Pretty much the rule is you don’t eat the mushroom. The problem was that I wanted to eat the mushroom. My argument at first was that I was pretty sure Michelle’s boyfriend eats them and he’s still alive. Thriving, in fact! It was his Instagram that first alerted me to the edibility of the mushroom in question, a Laetiporus sulphureus, aka the chicken of the woods.
We had a perfect specimen in the back yard, I mean really gorgeous. I talked about it all the time.
“I want to eat it,” I would say.
“Okay,” Josh would say.
“I’m like obsessed with eating it.”
“Then let’s eat it.”
“But we shouldn’t!”
“We don’t have to.”
“No obviously. But… maybe… we… do.”
And on and on this went.
Then we went to New York for a long weekend, where I continued to think and talk about the mushroom. We ate no mushrooms of note in New York but did see the revival of Carousel. We sat next to some exTREMEly drama club 20-somethings who I was worried would ruin the show with their performative enthusiasm, but they were able to control themselves once the lights went down.
“It’s interesting to see a protagonist learn nothing over the course of a story,” Josh said as we left. Carousel. It’s so good.
When we got back to Virginia, the mushroom had melted into a pile of mealy goo. We’d waited too long. We’d missed our shot.
At the farmers market the next weekend, I showed a picture of the mushroom in its prime to the mushroom guy. Let me tell you what: that is a man who’s got it all figured out. I expected him to hedge, as all the mushroom foraging YouTubers do, and say something like, if you’re not 100% sure, don’t risk it. Instead, in his cheerfully serene way, he was like, “Yep, you’ve got yourself a chicken of the woods.”
Yes!!! Except… it was gone.
I was left with a familiar feeling of clarity and disappointment. Why hadn’t I just eaten it? Or decided not to, and then moved on? Instead, I’d talked about it not just at home but up and down the I-95 corridor as though prolonged consideration would squeeze any new insights out of the information I already had. I know better (do I?)!
A few weeks later, Josh summoned me to the front yard. There was something growing at the base of our willow oak. It didn’t look orange enough to me. He was sure, though. He had done more research than I had the first time around, and so was much better equipped to make this call. But it really didn’t look like the outrageous, charming, undersea confection that the mushroom guy had so readily vouched for. To me. Days passed, though, and it started to look more and more like the gone-but-not-forgotten chicken of the woods from before.
“We should eat it,” I said.
“Yes, let’s eat it,” Josh agreed.
I was surprised to find him not long after cleaning and slicing the harvested mushroom as though it were possible, natural even, to make a decision and then act on it. As soon as I saw him, I knew I hadn’t planned on eating this one either. It was a nice surprise to realize again that my blah-blah-blah-will-I-won’t-I isn’t the only factor in my life. Sometimes someone goes and gets the mushroom.
Josh breaded and fried the mushroom pieces. They looked like the fancier end of the microwaveable chicken finger family of foods. I posted an Instagram story of the mushroom in our yard and then the mushroom being fried. We sat down to eat. I was giddy with anticipation. And do you know what? They tasted oh my GOD SO GOOD. SO good. Delicious. Unique but also like the best possible version of something familiar. It’s conventional wisdom to say that anything breaded and fried is good, but that is not true. A chicken of the woods breaded and fried, however, is a perfect thing to eat.
Or so I thought for about 90 seconds.
Then I burst into a hot sweat. I deleted the Instagram story, realizing how incredibly, incredibly, incredibly stupid I would feel if anyone DM’d me asking what I was doing and then I said I ate a mushroom out of my yard and was all flip and brazen about it and then I died.
“Why did we do that? We shouldn’t have eaten that.”
“It’s fine,” Josh said.
“This was so stupid?????”
Supposedly it’s practically impossible to misidentify a chicken of the woods. The thing to look for is a lack of gills on the underside of the fungal body. The underside of this one was smooth… but then again what incredible arrogance to think that we knew what mushroom gills looked like???? Maybe they’re smooth! They’re not, but. My heart was pounding with such force it felt like it might pop against my ribs. My stomach started gurgling inauspiciously. I wanted to watch something “soothing.” We picked The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society (more boring than soothing) on Netflix, and I barely paid attention, instead spending the whole time slicked with sweat, googling mushroom toxicity and seriously debating whether or not to call poison control. Have my stomach pumped because of my own dramatic idiocy or die miserably due to shame? I could not decide.
There was nothing I could say, no symptom of panic I could manifest, that could make Josh worry at all. It’s a chicken of the woods. We’re fine. I feel fine. There was no way to know, though. I mean, really know. We just had to wait to die or not. It is in moments like these that I understand the full pointlessness of my day-to-day anxiety, which mostly is “about” anticipating some future bad feeling. Here, the bumpers were gone, and when my brain scrambled through its anxiety-cycle, the answer to the question, “And then what” was, and then you fucking DIE FROM EATING A MUSHROOM FROM YOUR FUCKING YARD. LITERALLY DIE.
A fun part about being in this state is that it’s extremely hard to distinguish between making yourself sick and getting sick from a poison mushroom. On top of all that, you would think, if there were some purpose or evolutionary advantage to anxiety, it would be in stopping you from eating the mushroom in the first place, right? And yet here I was, having eaten the mushroom. Oh, on a whim? Under pressure? Um, no! After thinking about it for weeks. Wow, thinking, what a great tool! NOT!
I woke up the next day feeling fine. Good, actually. I am used to feeling physical symptoms of anxiety pretty much all the time to some degree, and sometimes genuine fear seems to reset something in my system, so that I feel, I mean, I wouldn’t say “calm” but un-anxious. I told lots of people about the mushroom. Most reacted by saying that doing something like this was uncharacteristic for me. My friend who has been a nurse for many years and thus has seen some shit when it comes to human decision-making was so appalled she stopped breathing for a second while she stared at me in horror. I mean, I was kind of appalled. You don’t eat the mushroom! You don’t eat the mushroom!
But we ate the mushroom. Our yard made us a snack! It would’ve been rude not to.
Besides, I was sure about the mushroom. A simple, common Laetiporus sulphureus. Except…not. I’m now pretty sure what we ate was a Laetiporus cincinnatus. After all that, we still ended up eating some mystery fungus out of the ground. I’m not saying I would do it again, but I will say it was really, really, really good. And per the mushroom guy, it’ll be back next year.