Collecting for the Table: A Polemic

Increasingly, I object to collecting mushrooms for the table. I’m not referring to one’s own dinner table. Nor am I referring to commercial pickers, who are collecting for financial purposes rather than the table. Rather, I’m referring to the collection tables that occupy pride of place at local and regional mushroom forays.

Mushroom foray spoils

Here’s the scenario: a brigade of mycophiles lights out for the woods, armed with capacious baskets. Into those baskets, they’ll toss any specimen they find, then bring back those specimens for the foray’s experts (so-called?) to sort and identify. Often the specimens will be accompanied by a dearth of data. What was the substrate? Under a tree. That sort of thing. Then the experts will place names on them with such alacrity that they could be tossing confetti. Never mind that many of the specimens can be identified only microscopically.

But there’s worse to come. All during the foray, the specimens remain on the collection tables, “dehydrated, shriveled, and stanched from releasing spores,” in the words of mycologist Nicholas Money. In the end, virtually all of them will end up being dumped into a garbage bag. Not set aside for an herbarium. Not spreading a single viable spore. Not oven-dried for future study. Simply turned into trash. Hardly a fate any self-respecting mycelium would wish on its fruiting body.

Well, at least that mycelium itself is not disturbed, you might say. But the mycological jury has not yet come up with a palpable verdict on this subject. After all, much of a mycelium’s mass and an undetermined portion of its energy is transferred to its fruiting bodies. To me, this does not call up an image of a happy mycelium…

To collect or not to collect, that is the question. Personally, I think it’s nobler to study specimens in the field than to watch them dessicate on a table. And if they’re studied in the field, mycophiles might learn a bit about how different species relate to their environment. They might also ask themselves some questions: Why are insects congregating on a certain mushroom? What’s the smell of a particular mushroom (dehydrated specimens usually don’t have a smell)? And what the blazes is that tree under which the aforementioned species was growing?

So let’s try to collect less promiscuously. For fruiting bodies mean spores, which mean a potential mycelium, which means more fruiting bodies. Fewer fruiting bodies mean less genetic diversity, which might result in, well, even fewer fruiting bodies. With too few fruiting bodies, there’s always the possibility of a species going extinct. And (to misquote Oscar Wilde) you don’t want to kill off the thing you love,
do you?

Wild dogs I have eaten

With a bog, you can write things that would be banned or at least censored elsewhere. Consider this particular posting. The editors to whom I proposed it some years ago rejected it so quickly that I didn’t have the chance to say that I never ate (perish the thought!) a wild dog (Lycaon pictus), but that my title simply paid homage to Ernest Seton Thompson, the estimable author of Wild Animals I Have Known.

If a sled dog in Greenland has outlived its usefulness, it can be useful again, as cuisine. In fact, the first dog I ever ate was a former Greenland sled dog. The hunter who offered it to me suggested that it was not nearly as good as seal. I had to agree. The meat was tough, stringy, and extremely greasy. It tasted not unlike the way a wet dog smells. Note: As the custom of using sled dogs declines in Greenland, so does the custom of eating them.

On to the island of Pohnpei in Micronesia. If you see a teenage kid walking around with a baseball bat on Pohnpei, he’s not going to Little League practise. Rather, he’s looking for the island’s favorite feast food. Cooked in an umu (underground oven) and served without seasoning, Pohnpeian dog hardly tasted any better to me than Greenlandic dog. But De gustibus non disputandum est! The man seated next to me at the feast ate our entree with such gusto that no doubt he would have devoured Lassie or Rin Tin Tin had the occasion arisen.

In a restaurant on the Chinese island of Macau, I once ate a sweet-and-sour dog curry seasoned with noodles. The curry overwhelmed the meat so much that it tasted like sweet-and-sour ersatz. However, my host told me that the taste was not important. What was important, he said, was that the dish boosted one’s sluggish metabolism. Alas, my metabolism did not receive a spike or even a delicate nudge as a result of my having eaten the dish in question.

By far the best dog I’ve ever eaten was in a restaurant on the Indonesian island of Ambon. The animal had been raised on a “dog farm” as well as fed an exclusive diet of fruit. No kibble! Cooked in satay sauce, it tasted like high quality pork. I liked the dish (dare I call it a gourmet dish?) so much that I returned to the restaurant the following day and ordered it again. Here I might mention that only the island’s non-Muslims ate at this restaurant; for Muslims, dog is a prohibited meat.

How splendid that one person’s meat can be another’s poison! For if there were no differences in taste among different peoples in the world, the Golden Arches would be rising from every street corner instead of every fourth or fifth street corner.

Bon Appetit

Once upon a time I found myself sitting down to dinner in a tent not far from Tiniteqilaq. East Greenland. My hosts were an Inuit family whose food came from the land, the sea, and the ice. In Tinit, as it’s often abbreviated, you either hunt or you go hungry.

Our hors d’oeuvre consisted of square chunks of seal nose, an East Greenland specialty. We ate it by holding the attached whiskers as if they were toothpicks, then sticking the boiled proboscid morsel into our mouths. The resident elder, Avannaq, told me that this was the proper way to eat seal nose if you wanted to avoid greasy fingers.

ptarmigan shit, by Doug Holden

An Inuit culinary delicacy!

Then came the main course served up in a big bowl. It looked like some sort of meat casserole and smelled like a very ripe Gorgonzola. I found the flavor quite pleasant and asked Avannaq for seconds.

“Marmartuq?” he asked. (You like it?)

“Mamagiq!” I replied. (Delicious!)

At which point he provided me with the dish’s recipe:

  • Go out and kill a seal, then take a chunk of the meat, preferably from the flank, and cut it into small pieces
  • Chew each piece a number of times, then spit them into a bowl. Be sure you spit into the bowl too, as that helps the ingredients ferment and likewise serves as a sort of seasoning.
  • Mix in some ptarmigan shit. This ingredient should be dry. Fresh ptarmigan shit is somewhat astringent, and its viscosity is not pleasant to every palate.
  • Stir the aforementioned items for a few minutes, add a cup or two of slightly rancid seal oil, and –voila! –serve forth.

“Can you substitute something for the ptarmigan shit?” I inquired.

Avannaq shook his head vehemently. No less than Julia Child, he knew exactly what made a recipe work.

One culture’s prized entree is another culture’s visit to the vomitorium. I suspect Avannaq would have been appalled at the idea of eating a parsnip or cauliflower, not to mention brussels sprouts. And he might have asked me some rather pointed questions about what, exactly, lurks inside the skin of the American hot dog.

But there’s another point to this story besides the relativity of taste. The only hunting and gathering most of us non-Greenlanders do occurs within the confines of our friendly neighborhood supermarket. And if we do venture into the field, we take with us packets of freeze-dried ersatz probably processed hundreds of miles away.

I once offered one of these packets –I think it was beef stroganoff–to an Iban tribesperson in the jungles of Borneo. He ripped it open and poured the powdery contents into his mouth. The look on his face suggested that this cuisine did not compare with home-grown kitty cat.

Now back to the tent in Tinit. There was still some of our entree left. I declined a third helping not because I felt queasy but because I was full. I did not even have room for the salmonberry dessert.

After our repast, Avannaq and I, boasting literal shit-eating grins, gazed at each other with satisfaction. It was a satisfaction that can only come from putting into one’s mouth food snatched directly from the wild.

Many thanks to Doug Holden for permission to use his photo of ptarmigan shit taken atop Mount Cairngorm.

Relics: Three Recent Books of Interest

In this post, I’d like to take off my mycological hat and put on the hat of a passionate reader (and reviewer) of books on both the rapidly melting North and our rapidly disappearing natural world. You could say that I’m sloshing to a different part of the bog, which has a somewhat different ecosystem…

Toward Magnetic North
(Available from The Oberholtzer Foundation, 300 N. Hill St, Marshall, MN, 56528)

Toward Magnetic NorthThis extremely handsome book which includes photographs, diary jottings, and essays by various hands details explorer conservationist Ernest Oberholtzer’s epic 1912 canoe trip from The Pas, Manitoba, to Hudson Bay. The photos, especially, are remarkable; at once lyrical and austere, they provide an eloquent window on a lost time and a distant place. A “must” for canoeists and Arctic aficionados.

The Chukchi Bible, by Yuri Rytkheu (Archipeligo Books, 2011)

Chukchi BiblePart myth, part fiction, and part family memoir, The Chukchi Bible details the history of Siberia’s Chukchi from the time when Raven created the world out of gobs of his own shit to the year 1999. But it’s not only a history. It’s also an elegy on the death of a traditional culture due to assaults from the outside world. I have no hesitation in calling the late Yuri Rytkheu’s book a master piece. Urgently recommended to anyone with even the slightest interest in the Arctic or its Native people.

Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms by Richard Fortey (Knopf, 2012)

Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet WormsPaleontologist Richard Fortey (author of Life: An Unauthorized Biography) rambles around the world in search of relic species, including onychophorans, gingko trees, lampreys, tuataras, chambered nautiluses, lungfish, ferrerets, horsetails, and echidnas. In his own home in England, he finds an ancient survivor known to everyone — the cockroach. Elegantly written and often very funny, this book provides an excellent complement to Piotr Naskrecki’s primarily photographic work Relics.

Underlooked

In my previous bog post, I considered the subject of overlooked fungi. Now I’d like to consider fungi that are underlooked — i. e., those that are either ignored or cause the viewer to avert his eyes. It seems to me that people who underlook fungi often do so because of an attitude instilled in them by Hollywood.

I can almost see the incredulous look on the reader’s face. Hollywood can be blamed for plenty of sins, but can it be blamed for a prejudice against certain fungi? Why not? Create a mental picture for yourself of a typical Hollywood actor’s face. Star, starlet, or mere extra, that face is doubtless the consequence of a botox treatment, excessive makeup, plastic surgery, or some other form of reconstitution. Even as such faces excite a fantasy-making mechanism in the viewer, they also make that same viewer feel his own face is unattractive, whereas his own face is simply natural.

A character from Dovzhenko's film, Earth.

Well, that’s the way it is with movies, you might say. Whereupon I would ask you to screen (for example) Alexander Dovzhenko’s 1930 silent film Zemlya (Earth), and you’d see an alternative to Hollywood beautification, so-called. Dovzhenko’s characters are Ukrainian muzhiks (peasants) with scraggly beards, rotund bodies, wrinkles, warts, and various disfigurements. In other words, they’re real.

Unfortunately, many people regard fungi from a Hollywood rather than a Dovzhenko perspective. Thus they gaze fondly only at certain species, usually agarics. How often does a corticioid (crust) fungus or a small black ascomycete win a photographic contest or appear on a website (except here!)? Instead, you tend to see brightly-colored Hygrocybes (the young Julia Roberts?), slender-stalked Amanitas (Mel Gibson in fighting mettle?), suppurating Lactarii, or Leptonia carnea. Mushroom photographer Christian Schwarz gushingly calls the last of these “indescribable,” which I suppose means that it has a pretty face.

A beguiling batch of Rosellinias

As for myself, I tend to gaze at fungi from a Dovzhenko perspective. I delight in the tiny black pebbles of a Rosellinia; I clap my hands at the sight of a Kretzschmaria (=Ustulina) deusta, the so-called Carbon Cushion; and I gasp with pleasure every time I encounter Peridoxylon (=Camarops) petersii, which looks not unlike a dog’s nose (for a comparison of the two, see p. 93 of my book Fascinating Fungi of New England). If any of these species could talk, it might tell you that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. The Peridoxylon might also tell you that it’s quite proud of its perithecia (asci-bearing structures), and that perhaps you should appreciate them, too.

If I happen to be in the woods, I’ll investigate barkless white pine logs in the hopes of finding Pseudomerulius aureus, a species whose yellowish surface is as wrinkled as a Dovzhenko peasant’s face. And if I do in fact find this captivating fungus, I might repeat my old friend Sam Ristich‘s favorite utterance upon finding an interesting or unusual species — “Hallelujah!”

Images from this Dovzhenko exhibition and this website of Japanese fungi by Kutsuna Masanori.