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Food by VICE

I Want to Eat This Tree Fungus That Looks Like Mac and Cheese

But because it probably doesn't taste very good, I shall just squish it ever so gently.

by Bettina Makalintal
Jan 22 2019, 3:00pm

Photo via Getty Images.

“Wavy,” “bright orange,” and “shiny” are all words I’d use to describe the gooey curls of Stouffer’s Macaroni and Cheese. All of the same terms would, oddly, also apply to a common tree fungus, which looks, according to one Redditor, like someone just spilled mac and cheese while hiking along.

In the picture posted to Reddit, a mass of undulating orange swirls sits in front of a dark background. When you scan past the slick, brightly-colored blob, you’ll see—alas—stalks, bark, and shrubbery. But if you zoomed in far enough on the orange stuff, it wouldn’t look out of place on a microwaveable tray. Put it next to some chicken tenders, even, and it looks like something I’d eat while stoned, after a trip to Wawa.

This pseudo-mac and cheese fungus is known, scientifically, as Tremella mesenterica. Its common names better reference its appearance—like “witch’s butter,” “yellow brain,” and “golden jelly fungus”—but are sadly lacking in noodle references. A jelly fungus, it’s similar to the black wood ears you might find in Chinese cuisine. And like noodles, Tremella mesenterica is apparently edible, but only after boiling, and it’s said to be pretty flavorless.

Because leaving this blog at that would be a little thin, I took to Twitter to find a mycologist who might indulge my admittedly-silly inquiry into the fungus. Dr. Megan Biango-Daniels is a postdoctoral scholar at the Wolfe Lab at Tufts University, a lab that works with the microbes in fermented foods like kombucha and cheese.

While I didn’t expect Dr. Biango-Daniels to specifically know why it looks like Stouffer’s—I’m not sure scientists are necessarily pursuing the highly-specific thoughts of Redditors after a few tokes—I figured she could share a bit about why it looks the way it does.

MUNCHIES: Is T. mesenterica a common fungus? If so, where is it most likely to be found?

MBD: T. mesenterica is a jelly fungus that is common in the U.S.. I'm from the east coast, and I usually see it in the spring when it's cool and rainy. Sometimes called 'witch's butter', it's yellow-orange and feels like Jello. I usually find it growing on dead branches and twigs in the fall or spring, when it's rainy.

Why is T. mesenterica shaped like curls as opposed to the stem-and-cap shape of mushrooms?

MBD: Fungi have evolved different forms of 'fruiting bodies' to suit how they spread their spores, a process scientists refer to as dispersal. Spores are the microscopic structures used by fungi to reproduce and spread. They are so small they can be spread great distances, especially if they are carried by the wind.

Are fungi in the Tremellaceae family considered mushrooms?

MBD: Sort of. When someone says mushroom, you probably picture something with a stipe (the word for the stem part of mushrooms) and a cap, but fungi are super diverse and that's just one form.

Is there an evolutionary reason why the fungus is bright yellow? Is there a benefit to the fungus being eye-catching if it's not necessarily tasty?

MBD: I'm not aware of the evolutionary explanation for color in mushrooms, or this species specifically. However, flowers often have bright colors to attract pollinating insects. While mushrooms are not pollinated, one idea is that their colors help attract insects or animals that spread spores through contact.

So, I can’t really tell you why T. mesenterica looks like mac and cheese. But maybe it looks so weird because hungry freaks like me will be entranced by it, want to poke it, and will then spread its spores so the fungus can pop up on more dead trees.

For a treasure trove of things that look like stuff you want to eat, but are slightly less edible, might I suggest r/ForbiddenSnacks, the finders of this tasty nugget. Consider, for example, a dirty hose that looks like it's a day away from making some bomb banana bread, or these shavings from an old dresser that I wanna scoop up and squish into a potato roll.

Alright, mac and cheese for dinner it is.