Mushrooms. Racism. Murder
February 9, 2017 7:40 AM   Subscribe

When it comes to poisoning, there is one mushroom that kills more than any other. Amanita phalloides, more widely known as the death cap, is said to taste delicious. Its symptoms often don't surface until a day after it is eaten, initially seeming like a mild stomach illness, even as the death cap quietly destroys the diner's liver. Some years, the mushroom might kill a few elderly foragers in France, and a few more in the U.S. and Italy. But in reality, the vast majority of people killed because of mushrooms die before they ever get a chance to empty their basket and eat DEATH IN THE FOREST by Jousha Hunt: the story of Oregeon's mushroom hunting boom and the crime that followed.
posted by The Whelk (39 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
Death in the Forest
What are rare mushroom hunters really searching for?

FRIENDSHIP.
posted by Shepherd at 7:49 AM on February 9, 2017 [13 favorites]


Okay, I've now read the article and I don't think it's friendship.

I feel like there's a great piece of longform journalism here that there just wasn't a budget (money or time) for... some of these stories seem fascinating, and I'd love to learn more, but we don't really dig in to any of these places and times.
posted by Shepherd at 7:58 AM on February 9, 2017 [25 favorites]


If this was a Malcolm Gladwell essay there would be some neat conclusion that (quite possibly spuriously) tied all the threads together at the end in a satisfying fashion.

But yeah, this does read like a sequence of vignettes, each of which wanted to be a longer essay.
posted by pharm at 8:12 AM on February 9, 2017 [1 favorite]


I remember reading a couple of years ago about how this happened to Nicholas Evans, author of The Horse Whisperer - he (and his wife and his wife's brother) ate webcap mushrooms and all suffered degrees of kidney failure. Evans' daughter turned out to be an organ donor match and she volunteered to give him one of her kidneys.
posted by meronym at 8:29 AM on February 9, 2017




Mushroom hunters in France and Italy can have their catch examined by pharmacists. I assume this holds true in other countries do so as well.
posted by BWA at 8:48 AM on February 9, 2017


Mushroom hunters in France and Italy can have their catch examined by pharmacists. I assume this holds true in other countries do so as well.

No, not in the US.
posted by shoesietart at 9:03 AM on February 9, 2017 [6 favorites]


encountered a number of mushroom pickers who all told me that the pursuit divided people into one of two groups: those searching for mushrooms, and those searching for money. This view of mushroom hunting is largely the provenance of rogue foodies and amateur mycologists

We mean PROVINCE, right?

*grumbles pedantically*

*goes back to reading*
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 9:13 AM on February 9, 2017 [11 favorites]


Other good longform on mushroom hunting:

The Truffle Kid
The Mushroom Hunters (Oregon, 2007)
posted by Dashy at 9:16 AM on February 9, 2017 [3 favorites]


When I lived in Oregon, for a couple of years, some of my friends would routinely go out and pick about two shopping bags full of chanterelles each. I was always a little shy to eat them, although no one was ever poisoned (they went through the bags at least three times, after waiting a bit after each one). I always wondered what they planned to do with the extras, as there were far too many to eat before they went bad.

That said, chanterelles are delicious and I miss them on the east coast.
posted by Hactar at 9:23 AM on February 9, 2017


I think it's actually provence when we're talking about mushrooms, mc
posted by koeselitz at 9:40 AM on February 9, 2017 [3 favorites]


Mushroom hunters in France and Italy can have their catch examined by pharmacists. I assume this holds true in other countries do so as well.

That would be an odd expertise to have for a pharmacist -- I'm guessing it's a historical holdover in France. In big mushroom areas, there's usually some kind of educational organization/interest group where you can go on walks with mycologists and learn about what is safe, but it's all strictly volunteer. My family just stuck to puffball mushrooms, which in our area have no false friends and are totally safe.
posted by tavella at 9:48 AM on February 9, 2017 [2 favorites]


Since moving to Oregon a few years ago, I've definitely noticed that mushroom hunting is A Thing People Do here. I've gone along on a couple of expeditions with friends, but I never end up with anything in my bag, as I'm too afraid of picking up some kind of fungi from Yuggoth and dooming the entire camping party. Plus, everything just kind of looks like big wads of used chewing gum to me.

Delightfully, this is the reference book that all the locals swear by.
posted by Atom Eyes at 10:03 AM on February 9, 2017 [11 favorites]


Why is he holding a French Horn?
posted by Confess, Fletch at 10:09 AM on February 9, 2017


Is that a French horn?

(I don't know why he is holding it.) :-)
posted by shoesietart at 10:18 AM on February 9, 2017


I kept trying to figure out how they were killed by the mushrooms before they emptied their baskets, and then it dawned on me that this was not because they were eating them, or breathing the spores or whatever, but simply because they fell into canyons or got shot by rival pickers. Totally not the payoff I was expecting.
posted by Chuffy at 10:34 AM on February 9, 2017 [4 favorites]


BWA--surely Connecticut is not so different from Virginia or Texas--can you really imagine a CVS pharmacist making sure you're not about to eat poisonous mushrooms while the pill-sorting machine prepares your Synthroid for the month and the PA announces a special on Valentine's Day candy? I laughed out loud at the very concept.

In conclusion, Earth is a land of contrasts.
posted by radicalawyer at 10:36 AM on February 9, 2017 [9 favorites]


Is that a French horn?

Looks like a trombone with single thumb valve. The slide is probably hiding behind his leg. Definitely not a French horn.

The bigger question is what is that giant mushroom he's holding? Some kind of giant Morel?
posted by delicious-luncheon at 10:46 AM on February 9, 2017


I get into Wikipedia spirals on various topics, and a year ago or so I ended up on a poisoned-by-toxic-mushrooms one. I think I read around twenty different cases. Nicholas Evans is still a memorable one, as is Christina Hale. There are also a lot of refugees and immigrants who accidentally poison themselves due to confusion between former local, safe species and lookalike poisonous ones in their new homes.
posted by vegartanipla at 10:49 AM on February 9, 2017 [4 favorites]


Atom Eyes we have that book! my husband is an avid mushroom hunter in CA and swears by that book too.
posted by supermedusa at 10:50 AM on February 9, 2017


History Channel or one of its clones had one of those "follow weird people in a strange/dangerous job" reality shows about people who forage ginseng. It was FASCINATING and, and least as drummed up drama for teevee, seemed to have similar danger issues w/r/t people protecting their or what they think is their stash. Plus they said ginseng really needs to grow for a while to mature, so idiots pulling immature plants too soon hurts the harvest for everyone.
posted by misskaz at 10:58 AM on February 9, 2017 [2 favorites]


I don't recall if I've shared this here before -- A coworker brought in a mushroom that sprouted under a tree in his yard. A manager known for his forager skills consulted a field guide, took an exploratory bite, and said "These are **wonderful delicious specimen**! You are so lucky to have them in your yard!!". The next day, coworker brings in a grocery bag full, and shares them amongst his friends.

The day after that, 7 or 8 people call in sick, 2 of which are hospitalized. Everyone recovered just fine, but sheesh. The risk/reward is not there for me, and I love mushrooms.
posted by Fig at 11:04 AM on February 9, 2017 [4 favorites]


According to page xxii of that book the instrument is indeed a trombone and the mushrooms are chanterelles being gathered five minutes before a chamber music concert.
posted by speug at 11:06 AM on February 9, 2017 [3 favorites]


Oh, I just remembered reading about this poisonous mushroom incident as well during my research spiral - even more than the Nicholas Evans articles, it gives a real first-person perspective of the entire process of deciding to eat through hospitalization.
posted by vegartanipla at 11:23 AM on February 9, 2017 [3 favorites]


History Channel or one of its clones had one of those "follow weird people in a strange/dangerous job" reality shows about people who forage ginseng.

As a side note - there's even a song about that: "Ginseng Sullivan" (Norman Blake version, Tony Rice version).
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 11:26 AM on February 9, 2017 [1 favorite]


Is this the same "pale amanitas" from the song Wildwood Flower? I always imagined the narrator as a sort of witch of the woods.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:28 AM on February 9, 2017


Since moving to Oregon a few years ago, I've definitely noticed that mushroom hunting is A Thing People Do here.

After my entire life spent either in Oregon or France (with a stint in Finland) I am just now realizing that mushroom hunting is NOT a thing everyone does. Mushrooms are delicious!

Re French pharmacists identifying mushrooms, over here pharmacists have a PhD in pharmaceutical studies. Poisonous mushrooms are a poison. These things overlap.

The flip side of that is that French people totally wig out at US pharmacies. It's one of the most-asked questions I get here.
posted by fraula at 11:30 AM on February 9, 2017 [11 favorites]


According to page xxii of that book the instrument is indeed a trombone and the mushrooms are chanterelles being gathered five minutes before a chamber music concert.

So people in this thread were right to question his morels?

*looks around*

Yes, yes, I'm showing myself out.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 11:38 AM on February 9, 2017 [18 favorites]


A friend of mine was at a mushroom fair holding a "death angel" mushroom. Somebody walked up and asked what it is. He told him it was deadly poisonous. The person then asked if it was safe to touch. My friend replied he didn't know because he didn't know who else had touched it.
posted by njohnson23 at 11:49 AM on February 9, 2017 [1 favorite]


Re French pharmacists identifying mushrooms, over here pharmacists have a PhD in pharmaceutical studies. Poisonous mushrooms are a poison. These things overlap.

U.S. pharmacists normally hold a Pharmacy doctorate, but I would be extremely surprised if "identifying poisonous mushrooms" was part of the curriculum. Their area of speciality is supposed to be dosing, side effects, and drug interactions. So they might be expected to know you don't prescribe X to someone being treated for mushroom poisoning, but a MD would be expected to do the treating and a biologist to do the identifying of the mushroom.

So I expect it's one of those odd historical carryovers, that there was a tradition of French pharmacists identifying mushrooms from the times when medicines were primarily herbal and locally compounded, and when it became a more formalized profession training was added to curriculum because it was what was expected.
posted by tavella at 12:47 PM on February 9, 2017


side note about poisonous mushrooms, and that ID book with the tuxedo-clad horn player on the cover:

and, as Arora himself notes in the books, there are a LOT of mushrooms which case symptoms from gas to worse in some people, and are delicious (or at least benign) to a lot of other people. the handful of fungi which are VERY BAD FOR EVERYBODY are really just the tip of the iceberg.

way at the other end of the spectrum, of course, are chanterelles and true morels, which are delicious, very hard to confuse with anything poisonous, and tolerated by almost everybody.

the everyday white "supermarket" mushrooms seem to have been chosen for their benignity and ease of cultivation.

I am done digressing about mushrooms now.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 4:08 PM on February 9, 2017 [1 favorite]


Mycologist here. When people ask me to confirm that their mushrooms are safe to eat, I politely refuse. I eat what I pick, though.
posted by acrasis at 4:20 PM on February 9, 2017 [3 favorites]


Later: read the article. I agree with Shepherd and Pharm; it was strangely perfunctory, and the author didn't even find the "devil's cigar". One of my professors used to know a spot where a rare fungus with the similarly picturesque name of "rabbit's ears" grew. We would go there every few years to check on it: was it still there? How long would that colony persist in those woods? My professor loved to show it to students because it was beautiful and strange and excited anyone who saw it to learn more about fungi.

When you go on mushroom forays, you venture out at a certain time in a certain place and collect what's there. You then identify what you found. In its lowest aspects, it's just like collecting baseball cards- who can find the most, or the rarest, or the most delicious. And that's not bad. I remember as a student going on forays where, after labelling the inedible, we would set up a grill and cook the edible, while drinking homemade wines that members of the expedition had brought along (although we would not drink wine if we were cooking shaggy manes, since those are only poisonous in combination with alcohol). It was a great experience for an undergraduate for whom school was largely about studying for midterms and getting passing grades, because I discovered that science isn't just a profession, it was a way of living. My professors loved what they did and loved passing their knowledge on to young people. And thus to the higher aspects of forays: you got to know the season and the place, and what you were likely to find, and where. And that led to more questions. Is that fungus associated with that species of tree? If so, why? Is it a beneficial association or a detrimental association? What other organisms are involved? The beetles that eat the mushroom? The mice that carry the spores on their fur?

Where I live, people collect morels, and it's fine just to collect them and eat them, but people get a lot more than just the morels: they know that morels are out when oak leaves are the size of a mouse's ears and when the shadblow are blooming. Loving morels leads you to love unfurling buds and spring flowers, and then to love the forest that holds them, and then, hopefully, to love the Earth that supports all of us in a complicated web of relationships.
posted by acrasis at 5:18 PM on February 9, 2017 [14 favorites]


okay, one more digression:

I am currently wading through a book that is ALL MATSUTAKE! ALL THE TIME! which does lend some more perspective to the murdery part of that article.

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing The Mushroom at the End of the World:
On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins

posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 7:39 PM on February 9, 2017 [2 favorites]


I am an avid mushroom forager and eater. Though our season out here in Lake Superior country is limited, I quite love finding what our earth provides and enjoying and sharing it.

I have to say that in some ways I'm very glad I don't live in a place where mushroom hunting is so competitive or commercialized, despite these limitations. I mean, I pretty much never run into other mushroom hunters, and there just isn't the yield to support commercialization. It would suck to have to worry about someone mugging me for my mushrooms. It seems absurd to think that people would do that.

If you take your time to learn the lay of the land and really get to know your fungi, you really don't need to worry about self-poisoning or poisoning your dinner companions. I pretty much added one species a year over time, and have gotten to know where to go and where they come each year and when. A good forager knows their neighborhood and home forest like the back of their hand. That's how this works well.
posted by RedEmma at 10:48 AM on February 10, 2017


The flip side of that is that French people totally wig out at US pharmacies. It's one of the most-asked questions I get here.

What exactly wigs them out, and what question do they ask?
posted by jjwiseman at 3:02 PM on February 10, 2017 [2 favorites]


the red pine, which sprouts from dry forest soil like a giant, untamed bonsai tree.

A metaphor exquisite in its otiose tautology.
posted by Devonian at 10:18 AM on February 11, 2017 [1 favorite]


In Hungary we buy wild mushrooms at outdoor markets. Each market has a table or a small trailer with a licensed mushroom examiner who checks every batch brought in for sale and issues a certificate identifying it as safe. A lot of the pickers are Roma families, and in Transylvania there are entire clans of "Mushroom Picking Gypsies" who sell baskets of wild mushrooms alongside the roads. Most people trust the roadside sellers to be safe: these families are well known locally and they have been supplying mushrooms for generations. In the 1990s there was an outbreak of poisoning cases when the economy in Romania crashed and untrained foragers from the towns took to the woods to make cash. Since then (and with EU membership) authorities have tightened up on selling wild mushrooms in markets.
posted by zaelic at 7:32 AM on February 12, 2017 [2 favorites]


Thr best advice I was given was that while lots of mushrooms are inedible - they can upset your stomach, cause other effects or simply don't taste nice - the number that can actually harm you permanently or kill you are very small. Learn those ones first, and learn them well, and if you're in doubt then there's no doubt. But there's not that much to learn, even if some look similar to edible species and there's a great deal of variation in how particular mushrooms present themselves.

Any other mistake you make will at worse get chalked up to experience.
posted by Devonian at 8:30 AM on February 12, 2017


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