Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Mycology, and Yours

While I am sure you are eager to see my stunning Power Point Presentation called My Irene--featuring my photos of my arboreal debris, my wet crawl space, my downed power lines, and my local inundated highway, complete with its stranded, half-submerged automobile—such images are a dime a dozen on this morning’s Internet, probably a penny a peck.  I therefore elect a more upbeat topic, namely my cology, which is to say, the fungus among us.  For abundant early autumnal rainfall in the north-central coastal states of America encourages a profusion of fungal growth, much of it of a scrumptious nature.

 Regatta Row, Princeton NJ

            I took a little walk around my neighborhood this morning, camera in hand, and within five minutes I had found succulent champignons (agaricus campestris), several fine boleti (including the boletus edulis), two different kinds of delicious leucoagaricus (sometimes called parasol mushrooms), not to mention exotic but edible tree fungi.  In Europe most of these would have disappeared by eight-thirty, but here in New Jersey I can count on them to be there until they melt into the ground.

South Harrison Street, Princeton NJ

            The American attitude toward wild mushrooms was neatly summed up a few days ago in an NPR squib reported to me by my wife.  The word from that eco-friendly group of tree-huggers and dioxiphobes, Sierra Club members to the last earnest voice, is that you should under no circumstances eat a mushroom lacking the cellophane imprimatur of some grocery chain.  Now it is true that a few mushrooms are poisonous, and a very few potentially lethal.  They are far less dangerous than roller skates or stepladders, however; and just as you should not operate a car if you don’t know how to drive, you should not eat a mushroom if you cannot identify its species.  It is about as easy to confuse a chanterelle with a Destroying Angel as it is a hawk with a handsaw.

R. Gordon Wasson, ethnomycologist extraordinaire
The message that Nature is out to kill you is unhealthy for our young people.  What we need on NPR is a little less ecological pseudo-piety and a little more R. Gordon Wasson.  Wasson (1898-1986), the father of American ethno-mycology was an English teacher who later became an investment banker and a VP of J. P. Morgan.  This was an unusual career move, but one that with impressive economy raised the cultural level of two professions.  He was married to a Russian doctor who was crazy about wild mushrooms, and found Americans’ fear of them just as crazy.  She knew that there is nothing in the world more delicious than a fine mess of field mushrooms, and that eating the cultivated and cellophaned ones (bisporigera) is by comparison the gastronomic equivalent of taking a shower in a boiler suit.

            He was a great amateur scientist of the Victorian stamp.  Together with his wife he wrote important books that are beautifully written in addition to being splendid specimens of typography.  The two most important are Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality and Mushrooms, Russia,  and History.  Second-hand copies of the latter, one of the great books of the twentieth century, now go for about $1500.
            You can still afford Divine Mushroom of Immortality, though.  Wasson was rich enough to be able to publish it on a “vanity” basis with a major New York trade house.  But as is well known, the rich get richer, and the book was a huge commercial success. In it Wasson arrived at the stimulating if controversial conclusion that the mysterious substance of the Rig Veda called in Sanskrit soma was actually the hallucinocenic fly agaric mushroom, the amanita muscaria.  This is the really sensational red or yellow spotted one most people think of as the quintessence of the so-called toad-stool.  I didn’t actually see one on my morning rounds, but they are very common here, and in many other places.
             Needless to say, you should not consume a fly agaric unless you happen to be a native of Lapland or the Kamchatkan peninsula, where piebald poison is “part of the culture,” and where there is not a hell of a lot else to do on a Saturday night anyway.  There the preferred mode of ingestion is via the intermediary urine of someone who has eaten some fly agarics or, failing that, of a reindeer that has browsed upon them.  Don’t ask.
            Do, on the other hand, take advantage of wet autumnal weather to check out some of the more delectable funky fungi of your area.  One golden rule eliminates ninety-five percent of all potential problems: Never, ever, eat a white amanita.  But look around for some delicious field mushrooms.  You might even luck out and find some morels or chanterelles.  All of these are very easily identified from books or from the Internet.  If you are timid, you can start with the baby step of a pasta sauce.  If you do, you’ll never turn back.
agaricus campestris (champignon, field mushroom)

boletus edulis