MUSHROOMS and FUNGI....NOT created for Human FOOD #1

MUSHROOMS AND FUNGI.....not Created for Human Food #1

I  have  known  the  truth  about  mushrooms and fungi not being created by God for human food  for  decades,  but  I've  had  to  wait  for  decades  to  finally  have  someone  write  the  technicalities  of  it,  in  simple  to  understand  language  -  Michael  Pollan  has  done  just  that.  When  you  finish  reading  this  two-part  study,  some  simple  logic  common  sense  should  tell  you  that  mushrooms  and  fungi,  were  never  given  by  the  Creator  for  us  to  eat  -  Keith Hunt


by  Michael Pollan from his book "Omnivore's Dilemma"( 2006)

.......I hadn't actually thought about the gardener's worldview in this light till I'd spent some time mushroom hunting, which proposes a whole other way of being in nature. Hunting for mushrooms is an operation that superficially resembles harvesting—you're looking around in nature for the ready-to-eat—yet you quickly discover that the two activities could hardly be more different. For starters, mushrooms are usually hunted in an unfamiliar place where you stand a very good chance of getting lost, particularly since you are looking down at the ground so determinedly the whole time. Getting lost just isn't much of a problem in the garden. (Which is why gardeners looking to create that experience plant mazes.) And whereas in your garden the ready-to-eat tomato beckons to you, flashing red from out of the undifferentiated green, mushrooms definitely hide. Picking and eating the wrong ones could get you killed, too, something not easily done in the garden. No, gratifying human needs and desires is just not what mushrooms are about. Mushrooms, you soon discover, are wild things in every way, beings pursuing their own agenda quite apart from ours. Which is why "hunting," rather than harvesting, is the mycophile's preferred term of art.


It was a Sunday morning in late January when I got the call from Angelo.

"The chanterelles are up," he announced.

"How do you know? Have you been out looking?"

"No, not yet. But it's been three weeks since the big rains." We'd had a torrential week between the holidays. "They're up now, I'm sure of that. We should go tomorrow."

At the time I barely knew Angelo (we had yet to go pig hunting), which made his invitation to come mushrooming with him all the more generous. Mushroom hunters are famously protective of their "spots," and a good chanterelle spot is a precious personal possession (though not quite as precious as a good porcini spot). Before Angelo agreed to take me I'd asked a slew of acquaintances I knew to be my-cophiles if I might accompany them. (The Bay Area is home to many such people, probably because mushroom hunting marries the region's two guiding obsessions: eating and the outdoors.) I was always careful to solemnly swear to protect the location of their spots. For some people you could see at once that this was an entirely outrageous request, tantamount to asking if I might borrow their credit card for the afternoon. Others reacted more calmly, yet always cagily Angelo's friend Jean-Pierre is reputed to have good chanterelle spots right within the Berkeley city limits, but he repeatedly found polite ways to deflect my entreaties into the distant future. Several mushroom hunters responded to my request with the same joke: "Sure, you can come mushroom hunting with me, but I must tell you that immediately afterward I will have to kill you." What you fully expect to follow such a jokey warning (a warning I always parried with an offer to wear a blindfold coming and going) is some sort of conditional invitation, but it never arrives. Without ever exactly saying no, the mushroom hunter will defdy beg off or change the subject. I thought maybe the problem was that I was a writer, somebody who might do something as crazy as publish the location of a favorite spot, so I emphasized that a journalist would sooner go to jail than reveal a secret from a confidential source. This swayed precisely no one. I was beginning to think it was hopeless, that I was going to have to learn to hunt mushrooms from books—a dubious, not to mention dangerous, proposition. And then Angelo called.

Though I probably shouldn't overstate Angelo's generosity. The place he took me mushrooming was on private and gated land owned by an old friend of his, so it wasn't as though he was giving away the family jewels. The property was a vineyard outside of Glen Ellen, with several hundred untended acres of oak chaparral stretching to the northeast toward St. Helena. As soon as you stepped out of the manicured vineyard the land relaxed into gently rolling savanna, with broad sloping passages of grass, verdant after the winter rains, punctuated by shady groves of live oak and bay laurel.

The chanterelle is a mycorrhizal species, which means it lives in association with the roots of plants—oak trees, in the chanterelle's case, and usually oak trees of a venerable age. Though there must have been hundreds of promisingly ancient oaks here, Angelo, who had been hunting chanterelles on the property for years, seemed to be on a first name basis with every one of them. "That one there is a producer," he'd tell me, pointing across the meadow with his forked walking stick to an unremarkable tree. "But the one next to it, I never once found a mushroom there."

I cut my own walking stick from an oak branch and set off across the meadow to hunt beneath the tree Angelo had declared a good producer. He had instructed me to use the stick to turn over the leaf litter wherever it seemed uplifted. The stick also would carry spores from one tree to another, Angelo explained; evidently he regarded himself as something of a bumblebee to the chanterelles, transporting their genes from tree to tree. (In general mushroom hunters view their role in nature as benign.) I looked around my tree for a few minutes, walking a stooped circle under its drip line, flicking the leaf litter here and there with my stick, but I saw nothing. Eventually Angelo came over and pointed to a spot no more than a yard from where I stood. I looked, I stared, but still saw nothing but a chaotic field of tan leaves and tangled branches. Angelo got down on his knees and brushed the leaves and soil away to reveal a bright squash-colored trumpet the size of his fist. He cut it at the base with a knife and handed it to me; the mushroom was unexpectedly heavy, and cool to the touch.

How in the world had he spotted it? The mushroom hadn't even peeked up from the leaf litter yet. Apparently you had to study the leaves for subtle signs of hydraulic lift from below, and then look at the ground sideways, because the fat gold shafts of the chanterelles often reveal themselves before their tops break through the leaves. Yet when Angelo pointed to another spot under the same tree, a spot where he had obviously seen another mushroom, I was still blind. Not until he had shuffled the leaves with the tip of his stick did the golden nugget of fungus flash at me. I became convinced that Angelo had some other sense working for him besides sight, that he must be smelling the chanterelles before looking down to see them.

But that's apparendy how it goes with hunting mushrooms: You have to get your eyes on, as hunters will sometimes put it. And after following Angelo around for a while, I did begin to get my eyes on, a little, though at first, oddly enough, this would only happen when I was in Angelo's presence, working the same oak tree. Other novices talk about this phenomenon, and I suspect it's a little like the trick of the counting horse, who is not really doing arithmetic, as it appears, but is merely picking up subtle clues in the body language of its trainer. Wherever Angelo lingered, wherever the beams of his gaze raked the ground with particular intensity, I would look and occasionally would see. I was the horse who could count, the man who could find a chanterelle using someone else's eyes.

But before the morning was out I'd begun to find a few chanterelles on my own. I began to understand what it meant to have my eyes on, and the chanterelles started to pop out of the landscape, one and then another, almost as though they were beckoning to me. So had I stumbled on a particularly good spot or had I learned at last how to see them? Nature or nurture? There was no way of telling, though I did have the eerie experience of resurveying the very same patch of ground and finding a Siamese pair of chanterelles, bright as double egg yolks, in a spot where a moment before I could swear there had been nothing but the tan carpet of leaves. Either they had just popped up or visual perception is a lot more variable, and psychological, than we think. It is certainly ruled by expectation, because whenever I was convinced I was in a good spot the mushrooms were more likely to appear. "Seeing is believing" has it backward when it comes to hunting mushrooms; in this case, believing is seeing. My ability to see mushrooms seemed to function less like a window than a tool, a constructed and wielded thing.

After spotting a couple of nice ones I developed a measure of confidence that ultimately proved to be unfounded. Based on my still modest scores I worked out a snap theory of the Good Spot, which involved the optimal springiness of the soil and the distance from the trunk, but the theory didn't hold up. After a brief run of luck I prompdy went blind again—and failed to find another mushroom all day. I would say there were no more mushrooms left to find, except that Angelo was still finding them under canopies I had supposedly exhausted; not a lot— we were a few days early, he decided—but enough to fill a grocery bag.

I had managed to find a total of five, which doesn't sound like much except that several of them weighed close to a pound each. My five chanterelles were tremendous, beautiful things I couldn't wait to taste.

And that night I did. I washed off the dirt, patted them dry, and then sliced the chanterelles into creamy white slabs. They smelled faintly of apricots, and I knew at once that this was the same mushroom I had found near my house, the one I had been afraid to taste. The squashy hue matched, and these had the same shallow gills, ridges really, running up the stalk, which flared out to meet the gently in-folded cap like a stout golden vase. I sauteed the chanterelles as Angelo had recommended, first in a dry frying pan to sweat out their water, which was copious, and then with butter and shallots. The mushrooms were delicious in a subde way that could easily be overwhelmed or overlooked. They had a delicate flavor, fruity with a hint of pepper, and a firm but silky texture.

You might reasonably ask if, eating my wild mushrooms, I felt the least bit concerned about waking up dead. Did I harbor any lingering doubts that these mushrooms were really chanterelles—edible delicacies and not some deadly poison Angelo had mistaken for chanterelles? An understandable question, yet oddly enough, in view of my myco-phobic predilections, it was no longer an issue. Oh, maybe I felt the vaguest shadow of a doubt as I lifted the first forkful, but it was easily brushed aside. I trusted Angelo implicitly, and besides, these mushrooms smelled and tasted right.

At dinner that night we joked about mushroom poisoning, recalling the time Judith had stumbled upon a prodigious patch of morels while biking with her friend Christopher in Connecticut. She came home with a trash bag half full of them, an astounding haul. But I could not bring myself to serve the mushrooms until we could get some kind of confirmation that these were indeed morels and not, say, the "false morels" that the field guides warned against. But how to be sure? I couldn't quite trust the books, or at least my reading of them. The solution to the dilemma seemed obvious, if perhaps a little heartless. I proposed to Judith we put the morels in the refrigerator overnight, and then give Christopher a call in the morning. Assuming he was sufficiently alive to answer his phone, he would undoubtedly mention whether he'd eaten the morels the previous night, and we would then know ours were safe to eat. I saw no reason to mention his role as an experimental human subject.

Well, that's one way of dealing with the omnivore's dilemma. Wild mushrooms in general throw that dilemma into particularly sharp relief, since they confront us simultaneously with some of the edible world's greatest rewards and gravest risks. Arguably, mushroom eating poses the starkest case of the omnivore's dilemma, which could explain why people hold such strong feelings, pro or con, on the subject of wild mushrooms. As mycologists are fond of pointing out, you can divide most people, and even whole cultures, into mycophiles and mycophobes. Anglo-Americans are notoriously mycophobic, while Europeans and Russians tend to be passionate mycophiles, or so mush-roomers will tell you. But I suspect most of us harbor both impulses in varying proportions, approaching the wild mushroom with a heightened sense of the omnivore's basic tension as we struggle to balance our adventurousness in eating against a protective fear, our neophilia against our neophobia.

As the case of mushrooms suggests the omnivore's dilemma often comes down to a question of identification—to knowing exactly what it is you are preparing to eat. From the moment Angelo handed me that first mushroom, what is and is not a chanterelle suddenly seemed as plain to me as sunshine. I knew right then that the next time I found a chanterelle, anywhere, I would recognize it and not hesitate to eat it. Which is peculiar, when you consider that in the case of the chanterelle I found in my neighborhood, a half dozen authoritative field guides by credentialed mycologists had failed to convince me beyond a reasonable doubt of something I now was willing to bet my life on, based on the say-so of one Sicilian guy with no mycological training whatsoever. How could that be?

In deciding whether or not to ingest a new food, the omnivore will happily follow the lead of a fellow omnivore who has eaten the same food and lived to talk about it. This is one advantage we have over the rat, which has no way of sharing with other rats the results of his digestive experiments with novel foodstuffs. For the individual human, his community and culture successfully mediate the omnivore's dilemma, telling him what other people have safely eaten in the past as well as how they ate it. Just imagine if we had to decide every such edibility question on our own; only the bravest or most foolish of us would ever eat a mushroom. The social contract is a great boon to omnivores in general, and to mushroom eaters in particular.

The field guides contain our culture's accumulated wisdom on the subject of mushrooms. Curiously, though, the process of imparting and absorbing this life-and-death information works much better in person than it does on paper, whether through writing or even photography. Andrew Weil discusses this phenomenon in a wonderful series of essays on mushrooms he's collected in a volume called The Marriage of the Sun and Moon. "One learns most mushrooms in only one way: through people who know them. It is terribly difficult to do it from books, pictures, or written descriptions."

I wonder if books fail us here because the teaching transaction— This one is good to eat, that one not—is so fundamental, even primordial, that we're instinctively reluctant to trust it to any communication medium save the oldest: that is, direct personal testimony from, to put it blundy, survivors. After all, precisely what is meant by "this one," the myriad qualities embedded in that modest little pronoun, can be conveyed only imperfecdy in words and pictures. Our ability to identify plants and fungi with confidence, which after all is one of the most critical tools of our survival, involves far more sensory information than can ever be printed on a page; it is, truly, a form of "body knowledge" not easily reduced or conveyed over a distance........"