Saturday, December 18, 2010

Down the Rabbit Hole with David Arora, Part 2

It's no secret that I enjoy spending time with "the mushroom people." (Think 1950s sci-fi flick, with a menacing invasion of creatures who fail to conform to the American standard of ignorant mall-walker.) Many of the mushroom people I know, while being a diverse lot overall, share a few similar traits in common. They like to tromp around all day in the outdoors. By night they're in their kitchens, cooking up the day's catch and drinking wine. They take pride in lost skills such as recognizing the plants and animals around them; cooking from scratch; and home-brewing, distilling, and wine-making. What's not to like? These are my people.

And so it was a pleasure to recently visit the home in Gualala, California, of one of the mushroom people trailblazers ("take me to your leader..."). After the Albion weekend concluded a couple dozen of us drove an hour down the coast to David Arora's house, where another week of foraying and feasting went on, capped by a Saturday workshop on the magic of fire—hearth-cooking—taught by Arora's good friend William Rubel. Imagine lighting out for the universe only to find a planet where the people looked  a lot like you but actually respected the natural environment and used its offerings to make wonderful food and drink.

Arora's house is the ultimate shrine to the mushroom people. The San Francisco Chronicle has already done a piece on it (click for slideshow), so I won't belabor the point. Just try to picture a labyrinthine cabin in the coastal mountains overlooking the Pacific, a place designed to entertain scores of mushroom people at once, with beds tucked away in corners and in lofts all over the house (including the amazing mushroom loft with its giant toadstool steps), five fireplaces for warmth, and several additional out-buildings for the overflow, including a "princess suite" and the "Saloon," where games of dominoes and cards are waged with drams of the hard stuff. I didn't see a single TV.

Arora is a collector. A collector of mushrooms, antiques, stories, even people. Guests included husband-and-wife jump blues musicians from Oakland, a public defender from Spokane, a Sonoma wine maker, a Washington State wine distributor, a wandering poet of unknown address, a local Mendocino forester, a Vancouver Island hotelier and co-founder of Slow Food Canada, another Canadian"nature awareness mentor," two seaglass divers from Santa Cruz, a San Francisco web developer, and the Ashland, Oregon-based discoverer of the world’s first aquatic mushroom.

The first night's revelry included a big sit-down dinner using Thanksgiving leftovers (Turkey and Chanterelle Tetrazzini), Hedgehog Crostini, a salad of baby lettuces and wild wood-sorrel, and an arsenal of wines complements of the guest distributor and hotelier. The toasting sticks (pictured left and below) got plenty of use and the musicians helped us work off dinner with a wild set of boogie-woogie.

Over the next few days a few of us made mushroom forays to Salt Point State Park, Jackson State Forest, and even on the property itself, which, during a midnight foray lit by headlamp, yielded baskets of white and golden chanterelles, matsutake, saffron milkcaps, shrimp russulas, and man on horseback mushrooms. Arora is a big fan of grilling marinated russulas over the fire, and I have to admit I'm now a believer in this edible mushroom that nevertheless often earns the distinction of being "better kicked than picked." After thoroughly cleaning the cap, just brush on some olive oil and chopped garlic before roasting over hot coals until both sides are lightly browned. 

My last night was the hearth-cooking class. Along with a dozen students up from the Bay Area, we string-roasted legs of lamb by the fire, cooked wild greens and a mushroom tart over the coals, and made an amazing apple tatin—all by the hearth, with instruction (and occasional poetry readings) from Rubel. Great merriment and food enlivened a rainy night. It's hard not to see the hearth-cooking as a metaphor. 

If this all seems like hagiography, let me say that in these dark days of the Republic, when our elected officials on both sides of the aisle will mostly be remembered as the butts of late night TV jokes, it seems high time to present an alternative vision. I couldn't imagine a better place to be on Black Friday than Mendocino County, among the mushroom people. The rest of the week only confirmed my belief in the need for Americans to cease trying to fill the voids in their lives with stuff and instead reconnect with immaterial things of true and lasting value.

I know, it's a tough choice: fight your way through the mall-walking throngs in search of the latest Furby—or sit around a table having a pointless discussion with other humans about such useless endeavors as art, travel, and natural history. After all, didn't we have a recent U.S. president who made a political virtue of his lack of curiosity?

If you think you'd like to present yourself as a candidate for mushroom people abduction, I'd recommend joining a local mycological club. My own, the Puget Sound Mycological Society, is one of the great deals in clubdom, with an annual membership of $30 that gets you invited to free forays all over the state during the  spring and fall mushroom seasons as well as monthly meetings with speakers and slideshows and much more. Other storied places where the mushroom people meet include the annual Breitenbush Mushroom Conference in the Oregon Cascades, which includes all of the above fun plus natural hot springs, and SOMA Camp, a three-day event in January sponsored by the Sonoma Mycological Association.


Thursday, December 9, 2010

Down the Rabbit Hole with David Arora, Part 1

"Whhhhhhhhhhheeeeeeeeeewwwwwwwwwwwww..." That's the sound of me chasing the White Rabbit.

And there before me, with a Cheshire Cat grin, is my bespectacled host, holding a platter of not-your-everyday food steaming in the kitchen of the Albion Biological Field Station.

Any trip to Mendocino County can feel like something dreamed up by Lewis Carroll, but when it involves a half-dozen or more species of wild mushrooms that have never met this blogger's taste buds, including the iconic fly agaric—the pyschoactive mushroom rumored to have inspired some of Carroll's magical mayhem in Alice in Wonderland—the scene is set for a tea party of Mad Hatter proportion.

But we are not here to do psychedelics. We are here to learn about fungi—and eat. My host is mycologist David Arora, author of the celebrated field guide Mushrooms Demystified. Arora has been a fixture on the mushroom hunting scene for four decades, and for the past 20 years he's put together a Thanksgiving weekend event in the coastal California town of Albion, just south of Mendocino. Two days of forays are capped by an evening of extensive tasting, with everyone involved in the "woods to plate" drama.

The kitchen is warm with gas burners and camaraderie as each student pitches in to help. Attendees clean, prep, and cook dozens of species of edible mushrooms, including several species I've never eaten before: the midnight blue entoloma (Entoloma bloxamii), amethyst laccaria (Laccaria amethysteo-occidentalis), and beefsteak mushroom (Fistulina hepatica), which looks like fillet mignon when sliced open.

More than any other species, though, Arora is known for serving his guests Amanita muscaria. This practice is not uncontroversial. Amanita muscaria, also known as the fly agaric for its ancient use as a pesticide, is generally considered by English-language field guides to be a dangerous toxic mushroom. It’s been documented as a hallucinogen and used as a drug by social groups as varied as middle-class American hippies and Siberian reindeer herders, and occasionally it’s implicated in deaths, though not directly. In one recent case a victim ate the mushroom for its psychotropic effects and died of hypothermia.

But, as Arora points out in his workshops, Amanita muscaria is also used as food. It turns out the mushroom can be easily detoxified and consumed.

Still, many mycologists object to such teachings. Michael Kuo talks about "Amanita bravado" in his book 100 Edible Mushrooms, suggesting that novices might be tempted to sample dangerous mushrooms out of peer pressure. Arora scoffs at this notion. For him, the use of Amanita muscaria as food is simply a case of scientific research triumphing over prejudice. He cites two main reasons for serving it: First, "to introduce people to the huge menu of edible and delicious mushrooms available if we would but open our minds."And second, that the classic form of Amanita muscaria—red cap with white warts—is among the easiest of organisms to identify, and while there is risk in preparation, there is no risk in identification. 
As to the risk, he points out that red kidney beans are also quite toxic raw and even more toxic when undercooked, and humans eat numerous other plants and vegetables that require careful processing to be edible (e.g. tapioca and pokeweed).

Besides being strikingly beautiful, Amanita muscaria can be a large mushroom and in certain locales quite common. These qualities make it an attractive choice. More importantly for the table, it's also quite flavorful, with a firm texture and a sweet nutty taste that is unlike other mushrooms. Despite being sliced up and boiled in a large vat of water for 15 minutes (the main toxins are water soluble), the drained mushroom saut├ęs up nicely, crisp and slightly browned.

When I told a commercial picker that I had tried Amanita muscaria and found it tasty, he replied "So are scorpions! Not worth the effort."

Arora is undeterred. "What effort?" he asks. "The effort of carrying a pot of water from kitchen tap to stove? The effort of slicing up the mushrooms? And if extra effort is to be avoided, then why go foraging in the first place when you can buy food at a corner store?"

If you’re interested in eating Amanita muscaria as food you must first do your homework. When not processed properly, these mushrooms can be dangerous, unpredictable, and result in a trip to the hospital—not just a bad trip. First, read William Rubel and David Arora’s paper from Economic Botany, "A Study of Cultural Bias in Field Guide Determinations of Mushroom Edibility Using the Iconic Mushroom, Amanita muscaria, as an Example.” Then read Lawrence Millman and Tonya Haff’s account of an accidental poisoning, "Notes on the Ingestion of Amanita Muscaria," to see what can go wrong, and why.

Some believe that it's irresponsible to even talk about the potential edibility of Amanita muscaria, especially considering our own species' propensity for faulty reasoning and bad decision-making. After all, the Amanita genus is home to some of the most toxic mushrooms on the planet, including the Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) and Destroying Angel (Amanita ocreata et al).

Obviously this writer feels that ignorance and stupidity are not good enough reasons to censor a discussion about using Amanita muscaria as food. That said, my own interest lies elsewhere. Most days I'd rather see the colorful fly agaric on the roadside than in some curious forager's soup pot. But I find it incredible that a mushroom eaten around the world can be so vilified in our own culture where a box of Fruity Pebbles is kept on the supermarket shelf at eye-level for five-year-olds.

Who's nuttier—the people who eat Amanita muscaria for food, or us?

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