Q&A: Sacramento area food blogger Hank Shaw talks about toxic and edible mushrooms

11/14/2012 12:00 AM

11/14/2012 7:53 AM

The death last week of two seniors served mushroom soup made with fungi foraged at a Placer County elder care facility has lots of people asking: "Who gathers food?"

Hank Shaw does.

Shaw, an award-winning food blogger from the Sacramento area and the author of "Hunt, Gather, Cook," was contacted while on a hunting trip in Utah to talk about mushroom gathering.

The Placer County poisonings, now being investigated by the California Department of Social Services, hospitalized four others, including the caregiver who collected the mushrooms and prepared the soup.

>Assuming this caregiver was an experienced mushroom gatherer, how did she end up putting toxic mushrooms in the soup?

Where experienced mushroom hunters go wrong is they gather the bad mushrooms hiding among the edible ones. You have to look at every wild mushroom you bring home as an individual. If you don't do that, you are courting danger.

>Are toxic mushrooms always deadly?

No. Most nonedible mushrooms will just give healthy people gas. Some are far more toxic than others, and the sick and elderly are always at a higher risk of an intestinal problem becoming deadly. Seeking medical attention early greatly increases survival rates.

>What percentage of mushrooms are edible vs. toxic?

It's a lot like the bell curve with maybe 5 percent to 10 percent being the popular, most desired varieties, perhaps 25 percent edible but less desirable, lots that are somewhat toxic and a smaller percentage that are highly toxic. Two highly toxic varieties, Amanita ocreata or "destroying angel" and Amanita phalloides or "death cap," are everywhere right now.

>Word is the caregiver found the mushrooms in the care facility's yard. Are people likely to find edible mushrooms close to home?

There are exceptions, but as a general rule, no. They typically grow in "big forest" areas, thick pine forests or plentiful oak stands.

>Does knowledge of what's edible in one forest translate into what's edible in another?

While there is a great deal of overlap, one should use extra caution when on another coast or away from one's home country. Not knowing that there is a toxic mushroom that looks like its edible cousin could have tragic results.

>Given the dangers and the fact that it's not hard to find a supermarket, should people just forget about foraging for mushrooms?

I want people to understand the dangers, but I don't want to dissuade people from gathering wild mushrooms. It takes time and some skill, but it can be done safely. Eating them isn't rocket science, but it's not something to be taken lightly either.

>Can one learn to forage for mushrooms from books and the Internet?

One can, but I wouldn't recommend it. It's best learned with the safety net of having an experienced mushroom gatherer there.

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