Mushroom is a humble-sounding name for one of the major divisions of life.* Scientists call it the fungi kingdom. Ordinary folk divide this kingdom into the edible (mushrooms) and the inedible (toadstools), because they are either toxic, lethal, or unpleasant to eat. My grandfather believed that you could tell the difference between the two by boiling them and then putting a silver spoon in the cooking liquid. Toadstools turned the spoon black.†
In fact, mycophiles must master a far more sophisticated system of identification requiring spore prints, knowledge of the arcana of how gills attach to stipes, and facility with a low-powered magnifying glass as well as the diagnostic powers of Meltzer’s solution. But even the untutored stand a fairly good chance of living their normal span because relatively few species are lethal or even seriously toxic. This should not be taken as encouragement to stuff any old fungus in your mouth. Some very common mushrooms will destroy your liver lickety-split.
Another word of warning: If you do learn to identify safe edible mushrooms in the field, don’t brag about it. Once your skill becomes known, you lose the chance to eliminate a hated spouse or parent by “innocently” serving them toothsome caps of Amanita virosa in cream on toast.
*Unlike “toadstool, ” which is purely fanciful, “mushroom” only sounds twee. The OED traces it to a variety of Anglo-Norman words whose vestige in modern French is mousseron, a vernacular term for the mushroom Clitopilus prunulus. This kind of taxonomic accuracy is a thing of the present. Mousseron would have applied not so long ago to a nonspecific smear of fungi, and, despite the dubiety of lexicographers, its origin looks blindingly clear to an outsider. It must come from mousse-moss, another spontaneous growth on woody surfaces.
†Grandpa survived his magical thinking only to succumb to death-by-opera. After a lifetime of listening to the Saturday radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, without ever having seen an opera onstage, until in 1949 he acquired a television in time for the opening-night telecast of Der Rosenkavalier on November 21, with
© 2007 Raymond Sokolov. All rights reserved.