Never Eat Mushrooms from a Southern Belle…. If You’re a Yankee

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“And that’s what we’ll do.   We’ll make him a nice dinner and saute the mushrooms in butter and wine.”   So says Miss Martha, the head mistress in Sophia Copolla’s brilliant new film, Beguiled.   Of course she means the poisonous Death Cap mushrooms, intended to swell the windpipe and suffocate the intended victim,  wounded Union soldier Colonel John.    He’s interrupted and indeed beguiled these Civil War era girls and threatens their domesticity.   Well at least his last bite will be delicious.  And he loves wild mushrooms.  It’s the height of Southern hospitality.

The ability to identify and forage wild mushrooms is one of those carnal knowledge bits Americans have lost since the Civil War.      The German immigrants brought with them hundreds of recipes for Pilzsuppe, or wild mushroom soup.   Delicious, creamy, earthy and hearty, this dish cheaply fed many Germanic Cincinnatians through tough times.

The Bavarians, in particular, have a fond love of mushroom foraging – with over 1600 varieties of mushrooms in the Bavarian forests, 60 of which will kill you, like the Death Cap used in the movie.   And every year during mushroom foraging season there are several inevitable deaths by poisoning, despite warnings from the local authorities.

We’ve been led to believe that the gelatinous, over-salted, industrial condensed Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup is the only thing mushrooms can offer.     Heck, it’s become the binder of all our American casseroles like Tuna Noodle.   The only foraging we did growing up was choosing which brand of jarred button mushrooms – all the wild flavor pickled out – to bring home to make into steak sauce.   But there is nothing better than freshly foraged mushrooms, with the earthiness, muskiness, and tenderness that only they bring to the table.

Ohio is home to over 1200 species of mushrooms.   We have  brilliant orangey colored chanterelles to be found from June to September at the base of hardwood trees like oaks and hemlocks.  Edible slippery Jacks can be found at the base of Pine trees.    But then there are the morels and the poisonous false morels, which look dangerously similar.

The trick, according to Ohio mushroom foraging societies, is picking mushrooms that bruise underneath.   They can be as pretty and inviting on the top, but if they don’t bruise, they’re likely poisonous.

A good place to start experimenting with local mushroom cooking is at your farmer’s market.   Last weekend I bought a German Pilzsuppe kit from local Shag Bark Farms, with local chanterelle, oyster, and black trumpet mushrooms.     The safe foraging had already been done for me.   It includes German thyme, winter savory, and rosemary.   All I have to do is saute onions, leeks and add cream and potato.  What a hearty, delicious and cheap meal, maybe with some nice caraway rye bread from Allez in Over-the-Rhine.

It’s important if foraging is on your summer bucket list to connect with the local experts – there are a few mycological societies, like the Ohio Mushroom Society at Ohiomushroom.org to learn how to forage.   You should also pick a good foraging place that’s both safe (not sprayed with pesticides) and legal to forage.   LaBoiteaux Woods in College Hill is a favorite of local foragers.   But, you should never eat anything if there is the slightest doubt of its safety, lest you want to end up like Colonel John.

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