Debbie Viess, who is an expert on the genus Amanita with the Bay Area Mycological Society, has more to say in response to the controversy over whether or not A. muscaria should be considered a potentially edible species. Specifically, there is an ongoing dispute that we have covered previously, regarding whether boiling the mushroom is a safe and effective preparation to purge the toxic compounds it contains, as well as whether this technique can be reliably disseminated among ordinary mushroom collectors who might be tempted to try it.
Here is Ms. Viess’s rebuttal to David Arora, staking out the “Nay” argument to Arora’s “Aye” that he recently published on the MushroomTalk mailing list. The following dialogue comes from a letter she recently sent to the editor of Arizona Highways magazine. (You may recall that the October press run of this famous magazine had to be recalled and destroyed because it identified A. muscaria as edible.)
I address the recent comments made by Arora about the safety of eating Amanita muscaria. When he commented online, he had not in fact read my rebuttal, so much of what he says is founded in ignorance and what he assumes is my view point. His assumptions are erroneous.
David Arora (DA) states on the Mushroomtalk list, linked to earlier: “Patrick’s other point is a good one: there is nothing particularly elaborate or difficult about detoxifying A. muscaria. A silly comparison is often made between consumption of A. muscaria and that of fugu, the Japanese puffer fish.”
Debbie Viess (DV) replies: Indeed the cooking method proposed by Rubel and Arora is not particularly elaborate, and seems to be getting less so over time. But those in other places who have prepared muscaria for their tables have in fact used elaborate preparations, and with a good measure of fear besides. Those sensible folks who have eaten muscaria as a special treat (Japan) or as a food of desperation (Italy) do indeed consider it to be a toxic mushroom that requires great care. I detail these preps in my rebuttal.
As to the muscaria/fugu comparison: this was first made by the folks in Sanada Town, Japan, ground zero of muscaria pickles. The handful of people in Japan who eat boiled and pickled muscaria are certainly NOT representative of the vast majority of Japanese who fear and shun muscaria. I also think it is safe to say that the Japanese people know far more about the practice of eating fugu than do westerners like Arora and I.
DA: “A better comparison/analogy [than muscaria to fugu, DV] would be to kidney beans. Eating just a few raw, soaked beans can send one to the hospital, and they become 5 times more poisonous if undercooked. Yet I don’t know anyone suggesting that people stop eating them or that they be labeled poisonous. The difference is one of familiarity & precedent — at some point they became part of our cuisine, and we accept them as such. We know how to prepare them because we are familiar with them. In other words, we trust them. But many of us don’t trust A. muscaria because we are taught that it is poisonous, just as a majority of people in our culture don’t trust ANY wild mushrooms in the kitchen because they have been taught to fear them.”
DV replies: I really hate to go down this ridiculous kidney bean path, but I guess somebody has got to do it. Beans are vitally important food sources in many cultures, and their simple preparation has never been an issue. No one wants to eat unpalatable and gas-producing undercooked beans, even if they don’t get poisoned! The recent spate of kidney bean poisonings here in America have been wholly due to a modern phenomenon: the use of crock pots. The temperature in a crock pot remains too low to safely detoxify kidney beans. However, simply boiling kidney beans for ten minutes removes all toxins. No special preps necessary. The stock water in which they are boiled is safe to eat, too, unlike with the toxic muscaria.
Eating boiled muscaria is a potentially dangerous food fad. I like to call it “extreme cuisine.” Muscaria is not an essential part of anyone’s diet.
Amanita muscaria is poisonous, both raw and if merely sautéed and not first sufficiently parboiled, and ALL of the water thrown out. This fact, experienced directly by many cultures worldwide, is what causes the vast majority of the fungiphilic, as well as the fungiphobic world, to reject muscaria as an edible species. It is far more frequently eaten for its entheogenic (spiritual and medicinal) effects, and even there, serious poisonings and even deaths have resulted from its abuse (documented in my rebuttal).
DA: “I know one woman who recently prepared it for her family (two young sons, husband, parents) by boiling it THREE times, for five minutes each. Thus she didn’t increase the cooking time significantly, but she understood the solubility aspect and felt safer using three changes of water instead of two. Then she sautéed it down and her family loved it! As one becomes more familiar with the mushroom and learns to trust it, one may decide, as Rubel and I did, that one boil is sufficient.”
DV replies: Caramelizing any mushroom increases its tastiness. If you taste the well-boiled muscaria slice prior to this process, it is both slimy and tasteless. Far more concerning to me is that both Rubel and Arora continue to recommend less caution around this toxic mushroom. The woman cited above, who wanted to have a broad margin of safety for her family got it exactly right (and the folks in Sanada Town, Japan do the same). A number of well-educated and experienced mushroom consumers who have attempted to prepare muscaria for their own tables have gotten it wrong, and paid the price: a druggy rather than culinary experience.
Rubel prefers to leave a bit of that red color in the cap (which means less boiling), because otherwise, how would you even know that you were eating such a storied mushroom? The small numbers of Japanese in Sanada Town who still make muscaria pickles often boil all of the color away, because they really do want a non-toxic end-product.
DA: “I have not read the DV article. It is amusing, though, that the article I wrote with William Rubel is about food prejudice (using A. muscaria as an example), and DV consistently responds to that article through the instrument of her own prejudice.”
DV responds: How ironic that Arora would use the term “prejudiced” (“an unfavorable opinion formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought or reason,” Random House Dictionary) to describe my attempts to bring reason to this argument. Unlike Mr. Arora, I have read all of his and his co-author Rubel’s writings on this topic. I also checked all of the references that were cited in his 2008 paper with Rubel, found a good bit more, and came to very different conclusions. I am also well experienced in the study of amanitas. I eat non-toxic Amanita species myself, and teach others to safely collect and identify the many truly edible and delicious species of Amanita, and I have in fact eaten muscaria, in very small amounts. Based on my research and first hand experience and many conversations with toxicologists (those who play mop-up when folks get poisoned by mushrooms, including many instances of muscaria poisonings), my conclusions and recommendations are very different from Mr. Arora’s. Perhaps neither he nor his friend Rubel field very many poisoning calls, and don’t realize the big downside of their de-emphasizing the every real dangers of eating muscaria?
Critical thinking is in short supply these days. Listening to a normally trustworthy myco-celebrity like David Arora, on a topic that concerns practices that can and have had serious health consequences, without independently verifying facts, can be a foolhardy practice. Amanita muscaria is indeed a dangerously toxic mushroom, shunned by all mushroom-loving and mushroom-hating cultures around the world. Sure, there are some exceptions, but they are not the rule, anywhere.
You do not have to form your opinion in a vacuum, though. Read both articles: the one that pushes the practice of muscaria eating, as well as the one that documents why it is a bad idea, and decide for yourself where the truth lies.
Bay Area Mycological Society
Well, again I must say, Debbie Viess has me convinced for now. I suppose I’d try a very modest amount if I ever get to enjoy the company of the illustrious Mr. Arora and see the entire preparation done properly, but there is no way I’d try this on my own.
I will continue to cover this story here, not just because of the Arizona Highways connection, but because I would love to be able to safely eat such a large, conspicuous, easily-identified fruiting body that grows in abundance all over the Arizona high country. Man oh man, I would harvest a hundred pounds per season. Anyway, don’t we need something to discuss in the depths of winter when nothing else significant is happening in Arizona mycology?
I would enjoy hearing from anyone in the comments who has experience eating this mushroom following the Arora/Rubel prep technique. Feel free to comment anonymously as a guest if you don’t care to give your name.