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.