In a new article from the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnopharmacology, researchers in Chihuahua, Mexico discuss the selective use of mushrooms in Sierra Madre. The municipalities of Bocoyna and Urique are the only areas in Northern Mexico where residents pick mushrooms, but even then only five of over 20 edible species make the list. Attitudes toward our fungi prey vary across cultures, beckoning a reexamination of that seemingly ubiquitous fear.
I was born in Russia, a land of mycrophiles, before moving to America, the land of mycrophobes. My mother once found a cornucopia of Boletus mushrooms at the village playground in the suburbs of New York. She was dumbfounded. This would have been an unprecedented sight in Russia, where any mushroom that managed to poke its head into a public playground, would instantly be picked, fried, and eaten with sour cream. In America we leave the mushroom collecting to the supermarkets, and stay far away from the forest. My American husband has always kept wild mushrooms at arm’s length ever since his mom told him that mushrooms killed Euell Gibbons. As it turns out Gibbons died of an aneurysm, but the tale remained the pivot of a lifelong mistrust.
Of course the fear is not completely irrational. There are those capped persons that cause severe stomachache, diarrhea, and sometimes death. Our less-cautious ancestors suffered these consequences to provide the warning lists in mushroom field guides. With the availability of other food it makes sense to steer clear of potential toxins. But in Chihuahua efforts have been made to teach children how to identify edible species. Especially in low-income areas, mushrooms provide free, nutritious food options. In northern Mexico residents eat only what they know with certainty, only those species that they never learned to fear. There are many delicious species that have no poisonous look-alikes, and yet differences in preference persist across ethnic groups within the same region. For example, in Sierra Madre, Raramuris avoid those Boletus mushrooms that mestizos eagerly consume. What molds a mushroom culture, its loves and its fears?
I am currently doing anthropological research in northern Finland, where mushrooms the size of dinner plates dot the forest. When I arrived the American mushroom fear was my hiking companion. But eventually the fairy-tale forest won me over, and I ran to the nearest nature center to ask for help with identification. The young woman was amused: “Just don’t eat the red ones…It’s not that hard.” Since then I have been taking the days mushroom by mushroom, only picking when certain, relearning the knowledge of millennia past.