Wednesday, September 03, 2014


I actually don't know many mushroomers; in southern New Mexico, just we and the Armijos, and the blogger MDMN and his wife at Sometimes Far Afield; and since they moved to Roswell we don't even see them that often. It is a mixed blessing; no "mushroom jams" at the side of the Forest Service roads, no need for secrecy or misdirection. On the other hand, mushroomers tend to be scholarly as well as seriously interested in the outdoors; the Massachusetts contingent was heavy with writers; Larry Millman, Elio Schecter, Monty Montgomery. The late hunting writer Norm Strung was our mushroom guru in Montana. I miss the conversation , and have to do it online instead.

Our good friend Chas Clifton is an exception;  we have known him and his beautiful wife Mary in real as well as virtual space forever. They live in the Wet Mountains of Clorado, not a bad place at all for foraging. Recently, Chas wrote a piece called "Would you eat Amanita if David Arora cooked it?"

I answered with a hearty "Yes!" Arora is the author of the only utterly indispensable book on identifying North American mushrooms, Mushrooms Demystified; my tattered and note- filled copy is a prized possession. (Look it up in Amazon, link not working right now).

It was a bit of a cheat, because I knew Chas was talking about the mushroom above, Amanita muscaria, and I would certainly eat it, as nothing in the world looks like it; the other "edible" Amanitas look so much like the deadly species that I would have to ask even Arora to justify them!

Chas led his readers to Fat of the Land, where Langdon Cook enjoys a dinner of muscaria cooked by Arora, with no ill effects. He  cites and quotes mushroom writers who say it should not be recommended, but also links to a hilarious paper by Larry Millman and a friend, who didn't get all the active ingredients out, and to a detailed and scholarly paper, by Arora and another, in Economic Botany, which not only tells you how to render it harmless, and delicious, but convincingly explains why only 20th century Americans seem to think it is dangerous. (I know he is nutty but it is hard not to see Gordon Wasson's theory of Anglo Saxon "mycophobia" at work here).

The mushrooms are tempting, but the funniest thing in the whole mix might be Lawrence Millman's deadpan account of the (not very frightening) effects of boiling the Amanitas in too little water. He and his friend spent hours looking at things and giggling and carrying on like two teenagers in the sixties who just got high for the first time. As Larry, a long- time correspondent, serious mycologist, arctic explorer, and fellow Fellow of the Explorers Club, is a scholarly and intrepid gent MY age, it is pretty funny. When they called him for advice, Arora suggested they take notes of their perceptions and words. Some examples:

"Lawrence has been silent for a while, listening to the mushrooms. All of a sudden he's very talkative, although he's not making much sense. "Smooth circus" --neither of us knows what that means. "Mushrooms are people, too," he says."

And: "Lawrence is drinking a beer and says he can relate to the bottle, that the bottle can relate to him, and that the two of them are actually enjoying each other's company... we leave the restaurant. Lawrence says that objects have no meaning, but simply exist. We see a dead deer on the road, and he says the difference between a dead deer and a living one is negligible. Tonya still feels elated, exuberant but at the same time relaxed."

I will refrain from making Sixties hippie noises. After all is done, the  Muscaria is a common, big mushroom here, and if we find some, readers will get a first- hand account...

UPDATE: A dissenting view, here.


Gil said...

After purchasing Mushrooms Demystified by Arora, I now understand why you told me it's not a "field guide". It's so thick and heavy I'd need a wheel barrow to take it to the woods, but it is a great resource at home. Gil

Holly Heyser said...

I've eaten 'em (with Hank doing the cooking), and they're OK. They were the only mushrooms we'd gotten that day, but if they hadn't been, we probably would not have bothered because the taste was unremarkable.

Anonymous said...

Ah yes, we have that discussion every year... and manage to talk ourselves out of picking them. In Northern NM last weekend we were excited to see robust Muscaria (in greater numbers than any previous year) but disappointed that none of their Edulus brethren were in the vicinity. Oh well, we'll just have to figure out how to best use all those Chanterelles. Life is good. A

Anonymous said...

psychedelic mushrooms or shrooms.
This whole story remindes of the song "Spirit in the Sky"

debbie viess said...

I am a west coast mushroomer with scads of experience around amanitas in general and muscaria in particular. It is a very small world, and I know all of those mushroom folks that you mentioned, and enjoy most of them!

BUT! I do not agree with Rubble and Arora touting muscaria as a "safe," "non-toxic" and "culturally accepted" edible, anywhere and at any time in this big wide world. It was NEVER "historically accepted" anywhere, not in Russia, not France, not Japan and certainly not in North America, despite one black woman who confessed to preparing it at home for herself (or perhaps to "smother" the steak of her white employers?) in the late 1800s.

In my reading of and verification of the many references in that 2008 paper, I found almost no real evidence for their claims. Conjecture is a shaky base upon which to place the trust of less-informed myco-folks, through advising them to eat a known and widely feared toxic mushroom, even after "special preparations."

Can you boil the hell out of it (don't forget to toss ALL of that pretty red water!) and dodge that toxic bullet? Sure, but then they are tasteless, and not everyone gets that "recipe" right, not even well-experienced mushroom folks like Tanya and Larry.

I have eaten both unboiled muscaria (truly delicious) and boiled muscaria (soggy and tasteless) and i don't recommend it to others, because there are BIG downsides.

But don't take my short comment here as the full story. You can read my full rebuttal to the Rubel/Arora paper for yourself, and then make up your own mind as to whether it is worth the risk:

Yours in fungal truth,

Debbie Viess

Steve Bodio said...

Thanks, Debbie. I will probably get back to you-- just a seeker after truth myself!