Further Reflections on Amanita muscaria as an Edible Species
by Debbie Viess
Attitudes about Eating Amanita muscaria from Outside of North America
A very different viewpoint of Russian fungal proclivities is provided by Gary Lincoff, mycologist and author of The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms. Lincoff and a group of 15 or so others traveled to the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia in 2004 and 2005. Their purpose was to investigate firsthand the statements made by Gordon Wasson about Amanita muscaria use in Siberia, taken from his 1968 book, Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality. Here is what Lincoff had to say about local attitudes towards muscaria:
The hunter-gatherer peoples differ from the Russians in many ways but none more dramatic than in their use of mushrooms. The Russians hunt many kinds of edible mushrooms but avoid one mushroom in particular, the fly-agaric, Amanita muscaria, which they regard as very poisonous. In fact, it is used in Russia and Europe as a fly-killer: the mushroom is placed in a cup of milk to which flies are attracted and become numbed. The hunter-gatherers, on the other hand, collect and eat just one single mushroom, the same fly-agaric that the Russians avoid. (Lincoff, 2005)
The Eastern Siberian Koryak and Even (or Evensk) tribes, the hunter-gatherers to which Lincoff refers, eat their muscaria sun-dried and uncooked, for maximum mind-altering potency. It is used as a sort of tonic within that traditional society, especially by the elderly. It is not eaten as a food species, but as medicine.
Russian mycologist Tatiana Bulyankova, a scientist from Western Siberia who has been contributing field observations to the popular website Mushroomobserver.org, sent me a long letter about first-hand Russian mushroom eating practices. She also spoke laughingly about how in Russia, American field guide authors were roundly ignored, and warned me that it was pretty impossible to generalize anything about a country the size of Russia, or as she put it, 1/7 of all land mass. Point taken, Tatiana!
Here is what she had to say about Amanita muscaria:
The Fly Agaric, predictably, is very common here (and everywhere else in cold to temperate-climate Russia, I guess). It is the symbol of all toxic mushrooms here, I’d even say it’s the symbol of poison. It’s featured in countless books, cartoons, artworks… everyone knows that it’s poisonous. Of course there are young idiots who try it as a recreational drug but that’s a bad influence of the Internet, I guess. It’s also consumed by tribe shamans of Yugra, Yakutia and other Northern territories but it’s something I’ve only read in the books. (Bulyankova, 2011)
I think we may safely draw the conclusion that even in obsessively fungiphilic Russia, the common-sense cultural bias is against eating Amanita muscaria as an edible.
A quick survey of various field guides and online sources where the eating of muscaria as an edible species is mentioned shows very little empirical or even local evidence to bolster the claims – most muscaria eating was reported from elsewhere. A modern Lithuanian field guide stated that muscaria was poisonous, but also: “eaten in mountainous France and Austria.” No word about Lithuanian edibility practices, though, despite an apparent historical tradition of muscaria inebriation.
The main market for muscaria in Eastern Europe seems to be in high potency, dried muscaria caps, harvested in Latvia and Bulgaria, and then sold online for “scientific purposes.” Beware of what is sometimes deadly home research.
George Atkinson, in his 1900 mushroom book Studies in American Fungi, claimed that muscaria was: “eaten as food in parts of France and Russia, and sometimes in North America,” but again, this is repeating information drawn from other sources without explicit verification of facts.
Bruno Cetto’s more recent Italian mushroom guide, I Funghi dal Vero, Vol. 1, claims that muscaria was “eaten cooked and pickled in Russia, France and the Lake Garda region” of Italy. Again, there is no verification of these claims; and the information appears to be merely copied from one source to another without citation. There may well be a very few folks in Russia that eat muscaria as an edible species, and perhaps Pouchet (detailed later in this essay) managed to convince some of the poor to do so in France as well, but these are hardly widespread practices.
A Food of Desperation in Italy
Attempting to track down some of the Italian muscaria eating references from the Lake La Garda region, (prior to WWII), I came up with the following, from Pierluigi Cornacchia’s online article, “L’Amanita muscaria in Italia”. This modern day writer remarks upon the difficulty of tracking down these old references, even within Italy, and lists many local variations of common names for muscaria, all of which refer to its poisonous properties. Here are two quoted instances where locals in the past had detoxified and eaten muscaria (Cornacchia, 2006):
F. Cavara (1897) confirmed that in Vallombrosa (Firenze) Amaníta muscaria was commonly consumed and stated, “I can assure you that many report, in some countries of Tuscany, for example above Pontassieve, in late autumn, this agaric is harvested in quantity and put to soak in basins where water is changed every day, for 10 or 12 days, after that is treated like other edible fungi and found excellent. It helps [in the preservation] that the season is cold.”
This information has been verified directly in the field. I have been collecting testimonies of elderly inhabitants of the villages of Reggello, Saltino, Pian di Melosa and Vallombrosa. The ovolo malefic [“evil egg”],1 as it is called in those parts, was usually consumed after appropriate preparations (boiling with vinegar, salting, rinsing with running water). According to the testimonies, the use of this fungus as food, which lasted until the beginning of World War II, was due solely to the economic problems.
In other words, the ovolo malefic was a food of desperation, and the preparation needed to make it edible was hardly trivial.
Pouchet’s Place in History
Another country for which the historical and “culturally accepted” practice of eating muscaria has been claimed is France. Although I could find zero evidence of current muscaria eating practices, and in fact a respected French mycologist of my acquaintance scoffed at the very idea (Wuilbaut, 2012), in his muscaria paper Rubel devoted a good bit of ink to the work of a Frenchman and scientist who apparently tried to popularize muscaria eating amongst the poor in the 1800s: Felix Archimede Pouchet.
Pouchet in his time – like Rubel in ours – equated the preparation of and eating of poisonous muscaria to poisonous manioc, a staple food across Africa. Manioc starts out deadly poisonous and is made edible through careful preparation. But this is a poor analogy. Nobody in modern day North America needs to eat muscaria to survive. Fresh or dried, dangerously poisonous, cyanide-containing manioc is often the only high quality starch available to millions, mostly across Africa, where it can be grown in poor soil and under drought conditions. Its deadly toxins also discourage crop predation. But it can have faulty preparation as well, and can cause some very serious illnesses.
Perhaps, like me, you had never heard of Pouchet? He was indeed a respected scientist of his time, and a popular science writer, but also one of the strongest proponents of the theory of spontaneous generation. Would it be safe to hold the rest of his science up to a modern light?
To prove that muscaria was a safe edible species, he fed dogs both muscaria-infused broth (to show that muscaria toxins were water soluble; the dogs died) and boiled and drained muscaria (the dogs survived) (Pouchet, 1839). He also claimed to have “fattened dogs” on boiled muscaria, but experimental details for that experiment were not available and fortunately for local dogs, none of these experiments were repeated, to my knowledge, by any other researchers. Pouchet’s work was widely cited by others at the time (Rubel, Arora, 2008). But do a few dog studies really translate to human safety?
If muscaria was such a wonderful and safe edible species, why would Pouchet limit its use to the poor?
Pouchet is best known today for being a fierce public critic of Louis Pasteur, another scientist of the day who publicly disputed the commonly held theory of spontaneous generation. Pasteur was, of course, the French scientist who managed to keep lots of folks from dying in various horrible ways, by creating the process of pasteurization that prevented formerly widespread milk fevers (typhoid and scarlet fever, septic sore throat, diphtheria, and diarrheal diseases) and for creating life-saving vaccines against the scourges of rabies and anthrax (Swayze and Reed, 1978).
Pasteur gave a public demonstration, to which Pouchet was formally invited, to prove once and for all that it was in fact microorganisms, not spontaneous generation, that created life where there was apparently none before. Pasteur gave birth to the science of microbiology.
Pouchet was a no-show at this triumphant exhibition by Pasteur, but he did give us boiled muscaria for the poor as his legacy.
Sketchy historical evidence, couched in terms of “it is said” and “it is reported that” of muscaria eating around the world should not be used to bolster claims of its safety. There is no evidence that it was ever a commonly accepted edible species anywhere in the world, and for good reason.
Amanita muscaria Consumption in Japan: Exception not the Rule
What about in Japan, specifically the Nagano Prefecture, where the consumption of muscaria as an edible species is often cited?
I first learned about the unusual practice of mundane (as opposed to ritual) muscaria munching in David Arora’s annual Mendocino Thanksgiving Foray, an event that I attended, both as a participant and as staff, for over a dozen years running. The story that he told was both fascinating and charming: he claimed to have passed local mushroom hunters along a Nagano mountainside, whose baskets were filled with muscaria. Arora’s basket brimmed with Boletus edulis, and they both looked at each others’ finds in horror! Great theatre, but what is the deeper reality?
While visiting the Nagano Prefecture, Arora tried the muscaria pickles that are a traditional but in fact seldom eaten food. Nagano Prefecture is the only Japanese province wholly cut off from the sea. The practice of pickling muscaria began after “salt roads” were built from the coast into the mountains over a hundred years ago.
In addition to Arora’s experiences there, a young man by the name of Allen Phipps, who spoke and understood the Japanese language, spent a good bit of time researching the localized treatment of muscaria as an edible species for his Master’s Thesis at Florida International University. His results were quite interesting, and showed that eating muscaria is hardly typical for the Japanese culture as a whole (Phipps, 2000).
Phipps’ thesis showed that local consumption of muscaria as an edible species is severely restricted, in both amounts of muscaria eaten as well as in general acceptance of the practice. Muscaria eating takes place not in the already limited Nagano Prefecture as a whole, but merely as a subset of people in one town: Sanada Town, with a population around 10,000. Within that subset, Phipps located 123 muscaria-favorable individuals, and from them he winnowed out ten most likely subjects for interviews (Phipps, 2000, p. 29).
Even more telling, he discovered these interview subjects by attending local mushroom fairs (three per year in Sanada Town), of a similar style to our North American mushroom fairs, with general collecting on one day, identification by local experts on the next, and then public displays with labeled mushrooms. At all of these fairs, within ground zero of muscaria eating in Japan, displays of muscaria were clearly labeled as poisonous mushrooms! These fairs were sponsored by the Japanese government and local insurance companies in hopes of preventing mushroom poisonings (my emphasis). Phipps found his interview subjects by hanging out at the muscaria display table and targeting those that scoffed at the poison label (Phipps, 2000, p. 29).
Indeed, within Sanada Town only (adjoining towns within the Nagano Prefecture treat muscaria as a wholly poisonous mushroom) muscaria is made into pickles, which have been shown through careful lab analysis to contain zero amounts of toxins. These pickles are then eaten in small amounts, for special occasions such as the New Year.
The process of making them is extremely involved (Phipps, 2000, p. 62). There are four steps to pickling muscaria, as relayed to Phipps by Sanada Town muscaria pickle devotees: boiling for ten minutes, or five minutes three times, washing, salting and soaking. Mushrooms are often initially boiled until all color is removed; the water is always tossed. After boiling, the mushrooms are rinsed under running water for 1-3 minutes. Mushrooms are then packed in salt and compressed, and left for at least one month. Prior to consumption, pickles were soaked for several hours or overnight to remove the salt (and any remaining traces of the toxins). These muscaria pickles were then used as culinary accents, not meals. They were and still are eaten for special occasions only, or served to special guests (Phipps. 2000, p. 37).
But frankly, the above method to prepare a wholly non-toxic snack does not sound like a reasonable recipe for today’s modern-day, want-it-now cooks. In fact, the tradition is dying in Sanada Town, because modern Japanese youth can’t be bothered to go through all the preparation steps to make a toxic mushroom edible (Phipps, 2000).
It was also illuminating to read in Phipps’ thesis that unboiled muscaria is also grilled and eaten in small quantities (Phipps’ emphasis) by certain local men. Here is what a subject told Phipps:
“He compared the experience of eating a known poisonous mushroom like muscaria to eating fugu, the poisonous blowfish. The combined thrill of eating something poisonous and the outstanding taste makes this mushroom worth the risk.”
But only small amounts are ever eaten, and there remains a good bit of paranoia attached to the process, with the men fearful of possible accumulative effects in addition to directly toxic ones. In other words, despite the limited local tradition of treating muscaria as an edible species, they are still uneasy about actually eating it (Phipps, 2000, pg. 41).
It is safe to say that muscaria eating in Japan is by no means a culturally accepted practice – and as even Rubel pointed out, in apparent disbelief, even Japanese field guides list muscaria as an unambiguously toxic mushroom.
Limited Historical Evidence of Muscaria Consumption in North America
Rubel and Arora were “intrigued” by unsubstantiated reports of African-Americans in the southern states in the 1800s that may have eaten muscaria, but convincing evidence is lacking. Even if it were true, what reasons might an enslaved people have for eating muscaria? Was it another food of desperation? Or perhaps it was even eaten unboiled for its entheogenic strengthening effects, qualities a desperate slave could surely use. This is of course mere conjecture on my part, but so is any other imagined historical scenario.
A single verified example of historical muscaria eating in the Washington, D.C. area was also cited by Rubel, in hopes, I believe, of showing that it was at one time an accepted practice here in North America, so why not now? But even here in North America the evidence is not only flimsy but rather conjectural. Yes, there was apparently one black woman mushroom vendor who prepared muscaria for her table, discovered at a mushroom market outside of Washington, D.C. in the late 1800s, and of course that famous fatal encounter with muscaria by the late Count de Vecchj.
Even more telling to me than one individual with out-of-the-norm eating habits was this quote by Frederick Vernon Coville – a botanist who in 1898 investigated the recent, sensational muscaria poisoning of Count de Vecchj for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Coville searched for potential sources of muscaria at the Washington, D.C., K Street Market:
Though most [my emphasis] of the colored women of the markets look upon the species [Amanita muscaria] with horror one [my emphasis] of them recited in detail how she was in the habit of cooking it. (Coville, 1898)
Oddly, in his muscaria paper Rubel also showed the entire quote, but somehow didn’t derive the same meaning that I did: that eating muscaria was not a common practice, but one observed by a single individual among many others who rightly feared it. Rubel went on to seemingly conjecture that because this one woman’s recipe (again, an anomaly among the rest of the mushroom sellers) for muscaria was printed in a USDA publication (Coville, 1898), and then cited by others, it was therefore a locally acceptable practice.
I drew a very different conclusion from these same facts: that the behavior of one woman does not a trend make, and that in fact, the publication of these recipes and the quotes about the market seller were widely cited and published for the very same reason that this topic gets press today: its shock value.
It is possible that some misconstrued Coville’s remarks as a recommendation that muscaria be treated as an edible species. A few months later, in a revised version of the original USDA Circular 13, Coville firmly recommended that no one eat this mushroom, as did physicians during the same time period who were writing for the medical rather than the botanical community. Here is his quote:
this process (of muscaria preparation) is cited not to recommend its wider use, but as a matter of general interest. The writer’s recommendation is that a mushroom containing such a deadly poison should not be used for food in any form. (Coville, 1898, revised)
Coville also noted in the revision of USDA Circular 13 that the muscaria that poisoned the Count was not purchased at the K Street Market, but rather was brought to him from the Virginia countryside by a countryman who delivered it “under protest” to the Count.
As an added public safety precaution, muscaria selling was banned at local, Washington, D.C. markets, shortly after Coville’s original article appeared (Chestnut, V.K, 1898). But there is no evidence that it was ever for sale in these markets to begin with.
Lacking in many of these historical, eating-muscaria-as-an-edible accounts are first hand reports of the effects, or lack thereof, post-ingestion, but there is certainly a broadly based fear of eating muscaria, here and across the world. This is reflected in the universal treatment of muscaria as a poisonous mushroom by mushroom field guides worldwide, including those countries with a strong mycophilic and mycophagic history, like Europe (Courtecuisse, 1994) and Japan (Hongo, Izawa, 1994).