Category Archives: toxins

Foraging’s Golden Rule

It happens every year. Someone eats poisonous mushrooms and winds up in the hospital—or worse. Then I get well-meaning emails from concerned friends and acquaintances.

This fall a Connecticut woman poisoned her whole family. Reports say the mushrooms she picked in her back yard and fed to her husband and two daughters was the notorious Destroying Angel, Amanita bisporigera (pictured at top). If that’s true, the family got off lucky. Three of them were released from medical care last week with their own livers. A fourth remained in the hospital, and—lucky for her—was being treated with silibinin, an experimental drug widely used in Europe and only recently available in the U.S.

The toxins in deadly Amanitas such as the Destroying Angel and the Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) inhibit cell production in the liver and kidneys. Symptoms often don’t occur until several hours after ingestion and include vomiting and severe abdominal pain, followed by liver and kidney failure, hepatic coma, and death. There is no antidote. Patients are typically treated with charcoal solutions. Silibinin, made from an extract of milk thistle, seems to have antihepatotoxic properties—that is, it protects liver and kidney cells from toxins—and looks to be the most promising cure at the moment.

Great new experimental drugs aside, the best cure is to not eat poisonous mushrooms in the first place! Stories like this scare people. But it’s still possible to enjoy the many pleasures of mycophagy (mushroom eating) without a trip to the hospital and a long recovery. Simply observe foraging’s golden rule: never eat anything that you can’t identify without 100 percent certainty.

To learn the skills of mushroom identification, take a class, join a mycological society, go into the field with a trusted mentor. Learn key field characteristics by studying actual mushrooms with mushroom experts—not by looking at pictures in field guides. Respect the limits of your knowledge. Some species are easy to learn. Chanterelles, porcini, and morels are among our tastiest wild mushrooms and relatively easy to identify. Other species require more skill. Go slow and enjoy the process.

The consequences of blithely nibbling your way through the wild are too grave. For another Halloween mushroom scare fest, read this harrowing account of a near-fatal encounter with the Destroying Angel.

Photo at top by Cornell Fungi.

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 sautés 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?

Comments are open.

Fiddlehead Cream Sauce

I lectured someone the other day—not harshly, but with firmness, because we’re dealing with life and death, after all—about eating unidentified wild mushrooms. The cardinal rule, I explained, is to always sample a new species in the company of an experienced mycophagist who can point out diagnostic field marks. Watching a real person positively ID a real mushroom is important because books and field guides are sometimes misleading, especially with their use of pictures. There’s more variance in the fungal kingdom than the animal kingdom; while a species of bird can generally be counted on to exhibit a specific set of traits (e.g. wing-bars, eye-rings, coloration, etc.), a species of mushroom might look quite different depending on locale, growing conditions, age, and other factors. In many cases the variations actually represent different species within a genus that haven’t been recognized yet. Think of all the variance in morels, for example.

Sometimes I wonder if I should be following the same advice with fiddleheads. Several sources say there are no poisonous species of fiddlehead (not counting the carcinogenic bracken fern). Is this a general rule based on a limited sample, or have all varieties of fiddlehead really been tested for edibility? Somehow I doubt it. Certainly some are bitter or otherwise unappetizing. I would never try to eat a sword fern fiddlehead, for instance.

On my hike the other day I collected a bagful of fiddleheads. I have no idea what species they were. Like the wood fern fiddleheads I found the other day, they had fairly prominent paper sheathes. But these fiddleheads were smaller and more delicate, and usually within a clump I could find one or two that were relatively free of the sheath and easier to clean.

In the end, I ate them anyway—and they were fantastic. I boiled the fiddleheads for 10 minutes, then made a cream sauce with them which I poured over fried rockfish and buttered orzo. My timing was slightly off, resulting in a sauce that had a consistency more like cream of spinach. No matter, it was delicious way beyond my expectations. Fiddleheads are the bomb.

Fiddlehead Cream Sauce (for 1)

1 shallot, finely chopped
1 dozen fiddleheads, boiled
1-2 tbsp butter
1/4 cup (or more) heavy cream
seasoning to taste

Saute the shallot in a tablespoon or so of butter for a minute or two. Add fiddleheads and stir. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add cream. I used half-and-half, but heavy cream is always better if you have it on hand. Allow to thicken and pour over fish, meat, pasta, whatever.

[Sorry about the photo. The meal was actually much more appetizing than the picture. My little digi point-and-shoot reaches its limit on these low-light, dinnertime snapshots. I plan to get an SLR one of these years… -Ed.]

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.

No fiddling around?

Discretion is said to be the better part of valor, but when do we take it too far? While out walking the other day I found a nice patch of fiddlheads—the new spring growth of ferns, named for their distinctly violin scroll shape. Mature fern fronds are toxic, but the young emerging shoots of a few particular species are succulent and delicious, their taste often described as a cross between asparagus and artichoke. High-end restaurants charge boocoo for this delicacy of spring.

The fiddleheads were unfurling amid a tangle of devil’s club and salmonberry along a boggy section of trail. The proper way to forage a fiddlehead patch is to scout the fully leafed-out ferns in the summer or fall when they’re easier to identify, then return the following spring to harvest a small portion of the new growth. You take two or three fiddleheads per cluster, never more than 40 percent of the total. Unlike many other plants, ferns don’t grow back once picked.

I was in a quandry. These delicate green beauties, curled up and tender in their papery sheaths, sure looked tasty. But I couldn’t ID them. There’s one particular species of fern, bracken, which has been proven to have carcinogenic properties. It causes intestinal cancer in mice, and has been implicated in higher rates of stomach cancer where humans traditionally eat it. That said, bracken fern is considered a delicacy in Japan and has been a staple of Native Americans’ diets for millennia. Many experienced foragers warn against it just the same.

I picked a bunch anyway. Back at home I tried cleaning a few. The brown papery sheath didn’t come off as easily as other fiddleheads I’d eaten in the past. These definitely weren’t the sought-after fiddleheads of the ostrich fern. Other choice varieties include the lady fern and cinnamon fern.

What to do? I emailed my findings to the ForageAhead Yahoo group. Recently we’d had a thread about the carcinogens in bracken fern. I quoted my wife Marty, who’s normally cautious about food but had her sights set on these toothsome-looking greens: “Everything gives you cancer these days.” A fellow named Green Deane, proprietor of the Eat the Weeds web site, wrote back:

Everything causes cancer, and the truth is we all get cancer every day. Our immune system just takes care of it. Perhaps I am getting cranky but I would trust the nutrition in a fiddlehead before the advice of a nutritionist about the fiddlehead. When it comes to food, our ancestors got along very well without the advice of nutritionists, doctors or researchers. They ate successfully for hundreds of thousands of years, certainly tens of thousands of years. I think a non-calorie sweetener is a far greater threat to your life than a fern. Personally, my rule is if my great grandmother would not recognize it as food I don’t eat it (coco-puffs, non-dairy creamer, carbonated cheese food, margarine, et cetera). And stay away from doctors, they make you sick.

Cranky or not, Deane raises some good points. On the other hand, I’m a fan of science and empiricism (if not corporate nutritionism).

So it’s settled. I’ve decided to try them. Just a few. Maybe one. If this is my last post, you’ll know why. I also plan to do a little research at the library to see if I can narrow down the list of possible species. Eating a new species from the wild is always unnerving, particularly in the plant and fungal kingdoms. Our ancestors sacrificed a lot of lives in the long lab test of edibility. I don’t plan to join the errors in the annals of trial-and-error, but I do want to honor their courage—only on a small, hopefully not so life-threatening scale.

This whole imbroglio reminds me of related discussions going on lately in mycophagist circles, of which more tomorrow.

Dept. of Sick and Wrong

If the trout are lost, smash the state.
—Tom McGuane

Today’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer has a disturbing story about the chemicals and heavy metals found in our last best places. The levels are off the charts.

The report comes from a six-year study out today that examined pollution levels in eight western parks.

Quote: “We’re looking at some of the most pristine areas left in North America that are under the protection of the national parks, and we’re finding some alarming results,” said Dixon Landers, a senior scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Health and Environmental Effects Laboratory.

Trout from Olympic National Park recorded some of the highest mercury levels measured in the study and were considered unsafe for human consumption. Fish caught at Golden Lake in Mount Rainier National Park sported the highest levels of—ahem—flame retardants (PBDEs).

Quote: Among the report’s more surprising results were signs that some male fish were “feminized.” For years researchers have linked female egg proteins in male fish with the presence of obvious estrogen sources, such as birth control in sewage waste. In the park study, the protein was found in some of the fish with the highest levels of chemicals that can mimic hormones—including PBDEs.

FOTL is very unhappy about this report. FOTL doesn’t buy trout from behind a refrigerated glass case or trout wrapped in plastic or even trout from a restaurant. FOTL wouldn’t order Truite au Bleu from the most famous French restaurant where Truite au Bleu is the specialty, M.F.K. Fisher be damned. In short, FOTL doesn’t do farmed fish. FOTL catches his own wild trout in the backcountry and cooks it up proper.

And if the trout are toxic waste dumps, what about the mushrooms? Fungi are famous for concentrating chemicals and heavy metals in the environment. Should we be avoiding those gifts of the earth like the plague too?

There’s only one recourse: Get involved. Make change happen.

To Eat or Not to Eat?

That is the question for the forager—and with fungi in particular. The mushroom above is Amanita muscaria, perhaps the best known mushroom in the world, the toadstool of gnomes and fairies, the inspiration behind Lewis Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the image recast ad nauseam on countless articles of household kitsch across the land. Resplendent in red with a white dotting of warts, A. muscaria is the child’s choice of mushroom to draw and the adult cartoonist’s go-to meme for a setting of deep, dark woods. Everyone knows it’s poisonous, right?

In this country, aside from a few pockets of Italian or Eastern European heritage, it is standard practice to associate wild mushrooms with the skull and crossbones on a tincture of poison. Eat a mushroom not bought in the supermarket and you’ll be getting your stomach pumped. Of course this is nonsense, but even within that eccentric band of toadstool-tasters known as mycophagists, certain species continue to exert a sort of super-fungal fear. A. muscaria‘s reputation is not unfounded: nomadic Siberian tradesmen to this day deliberately consume the mushroom for its psychoactive properties—and their reindeer eat it too! Some ethnobotanists believe that the nifty Christmas sideshow known as “Santa Claus” is derived from such pagan rites of the far north. Get it? Jolly man dressed in red and white … flying reindeer … Ho ho ho!

But what about A. muscaria‘s culinary value? For a long time now I’ve been hearing whisperings within the mushroom community that the hallucinatory toadstool of Gordon Wasson and a parade of proto-hippies prior to the “discovery” of less unpredictable psilocybes and LSD is in fact a delicious mushroom for the table—if prepared properly. A recent chat on a board I frequent unearthed this interesting page about eating A. muscaria.

The question remains: To eat or not to eat? Stay tuned.

Razor Clam Redux

WDFW has posted a news release about a tentatively scheduled razor clam dig this week. If the marine toxin tests are acceptable, Twin Harbors will open for four late-evening digs between February 6-9, while Long Beach will open on Feb. 8 and 9.

A little history about these tests: In the summer of 1961, hundreds of sooty shearwaters, a pelagic bird species that mostly eats fish and comes ashore only to breed, invaded the town of Capitola, California. They attacked people, crashed windows, and wreaked havoc. It is thought that this event inspired Alfred Hitchcock to make The Birds. Scientists speculate the culprit may have been a marine toxin known as domoic acid. The toxin was first discovered in Pacific shellfish in 1991 and led to immediate harvest closures. Razor clam digging in Washington was banned for a year. Domoic acid doesn’t seem to bother the fish and shellfish it infects, but in humans and other animals high up the food chain it enters the brain and warps nerve signals. The human illness is known as amnesic shellfish poisoning and symptoms include headache, dizziness, confusion, loss of short-term-memory, motor weakness, seizures, cardiac arrhythmia, and coma. High doses can even lead to death. There is no antidote.

The toxin is responsible for several deaths in North America. In 1998, 400 California sea lions were killed by domoic acid. State biologists must regularly test razor samplings from up and down the coast before they can announce an opening. So next time you tuck into a juicy fried razor clam, thank your humble state fisheries biologist.