Further Reflections on Amanita muscaria as an Edible Species

by Debbie Viess

Amanita muscaria Fed to Participants in Arora Forays

What about modern day use of muscaria here in North America? In his paper, Rubel states that David Arora has served muscaria to hundreds as a justification for its safety as an edible, and those numbers are probably true. But I would lay wager, based on my first-hand evidence, that none of them ate a full meal of it; and the kitchen preparation for their muscaria tastings included thin slicing, several boilings, carefully measured waters (thrown out between batches) and a good splash of vinegar at the end. That last seems more for good measure than for any real benefit.
I was at the first Mendocino California foray, back in the 90s, when Arora served about 70 of us boiled muscaria, and I participated in about a dozen forays after that one. Most folks, with a bit of peer pressure and the reassurances of the “god of mushrooms” would try a piece or two – though, according to one of the people who passed the mushrooms around, at least a third of the group declined. Several folks that I have talked to who attended those forays did not wish to repeat the experience of eating parboiled muscaria, and who knows how many others, over the years, felt the same way? Like the Japanese gentlemen in Nagano Prefecture, they were thrilled by their daring, but still uneasy about eating a mushroom widely believed to be poisonous.

Peer Reviewed is not the Same as Peer Approved

In correspondence with me, Rubel apparently attempted to bolster his claims about the safety of muscaria as an edible species by informing me that he and Arora had published their paper in a peer-reviewed journal (Rubel, 2009). But since only two of his reviewers were actual toxicologists (Michael Beug, PhD and Denis Benjamin, MD) and they both had issues with the paper as originally presented to them (neither read the final version), I was hardly reassured (Beug, 2009; Benjamin, 2009). Dr. Benjamin informed me that his opinions upon this topic were undergoing some evolution and he asked to not be quoted here, but Dr. Beug had no such qualms. Here is what he told me, and I quote:

I did not review the final version of the [muscaria] paper but was highly critical of the draft and recommended that it not be published. (Beug, 2012)

Does it count as much if the peers who review your work and are intimately familiar with toxic mushrooms pan it?

Evaluate All of the Evidence and Decide for Yourselves

I will not go through a point by point rebuttal of the Rubel/Arora paper, although I have certainly been doing so in my mind and in various forums online, ever since I first read it over five years ago. I would hope by now that you the reader are starting to see the bigger picture on your own: that despite the fact that a few people, here and there around the world, have indeed eaten Amanita muscaria after elaborate detoxification preparations, it is hardly a broadly accepted practice to eat muscaria as an edible species anywhere, nor has it ever been so. And it is preposterous to pretend that it is sometimes not a dangerously poisonous mushroom, when there is a wealth of evidence to the contrary.
When field guides both here and abroad list Amanita muscaria as a toxic mushroom they are representing both the universal cultural and common sense norm. Perhaps these various American field guide authors, scoffed at by Rubel, who list muscaria as a poisonous mushroom, were more concerned with the safety of innocent foragers rather than presenting all of the possible ways that one might circumvent the poisons?
As new mycophagists delve deeper into the study of mushrooms in their readings of other places and times, perhaps they will be tempted to try a piece or two of muscaria, boiled or unboiled. But to recommend its safe practice as an edible species, with the justification that it was ever commonly eaten in other places and has little toxic downside, is a highly implausible parsing of history.
In edible Amanita lectures that I have given around the country, I often cite the official United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) document on edible fungi, where dozens of species of edible amanitas, among many, many other species of edible mushrooms, are listed by name. These are all amanitas, from caesarea to zambiana, commonly eaten or sold in markets around the world. This list even includes some Amanita species that might reasonably give us the willies, like Amanita manginiana, an edible, market amanita from China that is related to and even resembles Amanita phalloides (Boa, 2004). But even in this very even-handed, strongly fungiphilic international document, muscaria is listed not as an edible but as a medicinal mushroom. Even more emphatically, the U.N. actually proposed a resolution against its sale and use as an edible species:

Article 622 – None of the genera of poisonous mushrooms listed hereinafter may be used as food, even if they have undergone special treatments to deprive them of their toxic principles [italics mine]:
Amanita: Mushrooms with fleshy caps colored green (Green Amanita or Amanita phalloides), or red with white warts (Fly Agaric or Amanita muscaria)…

Has it started to sink in yet? That maybe, just maybe, more than a little caution is called for when considering Amanita muscaria as an edible species?
In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I have personally eaten very small amounts of Amanita muscaria as an edible three times: once, at a long-ago Arora foray, where it was first par-boiled (slimy, tasteless, but still thrilling in a naughty way), once at a camping foray at Salt Point State Park, on the California Coast, where it was grilled by a master Japanese chef (delicious; the best amanita that I ever ate), and once atop pizza, after rehydrating dried muscaria mushrooms and throwing out the pretty red water. And yet, I believe that to encourage folks to eat muscaria is a bad idea, and I feel safe in saying that the vast majority of the rational, mushroom-loving world agrees with me.
Ironically, perhaps Denis Benjamin’s recent satirical piece on muscaria eating in FUNGI magazine (Winter, 2011), really does hold the answer: if you must recommend the eating of muscaria, treat it as a poisonous mushroom that can be presented as a daring culinary adventure – the land-based American fugu experience, if you will. Go ahead, flirt with danger and have a muscaria snack at some future foray or in the privacy of your own home; certainly a piece or two of muscaria with the crap boiled out of it won’t kill you, and then you’ll have those bragging rights (Benjamin, 2011).
But please, gentlemen, don’t tout Amanita muscaria as a perfectly reasonable edible species with a long history of safe usage and cultural acceptance both here and overseas, when the evidence clearly refutes your claim. And if you do someday revise Mushrooms Demystified, Mr. Arora, please, err on the side of caution. The many people who look to you for personal safety as well as honest answers will appreciate it.

Muscaria Treatment in American Mushroom Field Guides

Just to see what all the fuss was about in the treatment of muscaria by American mushroom field guide authors, I read the muscaria edibility descriptions in over a dozen modern guides that I own. All authors, reasonably enough, cited muscaria as a toxic mushroom. None, other than McIlvaine’s One Thousand American Fungi, cited it as deadly. Some mentioned its potential hallucinogenic properties. Some talked about its historic use as an inebriant. The most recent mushroom field guide from California, A Field Guide to Mushrooms of Western North America (Davis et al, 2012), touched upon some of this recent edibility controversy by expanding a bit upon the usual dismissive toxicity statements. They stated that muscaria was:

Poisonous and hallucinogenic; the toxins are water soluble, but given the preparation required to remove the toxins, this is not a good mushroom for the table.

The strongest argument against its use, however, was this one, from a mushroom field guide published in 1986:

Poisonous and hallucinogenic. Fatalities are extremely rare, but it is undoubtedly dangerous in large or even moderate doses. Too many people have had unpleasant experiences for me to recommend it.

The author? David Arora, in Mushrooms Demystified (Arora, 1986).
Those wise words still ring true today.