Germans put the fun in fungi

Fly agaric mushroom

Listen to Brenda tell the story

In our suburban yard in northeastern Ohio, I can’t recall ever seeing a single mushroom. Or maybe they were there and we just unknowingly squashed them when we put down bases to play baseball. Nor did the woods behind the house harbor any; perhaps the trees were too young. So my early experience with mushrooms was restricted to rather pitiful canned specimens that wound up in omelets.

Thus my surprise upon arriving at my friend Anke’s house just outside Munich when I was met with a distinctive woody smell. It wasn’t wood, but a product of the woods, at least: mushrooms. Dozens of them. Hundreds of them. She had just returned from a week-long mushroom-collecting expedition in what had been an extraordinary mushroom season.This bountiful booty had been carefully laid out to dry in the sunroom, filling the entire house with its distinctive aroma.

How exciting, I thought, to venture into the woods to collect wild food that you could actually consume. Like hunting, but for vegetarians (and those with a bad aim). And you don’t even need a gun, just a Little Red Riding Hood-style basket. This is easy in Germany, since a lot of people, particularly in rural areas, use such baskets for shopping.

But my big question was: how do you know which mushrooms you can eat?

Then I remembered a museum display of common local mushrooms, both poisonous and edible, with full descriptions of their characteristics.

At the end of the exhibit were round Lazy Susans or turntables. They had unnamed mushrooms on one side and when you spun the turntable, their identity was revealed on the other side. Edible and poisonous mushrooms were paired for the ultimate fungal quiz – and I do mean ultimate since if you get it wrong, it’s all over.

Does this mushroom spell your demise or a tasty addition to a salad?

Is it a funky fungus or a shroom of doom? (Forgive my silly stylistic proclivities; I promise it won’t happen again.)

I died several times that day in the museum.

Try as I might, I couldn’t manage to discern dots on stems or even differentiate between brown and black. Somehow even red looked surprisingly brown, or at best a dull pink. My previous confidence in my ability to identify colors was seriously eroded that day, making me wonder about all the outfits I had ever put together: had I been wandering around in mismatched clothes my whole life? From that day forth, I knew my consumption of edible fungi was forever to be restricted to the ones wrapped in cellophane in a plastic tub.

Mushroom collecting is a favorite German pastime. But don’t bother asking anyone where their favorite mushroom-collecting spots are. They will hem and haw and give a vague reference to a patch of woods somewhere. You might as well ask them about the size of their sex toy collection. They ain’t tellin’!

While I was a kid playing baseball in my front yard, my friend Anke was spending her summers at the family’s campsite in Brandenburg in northern Germany. For weeks she would set out with her basket, checking up on her favorite mushroom spots. In those repressive East German days, it was also a rare opportunity to roam free without fear of being observed by the state police, as was the case in cities. Read about the role of the East German state police, the Stasi, in my blog post here.

There’s a wonderful mushroom story by the anthropologist Jared Diamond in his epic book Guns, Germs and Steel, where the author talks about one of his extended sojourns with tribes in Papua New Guinea. These tribes continue to live off the land and belong to some of the most remote groups of people still in existence.

After an extended trek through the forest, he and his companions began to run out of food. Looking around for something to forage, one of the group suddenly exclaimed,

“Hey, we’re in luck! I just found a whole bunch of mushrooms!”

Diamond immediately assumed his professorial voice and gave a lengthy warning about eating unfamiliar mushrooms as they could be poisonous. The members of the tribe looked at him the way your mom looked at you when you claimed you hadn’t touched the cookie jar despite having chocolate all over your face.

Once they overcame their disbelief at his obvious ignorance, the mushroom discoverer put it bluntly:

“Only an American would say something so stupid.”

The mushroom man proceeded to describe the exact qualities of this newly-discovered mushroom, where they grow and the best way to prepare them. If Jared Diamond were a dog, he would have whimpered, put his tail between his legs and curled up behind the nearest tree in shame.

The fly agaric is the mushroom most familiar to people from fairy tales, with its colorful white polka-dotted red cap. It is also a favorite food of both reindeer and the Sami people who herd them. One of the hallucinogenic effects of the mushroom gives you a feeling of flying. Some suspect this is linked to the origins of the idea of flying reindeer and the myth of Santa Claus. The fly agaric mushroom, also known under the much more melodious name of amanita muscaria –  which sounds more like an opera singer than a mushroom –  was central to many northern European and Asian peoples’ winter solstice celebrations and ceremonies. It was consumed by ancient medicine people to induce visions.

I wonder if the tribal elders restricted the consumption of these mushrooms to medicine men and women and kept them away from ordinary folk and children. It doesn’t seem like it would behoove the guys out hunting to get high before they make a run at the woolly mammoths – the Neolithic equivalent of drunk driving.

But I think we know what prehistoric moms must have said to their kids when they caught them ingesting these magic mushrooms: Shaman you!

Brenda Arnold

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