To Eat or Not To Eat?

I pulled the same stunt last year. Got all worked up by my online pals down in P-Town who were finding big, beautiful specimens of Morchella esculenta, the yellow morel, along the brushy banks of the Columbia and Willamette rivers.

Unfortunately, yellows are hardly present up here in the Puget trough, possibly because of the carnage inflicted by the Vashon Glacier 15,000 years ago, when its recession (oops, bad word) left soil deposits here that don’t agree with this particular species of morel. (That’s my theory, at least.) Instead, most of us Seattlites suffering from morel madness jump over the mountains to scour river channels and ridges east of the Cascades, where we find black morels.

But it’s still cold over there! As I discovered Wednesday. Lotsa snow left on Snoqualmie Pass, and the cottonwoods are just starting to bud out, looking redder than green at 70 mph on the Mass Pike…er…I-90. They say it’s time to hunt morels when the cottonwood leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear. Booshoo! (as we say in underage company). This is a mouse’s ear ^^. We’ve still got two weeks before this area produces.

Another indicator is our lovely wake-robin, the western trillium. These were just starting to bloom, only a few up that I saw. Spring is barely sproinging in these parts. The ground looks matted, like it just woke up after a rough night. Cold winds whistled up the river, sending yellow-rumped warblers into cartwheeling feats of treehopping.


All I found were a bunch of these here false morels, Verpa bohemica, a good warmup drill but hardly worth the drive. I picked ’em anyway. Maybe this would be the year I finally screw up the courage to eat the verpas. Some folks do. Some folks love ’em. Me? I don’t like the idea of ingesting anything spiked with rocket fuel. That’s right, false morels, snowbank morels, and other relatives of the true morels are known to contain a compound called monomethylhydrazine, a component of rocket fuel.

Apparently this compound has been implicated in a few deaths. There’s a story of a French chef keeling over dead in his kitchen simply because he was overtaken by the fumes of false morels sautéing in a pan. Some have suggested the harmful toxins are more prevalent in certain regions, that our western North American varieties don’t have the same levels as elsewhere. Others have said phooey altogether, that there will always be a few people who are allergic to wild foods and there’s nothing to be done for it so eat up. If you’re worried, they say, cook your false morels outside where ventilation isn’t a problem. My question: rocket fuel notwithstanding, can they be worse than a box of Fruity Pebbles?

By the way, you can tell a verpa from a true morel in two main ways: the cap margin of the verpa doesn’t connect to the stem, instead hanging unattached like a skirt; and if you slice it open lengthwise, you’ll see a bunch of cottony stuff inside, while true morels are completely hollow.

Meanwhile, my stash of verpas continues to taunt me. They’ve been sitting in a bowl on the kitchen counter for two days laughing at me. It’s like a bowlful of frightening clowns.

So here’s what I want to know: Do you eat false morels? Do you know someone who does—or won’t? Answer the poll at the top right of the page and pass it along to your friends.

Predators and Prey

During my scouting mission I saw two small herds of elk. They were feeding in hidden meadows along the flood plain and quickly retreated to heavier timber as I got closer. On my way out of the woods I came upon a probable cougar kill: just a couple of gnawed hooves left over and thatches of hair. I looked around, over my shoulder. A scene like this never fails to register with me. Creepy-crawlies down the spine, lodging in the pit of my stomach. The modern mind can rationalize its continued existence with statistics and probabilities all it wants; the reptilian brainstem still knows there are eyes beyond the ring of firelight, eyes and sharp teeth and claws.

Reminds me of Doug Peacock’s great aphorism of the wild: “It ain’t wilderness unless there’s a critter out there that can kill you and eat you.”

That’s cold comfort in your sleeping bag at night—but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

29 thoughts on “To Eat or Not To Eat?

  1. speakfreely

    You may want to amend your question from “Do you eat false morels?” to “Do you eat the false morel verpa bohemica?” I would not eat verpa bohemica (which you have pictured on your site), because they reportedly taste bad, and there have been reports of toxic symptoms, nor would I eat gyromitra esculenta, also known as a “false morel” which contains compounds that turn into MMH during digestion and can be fatal. Fortunately it looks a lot less like the true morel than verpa bohemica does. I would, OTOH, eat morchella semilibera, also sometimes called a “false morel”.

  2. LC

    Ladyflyfish – It’s like the old Heinz ketchup ad…A-N-T-I-C-I-P-A-T-I-O-N…

    Amyp – Not a bad sign, just part of the learning curve.

    Speakfreely – Common names are always a dicey proposition. I decided to be vague b/c the issue is the same with Gyromitra. I’ve never heard of M. semilibera called “false morel” but I don’t doubt it; where I live we call them “half-frees.” Anyway, it’s an informal poll. I’d like to hear from some of the folks that regularly eat Verpas or Gyromitras.

  3. Marty

    We NEVER eat the false morels. Too much risk! We get the black morels first, then later the yellow or white ones. We’re looking for the first right now, but the ground hasn’t warmed up enough. (Southern Montana)

  4. speakfreely

    LC, you may hear from folks who eat Verpas, but probably not too many who have eaten Gyromitras unless they received prompt medical attention! That, I guess, was my main point about the question, if there was one. I agree it would be interesting to hear reports about Verpas, though I don’t imagine it will tempt me to try more than a tiny bite for flavor, which I would then spit out, just in case…

  5. LC

    Speakfreely – Lots of people eat Gyromitras, especially G. montana & G. gigas, and some even eat G. esculenta in the western U.S. I’m merely trying to determine relative numbers who do or don’t eat them. It’s been my experience that people who eat false morels generally grew up eating them, had relatives who ate them, and won’t be taking anyone’s advice one way or another. There are lots of people who eat bracken fiddleheads even though they’re a known carcinogen.

  6. Mr Main Man

    Your Capital cousins down here have been awaiting the great, but I’ve been out for four days with no sign yet, but verpa. So anxious. Thanks for the fun read.

  7. Hunter Angler Gardener Cook

    I’ve eaten my share. The way I cook them disables the rocket fuel, I think. I sear the hell out of them in a dry pan before adding butter or oil and sauteeing them. Never had a problem eating false morels, although I have never eaten tons at one time…

  8. LC

    Hank – Thanks for chiming in. I’ve been waiting for someone on the other side of this discussion. So do you wonder or care whether any of the MMH ends up in your liver?

  9. Trixi

    I’ve been eating them for a couple weeks now (and last year, and the year before, etc). We parboil them, then sautee them. Yesterday I had some on a pizza. Friday I had them sauteed with garlic, then shoved between the skin and meat on chicken thighs. They are by no means as good as black morels, but they certainly do me right in a pinch–have never, ever had any problems.

  10. John in Bellingham

    LC – lots to say on this subject, based both on personal/reported experience and research, but it is probably too long for a comment. If you’re interested let me know and I can send a writeup for excerpting on the blog or just your own interest.

  11. Jess

    No, I’ve never eaten false morels. But last week here in Boston, I had my first taste of the season of the real thing! There they were, just sitting there next to the cheese counter, as if it were no big deal. Not to make you jealous, but they were really something. Now I just need to learn how to spot them in their natural habitat…

  12. Saara

    I can’t wait to hear where you end up on this. We found some Verpa in a cottonwood patch on the road to Baker Lake on Saturday and proceeded to have great debates on whether or not to eat them. I wield the pan and declined to cook them so I won this time. I was faced with the argument of “look at all the locals picking them, they’re not dead yet”.
    Let me know if John has fodder for the “against” argument or I’ll just have to sabotage a sample to make sure they taste bad. 😉

  13. John in Bellingham

    Saara, I’d be happy to send you the writeup as well – should I use the address on your webpage?

  14. LC

    Saara – I’ve been conducting an investigation in three forums: this blog, the ForageAhead yahoo group, and the Puget Sound Mycological Society. I’m interested in anecdotal evidence; I’ll let the scientists deal with the empirical evidence–but to date it doesn’t seem like the “false morel” question is on the mycologists’ front burner. John’s testimony is excellent. Somehow I’ll try to post a summary when the research feels adequate.

  15. Mossy Mom

    Verpas taste good. I found about 5 of them and ate them but on the first day I only ate one of them. I also eat elfin saddles. Everything in moderation…

  16. oemleria

    LC, It is my understanding that verpas do not contain a known toxin, that means no signifigant amounts of MMH, nor gyromitrin nor anything else known to be toxic.

    They seem to have developed a bad reputation through accounts by Alexander Smith about his reaction to them, in which he suffered the loss of muscular coordination. I have not heard any other report of this sort of reaction by anyone else. I have however heard stories of digestive intolerance, but not in any greater proportion than to that of other edible mushrooms. I recommend folks always try a small amount in case they may be intolerant.

    I eat Verpa’s every year that I find them. I saute them until they’re crispy on the edges and suspend them in a cream sauce. I make faux calimari rings with the hollow stems and I fold the slivered caps into my nettle souffle. If I find them in abundance, I eat them a few days in a row. And they taste GOOD!

    Sadly I didn’t get a chance to hunt them this year, and it is getting to be a little late.

    If there is solid evidence of a known toxin out there – I’d like to know. Until then, I will enjoy them when I find them.

  17. Saara

    Thanks! John, you can send to saara at sedge dot net, which should be the one on my blog.
    Might take a drive today and see what’s out there. 😉
    I’m such a pushover … maybe! *sigh*

  18. John in Bellingham

    Saara – email is on its way.

    Oemleria – great summation, that has been my experience as well but I do parboil them before using.
    On the subject of loss of muscle coordination, myself and one other person I know have experienced a mild muscle relaxant effect (roughly equivalent to a prescription muscle relaxer) and even more interestingly, mild giddiness* a couple of times after eating a fairly large portion of verpas. It is actually quite pleasant, and does not happen every time I have eaten them, so I suspect it is just an individual body chemistry type of thing.

    * a moderate amount of alcohol was also consumed with the meal whichl may be a factor

  19. Hunter Angler Gardener Cook

    Lang — I live across from AeroJet, where they design space rockets and ICBMS, so I am not really worried about a li’l jet fuel in my shrooms…Seriously, it’s like the person who eats elfin saddles (or nitrates in salami, for that matter) all things in moderation.

    Even moderation.


  20. gabrielamadeus

    I just harvested my first verpas and ate a few. I thought they were delicious. I won’t make a habit out of it, or eat a lot of them frequently, but I’m guessing I do much more dangerous things very often.

  21. Anonymous

    Morels do not contain MMH. They can release MMH when heated, which is different. Cook them well and eat them with gusto.

  22. Anonymous

    I have always heard that people think false morels are no good to eat. I can say from over 20 years of seeing everyone around eating these mushrooms i have never seen or heard of someone gettn sick from it. My family and frienda eat them by the lbs. So i think some people are just allergic to them and people blame them on being poisoinous.


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