Thursday, April 17, 2008

To Eat of Not to Eat, Vol. 2

A couple months ago I posted my first volume of To Eat or Not to Eat, with the question revolving around the edibility of Amanita muscaria, the infamous fly-agaric mushroom of fairy tales and kitsch culture. In that case, the mushroom is inherently poisonous and requires skillful preparation for the table—but what about mushrooms with dangerous chemical makeups that are caused by external environmental conditions?

The above image was swiped from Chickenofthewoods. COW is a veritable morel magnet [reminds me of the prank played by cooks on gullible new busboys at the Black Dog Tavern: "Too many mushrooms in the soup! Bring me a mushroom magnet from the restaurant across the street! Hurry!!"... But that's another story], and this photo documents his first morel of the year, one mushroom hunters might call a "bark beauty" or a "mulch morel." He found it in downtown Corvallis, OR, in some new landscaping.

We mushroomers love finding bark beauties, particularly those of us urban foragers stuck in the city. Signs of life! No fossil fuels necessary! The thing is, though, there are questions about the edibility of these mulch morels. Where did the mulch come from? Was it sprayed with chemicals during processing? Did the property owner carpet-bomb it with herbicides?

On top of those questions, there are biological implications regarding the mushrooms themselves. Many species of fungi are known to be bio-concentrators of environmental contaminants—that is, they soak up and sometimes even magnify the nasty chemicals and heavy metals in the soil and air around them. This fact became painfully clear after the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown; around many parts of Europe wild foraged mushrooms are still subjected to radioactivity tests before going to market.

These questions can lead an inquisitive mushroom hunter down a dizzying rabbit hole of self-doubt. For instance, if there are questions about mulch morels, what about the morels that pop up each spring in fresh clearcuts? Loggers are known to spray herbicides before planting the next generation of Doug fir monocultures. Is the mushroom love worth the risk?

Or burns. Morels can be prolific in the year following a forest fire. But what if PCB-loaded fire retardants were used, or other chemicals? Do burned forests release naturally-occurring chemical combinations that are less than desirable in our food?

Over at the Cascade Mycological Society's forum we've been discussing this topic after fellow morel fanatic Sleromevoli stumbled on a goldmine of bark beauties only to learn from the landowner that the area was just hammered with herbicides. He let them be. But no doubt some other 'shroomer is hungrily eyeing those morels and might not ask such questions—or might not care. What about you? I'd like to hear from some morel maniacs on this topic.


Chickenofthewoods said...

It certainly is a precarious place to sit, this fence.

On the one hand, I want to encourage folks to eat wild food, especially fungi. On the other, encouraging anyone to take "risks" involves CYA - "cover your ass". I certainly couldn't live with the idea that at my suggestion someone might have suffered in some way.

And I myself have picked and sold morels from fires, clearcuts and mulch beds. By the score. I've also eaten morels from ALL of the above habitats/situations. I have never been made sick by them in any immediate sense, but who knows what I've imbibed that may be sticking with me for the long haul?

In Mycelium Running, which I currently lack as a reference material, there are charts of specific mushroom species and their affinities for a few common toxins and heavy metals... Anyone care to check and see where Morchella fit in? Or did they make an appearance in those data at all?

Langdon Cook said...

The flip side, which I neglected to mention, is that fungi's predilection for imbibing the nasties might also be an antidote (of sorts) to disasters like Chernobyl. Check out this factoid from Ecogeek about 'shrooms eating radiation.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

The way I see it, ya gotta die of something. Someone else's pesticide covered mulch morels no, burn-site morels yes.

Langdon Cook said...

I hear you HAGC. I myself eat liberally from the scorched earth. But one has to wonder what those morels are soaking up on the ash-covered slopes.

t-mos said...

Good post finny. I am singing a different tune already on the river bottom and clearcut morels. I found one logging company that *supposedly* sprays little in comparison to most and I also found a cut that had clearly not been sprayed (loads of grasses and flowers in the cut). And as far as the Willamette river bottom goes, there is an island on the river with a farm, and this farm is extremely close to being certified organic, I believe the soil is just slightly out of spec. This tells me that unless your in an area of very regular sediment deposition (likely within 3 or 4 feet of the normal water level) the soil has stayed relatively unscathed. So as of today (as this is subject to change!), I am going to eat some clearcut morels but I will greatly limit the quantity and I would eat river bottom morels. I flip flop like a good little democrat should!

Again thanks for the post!

Langdon Cook said...

T-Mos, just saw your haul from yesterday over at CMS. Nice work! Apparently, reading some of the other posts, you guys are cutting edge over in that neck o' the woods. Wish we had some close-in territory like that up here in Sea-Town. Guess I'll have to wait a while longer for the winter to loose its hold east of the crest.

Oh, and if you, like, grow another head or something, maybe lay off those clearcuts a little...