The recent warm, damp weather has caused herds of mushrooms to erupt from our lawn. This has rekindled a conundrum I have grappled with my entire life, the crux of which can be boiled down to: can I eat that or not?
This question is especially critical when it comes to mushrooms. Eating an unidentified fungus can lead to either a.) a delicious repast or b.) death. A third possibility could be a trip that doesn't involve travel (many of you old hippies know what I mean).
Thank goodness for the Internet, which enabled me to swiftly narrow down my lawn mushrooms to one of two possibilities. Near as I can tell, they are either "yummy" or "Destroying Angel."
So the jury is still out as to whether or not I should try to eat them. The fact that our chickens are avoiding these mysterious fungi might be an important clue.
This sort of thing has long been a problem for me.
For example, several years ago I found some unfamiliar berries growing on a strange bush near our house. After puzzling over it for a few days, I phoned Mel Kloster, my local county agent guy. I described to Mel the bush's leaves and its berries, adding that the fruit was somewhat bitter and quite seedy.
"You didn't eat any of them, did you?" asked Mel incredulously.
I allowed that maybe I had tried one or two.
"You idiot!" he exclaimed in the tone of voice he reserved for addressing idiots. "They call that the Dead Bird bush!"
"Huh. Wonder why it's called that?" I?asked.
"Because the ground underneath them is usually covered with dead birds!" he replied, using that same tone of voice.
This made me nervous. I quickly ended my conversation with Mel and ran outside and looked all around the bush. No dead birds! What a relief! I later quizzed an arborist and learned that the bush was a mulberry. Which made sense, as I had felt somewhat weaselly and had begun to suddenly say "pop!"
A good while passed before it finally dawned that Mel had been yanking my chain. I totally fell for it, so I guess he was right regarding the idiot part.
Some of my earliest memories have to do with consuming items of a dubious nature. I recall as a tot noticing some interesting dirt on my finger. I wondered how it tasted, so I stuck the digit into my mouth.
I was swiftly scolded, and the offending finger yanked from my maw. I still don't know if the fuss was because of dirt or concerns about nascent cannibalism.
When I was a kid we would often visit our Grandpa and Grandma Hammer at their farm. My crazy little cousin Greg and I would explore the dense grove that surrounded their farmstead, searching for pirates or gypsies or anything exciting.
The most thrilling item we discovered was a forgotten rhubarb patch. We each quickly plucked a stalk and bit off a mouthful of the sour stuff.
It was so bitter that our faces nearly puckered themselves inside out. We nonetheless declared it delicious, a macho male method of goading the other guy into taking another bite. We kept this up until we had each consumed an entire stalk. To this day, I cannot look at a rhubarb plant without making a fishy face.
As my wife often points out, there's no accounting for taste. I'm a guy who will eagerly eat lutefisk, which is basically cod that has been steeped in a deadly lye solution. So I guess her point is valid.
One might wonder what makes a person so reckless when it comes to the things he categorizes as "possibly edible." I think it has to do with a keen sense of survival.
We adventurous eaters want to be capable of enduring such earth-shattering cataclysms as the collapse of Paula Deen's empire. Should civilization be reduced to smoldering ruins, we will be the guys who can saunter out into the wilderness and not merely survive but thrive.
While others are panicking because they can't find an open Starbucks, we will calmly go about the business of living off the land. Experimentation has already taught us what is edible and what will make the commode your close personal companion for the foreseeable future and which leaves should never be used for toilet paper.
And we'll watch with a jaundiced eye as a call center employee begins to wolf down fistfuls of berries from a particular bush.
"Yep," we'll remark pithily as we shake our heads, "That's why they call it the Dead Telemarketer bush!"