It's so funny how you can walk for an hour and see no mushrooms at all (or at least not the ones you want), and then all of a sudden, you come upon a giant monstrosity such as this one—bright orange like a beacon on the brown forest floor—and you feel like you just found buried treasure, even though it was out there, plain as day, for all the world to see. Maybe nobody walked by, or maybe nobody noticed it, or maybe somebody did notice it but just thought it was some weird gross fungus. Which it is. But it sure is tasty!
I was very excited because this is the first chicken of the woods I've ever found (not to be confused with a hen of the woods, which is brown and tastes different). Chicken mushrooms range from bright yellow to orange, but mine was the color of Circus Peanuts, those old-fashioned marshmallow candies my dad enjoys. The specimen I found was bigger than my head and in very good condition (for a fungus). Also called sulfur shelf, Laetiporus sulphureus got the nickname chicken of the woods because it tastes likes chicken. I agree, it's surprisingly chickeny in texture for a non-meat, so vegetarians take note.
I really wanted to emerge from the woods victorious, carrying my gigantic neon trophy, but it takes forever to clean a mushroom that big (see here). Plus, nobody else in my house is going to eat it but me. So I opted to take just half, sawing off the shelves with the handy-dandy pocketknife I keep around for mushrooms and rapists. Turns out, slicing the brackets off the central stalk makes it really hard to carry them long distances, especially when you're lost. But then, if I hadn't gotten lost, I never would have found the mushroom in the first place since the trail I wandered down basically led to a dead end of No Trespassing signs. Anyone with a trail map wouldn't have bothered going that way. So I juggled my mushroom pieces as best I could while stumbling blindly down the trails, drunk with success and the giddy danger of potential mushroom-poisoning. I found my way back to the car eventually.
Later on, back at the homestead, I double-checked my mushroom identification in various expert reference books. That's when I realized that my specimen matched all of the criteria for a chicken of the woods except for one. L. sulphureus is supposed to have bright yellow pores on the underside of the cap, while the pores on my mushroom were ivory white. This is not a good thing to discover after you've already spent an hour cleaning and trimming your mushroom. That's a major discrepancy in a field where minor discrepancies can be deadly. Even though there are supposedly no poisonous look-alikes for this mushroom, I wasn't eating it until I got some official confirmation that what I had was indeed edible.
After some frantic late-night Googling, I discovered a page on the University of Wisconsin site by Thomas Volk. His name sounded familiar, and it turns out he's a prominent mycologist whose name was dropped several times in Eugenia Bone's mushroom memoir, Mycophilia. Anyway, his DNA research published in 1998 turned up six different species within the previously known category of chicken of the woods. One, Laetiporus cincinnatus, matched the criteria of my mushroom perfectly:
- Growing as a rosette at the base of a dead oak tree
- Salmon orange in color
- Creamy white pores underneath
- White spore print
Not only is it edible, but Volk considers it to be the most delicious of the group. Score! I sautéed the mushroom pieces with onions, garlic, potatoes, and fresh sage leaves for a delicious lunch.