Enter the stinkhorn

Thanks to an attention span honed by a career in daily news, I’ve moved on from black walnuts. My interest falls to something much slimier, stinkier, with a more bizarre sex life—in short, more appropriate for this Halloween shopping season—the stinkhorn.

Mutinus ravenelii.

Mutinus ravenelii.

Mutinus ravenelii, the dog stinkhorn. It sounds gross even in Latin, and is cousin to the aptly named genus Phallus. Also cousin to those darling little bird’s nest mushrooms, but this mushroom is the creepy cousin with the hygiene problem. I found it in a West Madison bed of day lilies, a porous-looking coral-colored finger poking up out of the mulch like a zombie. It did not yet stink. When I returned a fortnight later, there was a mature specimen, with its slimy, olive-green spore mass.

A stinkhorn starts as a little harmless-looking egg, just like a puffball. But inside it is much more complex: a column covered with olive spores and then with a gelatinous layer. The egg hatches, the outside wall cracks open, the column grows. The gelatinous layer mixes with the spores to produce “a fetid, evil-smelling, olive-green goo that also contains sugary materials,” according to George Barron.

Arora says stinkhorn eggs can be hatched at home.

He also includes a list of people’s descriptive terms for the smell; my favorite is “indiscreet.”

Flies and carrion beetles love it. They come from all over, feast on it, “and, if the day is hot, roll around in it,” Arora says.

Captain Charles McIlvaine of course, pronounces them delicious … suggesting they be sliced and fried like a Wiener schnitzel.

More on the eggs of the related Phallus impudicus from McIlvaine, a Civil-War-veteran-turned-mycologist who was known, for his tastings, as “Ole Ironguts” (and also, under the pseudonym Tobe Hodge, wrote a book called “For Middle Aged Little Folk – Little Mittens”):

semigelatinous, tenacious, and elastic, like bubbles of some thick substance. In this condition, they demand to be eaten … cut in slices and fried or stewed, they make a most tender, agreeable food.

(A quote on whose strength I resolve to track down McIlvaire’s book and, simultaneously, never to trust anything he says on the subject of edibility.)

Stinkhorn eggs are also pickled raw and eaten in China and Europe as “devil’s eggs,” Arora says. Which suggests the possibility of an outrageous case of the mistaken menu item.

“‘I’ll have the deviled eggs,’ I said. ‘Put on plenty of paprika,’ I said. What the devil is this?”

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