Friday, 24 August 2018

A Study of Cultural Bias in Field Guide Determinations of Mushroom Edibility Using the Iconic Mushroom, Amanita muscaria, as an Example

Economic Botany November 2008, Volume 62, Issue 3, pp 223–243 | Cite as Authors Authors and affiliations William RubelEmail authorDavid Arora 1. 2. Special Mushroom Issue First Online: 23 October 2008 Citations Abstract A Study of Cultural Bias in Field Guide Determinations of Mushroom Edibility Using the Iconic Mushroom, Amanita muscaria , as an Example. Mushroom field guides teach identification skills as well as provide information on the edible or toxic qualities of each species of wild mushroom. As such they function as modern-day village elders for an increasingly urban, nature-ignorant population. This paper identifies underlying cultural bias in the determination of mushroom edibility in English-language field guides, using the iconic mushroom, Amanita muscaria, as an example. We explore a selection of ethnographic and medical texts that report the use of A. muscaria as a food, and we accept parboiling as a safe method of detoxifying it for the dinner table. Mushroom field guides, however, almost universally label the mushroom as poisonous. We discuss the cultural underpinnings and literary form of mushroom field guides and demonstrate that they work within a mostly closed intellectual system that ironically shares many of the same limitations of cultural bias found in traditional folk cultures, but with the pretense of being modern and scientific. Key Words Edibility field guides mushrooms Amanita muscaria mushroom edibility mushroom field guides field guide bias An erratum to this article can be found at This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access. Notes Acknowledgments The authors wish to thank Denis Benjamin, Michael Beug, Eric Danell, Ivan Day, Dan Moerman, Glenn Shepard, Jr., and Andrew Weil for their assistance and helpful suggestions. Appendix How to Safely Prepare Amanita muscaria for the Dinner Table, and Why Bother? The scattered historical references to the use of Amanita muscaria as food offer only broad guidelines for its preparation. The research done on the traditional method for detoxifying the seaweed, hijiki, Hizikia fusiforme (Harvey) Okamura (Hanaoka et al. 2001; Ichikawa et al. 2006) offers a model for what could be done for A. muscaria and other “poisonous” mushrooms with a record of being eaten. Research on the safe usage of mushrooms with water-soluble toxins, such as A. muscaria, could systematically examine such parameters as the boiling time, number of water changes, and quantity of water needed, the advantage of using salt and/or vinegar, if any, and the efficacy of slicing the mushrooms thinly or of presoaking them. Until optimum methods for detoxification have been established through testing, broad guidelines based on oral tradition and the limited written record will have to suffice. Pouchet (1839) boiled A. muscaria for 15 minutes and Gerard (1863) for 30 minutes. Smith (1963) said the mushrooms should be boiled until “yellow scum” comes to the surface. Pearson (1987) recommended two boilings in separate batches of water for five minutes each time. Phipps (2000) reported that residents of Sanada, Japan, boiled A. muscaria an average of 10 minutes prior to storing them in salt, but his finding that ibotenic acid and muscimol were completely eliminated was based on specimens that had been both boiled and stored in salt. Both authors of this article have been serving parboiled A. muscaria to family and dinner guests for more than 10 years, and have arrived, through judicious experimentation, at the following recipe: Cut the A. muscaria cap and stalk into thin slices (no more than 3–4 mm or 1/8” thick) to hasten dissolving of the active constituents. For each 110 g or 4 oz of mushroom, use 1 liter or quart of water with 1 teaspoon salt. Garlic and bay leaf can be added to the water for flavoring. Bring the water to a rolling boil, then add the sliced mushrooms. Begin timing the cooking once the water returns to a boil. Boil for 10–15 minutes, until the mushroom is soft, then drain and rinse. We believe that this method of preparation renders A. muscaria safe, meaning adverse reactions will occur no more frequently than for most other widely-eaten foods, providing one doesn’t overindulge. As Badham (1863:34) so aptly put it, people should “eat what they like but not as much of it as they like.” Once parboiled, A. muscaria can be used in most mushroom recipes, for example, in a mushroom gravy (Coville 1898) or as an appetizer salad dressed in a vinaigrette. It also works well as a ravioli stuffing, and provides flavor and texture as the mushroom in almost any mushroom dish. We sometimes boil A. muscaria caps for only five to six minutes in order to retain a touch of the red color, which looks especially beautiful when the parboiled slices are lightly simmered in a clear broth. When we do this, however, we only serve each guest one-quarter to one-third of a cap. Eating too much undercooked A. muscaria or using too little water or not enough salt, or not slicing it thinly enough, may be cause for inebriation (Millman and Haff 2004). Even after long boiling, A. muscaria retains a pleasantly firm texture. Yet there is a popular Anglo-American misconception that boiling mushrooms makes them mushy. In reality, boiling many kinds of mushrooms in lightly-salted water has quite the opposite effect: it tightens their structure, making them firm. Rombauer et al. (2006:1055) acknowledge this when they generalize about vegetables (but not specifically mushrooms): “[boiling helps] to preserve nutrients and to firm the tissues of vegetables.” Most mushrooms are actually safer and more digestible cooked, but as Benjamin (1995:143–144, 147) points out, our current cooking fashion favors raw or lightly-cooked ingredients, and young chefs, while embracing wild mushrooms, “lack the lore that should accompany this experimentation.” Properly prepared, Amanita muscaria is a delicious mushroom. Yet we are frequently posed the rhetorical question, Why eat A. muscaria when there are so many other edible mushrooms available? Or more succinctly: Why bother? The reasons to eat it are as numerous and obvious as the mushroom itself: it is big, it is beautiful, it is delicious, it is there, and it is one of the easiest of all wild mushrooms to identify. Safely preparing it is not difficult, and there is the added challenge and pleasure of recreating historic dishes, such as the one offered to Coville by the African-American market woman in Washington, D.C. For anyone who enjoys the occasional foray into the woods to pick wild mushrooms for dinner, the more logical question would be why not eat it? It also bears mentioning that amateur English and North American mushroom hunters typically do not collect a wide range of wild mushroom species. Instead they tend to mimic the limited offerings of gourmet restaurants: morels, chanterelles, porcini. An urban-based mushroom menu is thus emerging. Yet many mushroom hunters complain that these same few mushroom species they seek are becoming increasingly difficult to find because of competition (e.g., Boom 2005). A. muscaria is an enticing and plentiful alternative. It is thus worthwhile knowing how to prepare it safely. Literature Cited Annals of Horticulture. 1848. 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