It’s no joke, mushroom I.D. mistakes can be fatal. There is a great deal of controversy in the Ozarks surrounding false, or red morels. Make an informed decision before you decide for yourself, and do not mix fact with fiction.
As my interest grew in mushrooms as a possible wild food source, I began to study field guides and read magazine articles to educate myself about edible fungi. It became an intriguing process that resembled a chess match with life or death consequences. As a result, I wisely erred on the side of caution and selected only the easiest mushrooms to identify for food purposes.
After I finished college, I accepted a park superintendent’s job in the Missouri Ozarks. I quickly found myself immersed in the mysticism surrounding the Ozarks mushroom culture. Tales of Leprechauns and deadly toadstools filled my mind with intrigue and superstition. Fascinated by the tall tales of the locals, I dove head long into the world of wild mushroom hunting to learn and to live, albeit closer to the earth.
My first remembrance of encountering hill folks consuming wild mushrooms centered around the hills of Phelps and Crawford Counties in Missouri in March of 1973. I became the new superintendent of Maramec Spring Park, one of the four trout parks in Missouri. A Missouri Department of Conservation employee, Spud Gibson, first introduced me to false morels, or as he called them: red beefsteak mushrooms.
False Morels Listed as Inedible – Mostly
Red flags immediately went off in my head. I recalled false morels from my studies. They are listed in every book I have ever read on mushrooms as being poisonous. Spud immediately laughed when I challenged him on the validity of his claims of eating false morels. Being a rather small man, he quickly responded, “I’m sure yee have noticed me small stature. I twas discovered under the umbrella of a toadstool and have been eating this one and that one from me birth.”
Attempting to decipher what Spud was saying to me, I quickly surmised that there must be some connection between false morels and the vast store of tales about ghosts that inhabited every hollow in the hills where mushrooms were known to grow. Our discussions became a matter of suspicious intrigue. I wasn’t sure that this wee gentleman from the hills wasn’t simply enjoying a bit of old-fashioned Irish fun with me.
Spud soon called my bluff by bringing a huge batch of fried red morels for lunch one day. I often joined the Missouri Department of Conservation guys in their office lunchroom. They were responsible for raising rainbow trout at the park and stocking the spring each day of the catch-and-keep season from March 1 through October 31. He ate heartily while offering me a big slab sliced from an especially large false morel. He had a photo of the monster fungi, too. I declined. Spud knew exactly what I was thinking. I’d wait to see if he survived and maybe try false morels on the second go around.
Two days later, Spud had more false morels. In the meantime, I had re-read the warnings about eating false morels. A book on Missouri fungi stated that false morels were classified as poisonous. However, on the other hand, the author did note that toxicity of the attractive fungi varied from locale to locale. Too, I had discovered that people of the Meramec River Hills region commonly ate false morels. As per the warnings, when eating wild mushrooms for the first time, I took one small bite of Spud’s false morels. Then I waited to see what kind of spells I would have cast on me and prayed that I would live.
The fried false morel I ate proved quite tasty. Fortunately, I did not suffer any side effects and I soon asked Spud for more. Next, I began picking my own red morels and preparing them for household meals. However, I have never practiced eating a lot of false morels in one sitting, with one exception. Convinced that I, too, was perhaps exempt from the toxins of the false morel, I ate a large quantity one fine evening. A little ale may have been involved in that event. Regardless, I vaguely recall being awakened to the sound of an Irish jig. The wee people danced merrily under the expansive white caps of Death Angels and laughed heartily at their new recruit.
The gist of the matter is that one should use caution when eating any fungi for the first time. First and foremost, be sure you have the individual fungi identified correctly. Next, eat only a small bite to make sure you are not going to have a reaction. Of course, the perfect plan is to have a buddy eat first.
I’ll assure you that I will be eating those delectable red false morels this spring. I’ll keep on the frugal side and eat only one mushroom steak the size of a dinner plate in one sitting. And if the wee people of my turkey hunting spots find favor in me, I‘ll add a breast of wild turkey with my first red morel dinner of the year.
Are Red Morel Mushrooms Edible- It is important that you consult literature or knowledgeable persons to make the decision before trying Red or False Morels. We are not responsible for your decision.
Bill Cooper for The Rambling Angler –March 2024