of his book entitled One Thousand American Fungi published in 1900. The enduring legacy of this text is the fact that the vast majority of species have information on edibility. Some are simply listed as "esculent", while others receive more extensive descriptions. As an example, McIlvaine wrote for Hypholoma fascicularis:
Old authors give it as bitter and poisonous. The bitter is not always present. Any there is disappears in cooking. It is not poisonous, but one of our most valuable species. I have eaten it since 1881. A little lemon juice or sherry will cover the slightly saponaceous taste sometimes present. The caps only are good. It makes a choice pickle and a good catsup.
McIlvaine's compulsion to eat almost every fungus he found earned him the nickname Old Ironguts. It's truly amazing that he did not die from mushroom poisoning. While he praised Hypholoma fascicularis for making a choice pickle, this species has since been implicated in paralysis, vision impairment, and death.
"1001 Mushrooms" is a nod to One Thousand American Fungi and a continuation of Charles McIlvaine's legacy - an exploration of the fantastic fungi of North America and their consumption by humans. This project is also a one up on McIlvaine - as a civil-war veteran, the guy could afford a cavalier attitude towards mushroom hunting. In my journey to eating 1001 fungal species, I will follow safety guidelines (and recommend that you do as well) such as those described on the Arizona Mushroom Forum. I also hope to store vouchers and sequence the DNA of every species that I eat. This scientific rigor – unimaginable in the early 1900s – will allow for careful and tractable documentation so that as names change I can update my blog to reflect the most contemporary science.
Even with sequencing, you might think it were impossible to eat 1001 species of fungi. Well, consider this: in China alone there are 1,789 edible fungal species, which doesn't even include medicinal fungi. Beyond the obvious – fleshy mushrooms floating in a cream sauce and toppings on a pizza – fungi actually appear in all kinds of unexpected food products. Quorn, the producer of vegan meat substitutes, creates its tasty vegan nuggets from Fusarium venenatum mycoproteins. All sorts of fermented and ripened products are created using yeasts or molds, such as cheese, sourdough bread, and alcohol. Soy sauce is made with Aspergillus oryzae, tempeh with Rhizopus microsporus, and furu with Actinomucor elegans. Combine all those foods together and you've just eaten about a dozen species of fungi (and a very strange meal)!
Maybe I've convinced you there are enough edible fungi in the world to accomplish my goal. But is there enough time? If I were to eat one new species every single day, it would take about 32 months, or something like 2.7 years. If I were to eat one new species every week, it would take almost 20 years! No doubt this project is a lifelong endeavor. I hope it brings me across the world sampling fungi that humans consume for culinary, recreational, or medicinal purposes. I think it's time I stop poking at this keyboard and find a fungus to eat.
Comment below and let me know what fungus you think I should try next!
Money, N. P. (2011). Mushroom. Oxford University Press
Willis, K. J. (2018). State of the World’s Fungi. https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.74.2694
The material on aldendirks.com is presented for general informational and educational purposes only, and under no circumstances is to be considered a substitute for identification of an actual biological specimen by a person qualified to make that judgment. Some fungi are deadly poisonous. Please be cautious when foraging fungi.