Wild-mushroom fans are in an excitable frame of mind: Morel season—the most bountiful time of the year—has just started. But there’s also a dark cloud hanging over New York’s fungi community, ever since California health officials shut down several mushroom vendors at farmers’ markets this year, pledging to regulate what has long been a self-policed industry of foragers, restaurateurs, and gourmands. The officials’ fear? That lack of oversight is paving the way for poisonings. At least fifteen North American mushrooms are toxic enough to kill. New York has about 60 poisonings a year, according to the Health department (the majority are small children “grazing” and people trying to get high).
At the moment, New York State agriculture laws say mushrooms picked in the wild can be sold if they’re inspected by “an approved mushroom identification expert,” but don’t specify what constitutes expertise. It isn’t always easy to tell if they’re safe, even if you’re ’shroom-savvy. Colin Alevras, chef at the Tasting Room in the East Village, picked a bagful last year that he found in the yard of his father’s house upstate. He took it to Michael Hoffmann, a wild-mushroom vendor at the Union Square farmers’ market. “Michael took one look and said, ‘Throw the whole bag out and wash your hands. Keep them away from my mushrooms.’ I had picked a destroying angel,” says Alevras, referring to one of the most beautiful but toxic local varieties. “It made me really nervous.”
City health codes ban chefs from serving mushrooms picked in the wild. Most “wild mushrooms” on menus are in fact cultivated specialty varieties like shiitakes. As Laura Phelps, president of the American Mushroom Institute, notes, “Any dish under $20 is not going to have wild mushrooms.” Some chefs use the real thing, though, and predict increased regulation is just a matter of time. Blue Hill chef Dan Barber says, “I would hope this stays on the back burner.” “I fear they’re going to regulate everything,” adds Alevras. “It would be a drag and push people out of the business. We’d have to have secret underground mushroom clubs.”