That is the question for the forager—and with fungi in particular. The mushroom above is Amanita muscaria, perhaps the best known mushroom in the world, the toadstool of gnomes and fairies, the inspiration behind Lewis Caroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the image recast ad nauseam on countless articles of household kitsch across the land. Resplendent in red with a white dotting of warts, A. muscaria is the child's choice of mushroom to draw and the adult cartoonist's go-to meme for a setting of deep, dark woods. Everyone knows it's poisonous, right?
In this country, aside from a few pockets of Italian or Eastern European heritage, it is standard practice to associate wild mushrooms with the skull and crossbones on a tincture of poison. Eat a mushroom not bought in the supermarket and you'll be getting your stomach pumped. Of course this is nonsense, but even within that eccentric band of toadstool-tasters known as mycophagists, certain species continue to exert a sort of super-fungal fear. A. muscaria's reputation is not unfounded: nomadic Siberian tradesmen to this day deliberately consume the mushroom for its psychoactive properties—and their reindeer eat it too! Some ethnobotanists believe that the nifty Christmas sideshow known as "Santa Claus" is derived from such pagan rites of the far north. Get it? Jolly man dressed in red and white ... flying reindeer ... Ho ho ho!
But what about A. muscaria's culinary value? For a long time now I've been hearing whisperings within the mushroom community that the hallucinatory toadstool of Gordon Wasson and a parade of proto-hippies prior to the "discovery" of less unpredictable psilocybes and LSD is in fact a delicious mushroom for the table—if prepared properly. A recent chat on a board I frequent unearthed this interesting page about eating A. muscaria.
The question remains: To eat or not to eat? Stay tuned.