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Q&A with Greg Marley for National Mushroom Month

September is National Mushroom Month, and what better way to celebrate than with Greg Marley’s brand new book, Chanterelle Dreams and Amanita Nightmares: The Love, Lore, and Mystique of Mushrooms.

Chelsea Green Publishing: This book is a great read (with some fascinating stories) that also happens to exhort Americans to develop a different relationship with fungi. What do you think needs to change about the way we regard mushrooms?

Greg Marley: From childhood on, most Americans are raised to fear wild mushrooms, and to assume that all wild mushrooms are poisonous and not to be handled, much less eaten. Yet the dominant mushroom-fearing (or mycophobic attitudes) found here are not the norm across the world. Many cultures embrace and celebrate mushrooms and integrate them into varied aspects of daily life. Collecting and eating wild mushrooms is the standard in those mushroom-friendly cultures, not the exception. But many of us have lost the connection our immigrant ancestors had to wild mushrooms and lack the confidence to use the abundant edible and delicious fungi in our forests and fields.

I see this book as a way to being the process of restoring that relationship. As Americans gain familiarity, or intimacy with mushrooms, I believe they will seek to regain their connection with them.

CGP: Have you ever experienced this?

Greg Marley: Actually, yes, I personally see this transformation take place every season with people who accompany me on walks, or attend my talks, or sit in my classes about mushrooms. As they relearn the stories about mushrooms, beyond the theme of mushrooms as gastronomic boogiemen, they take steps into mycophilia, loving the beauty, flavor, value, and the mystery of the mushrooms in our world.

CGP: How do you know if a culture is mushroom loving and how are these traditions passed down?

Greg Marley: Mycophilic cultures are easy to spot. If you look at an area’s traditional recipes or ethnic restaurants and see a lot of mushrooms, you are probably looking at a land that embraces mushrooms. That includes China, Japan, Italy, France, parts of Germany and most Scandinavian countries. It would also certainly include Russia and all the rest of the Slavic countries. In these regions, especially in rural regions, whole families with 3 or 4 generations take outings into the forest annually collecting and preserving mushrooms for use year-round. Children learn the mushrooms from their parents and grandparents and, though they may never know the formal names or the biologic relationships between species, they are confident in their knowledge and bring that confidence into adulthood.

A great example would be a Slavic country like the Czech Republic where something like 80% of adults spend at lease one day a year collecting wild mushrooms for food. I would be greatly surprised if even 5% of Americans collect and eat wild mushrooms.

CGP: Among the great and little-known stories (including those in this book), which is your favorite fungal tale?

Greg Marley: So many stories . . . I love the appearance of mushrooms in Russian folk tales, especially those featuring Baba Yaga, a forest dwelling witch-woman who can appear either as evil and violent or as gruffly benign. In one clear Cinderella tale called Vasilisa, Baba Yaga saves the maiden from her evil step-mother. Mushrooms play a distinct role in many of the illustrations in this story and in other tales of Baba Yaga. But there are lots of other anecdotes in the book. My hope is that Chanterelle Dreams will bring these stories to a broader audience, help erase old fears, and allow more people appreciate mushrooms for the marvels they are and for the myriad and essential roles they play in our lives and in the forest ecosystems.

CGP: Can you describe one of these roles?

Greg Marley: Sure. Most trees, shrubs and other green plants form mutually beneficial relationships with fungi where the fungus acts like an extended root system for the plant and brings mineral nutrients to the roots of the tree. In return, the tree shares a portion of the sugars it makes with the fungus. These mycorrhizal or “fungus root” relationships occur in every forest on earth and are a key element in the health of the forest.

The Indian Pipe and certain orchids and other pale plants, acting as parasites, tap into the feed trough and steal food from the fungal mycelium. There is some indication that the Indian Pipe may provide some benefit to the fungus, but we aren’t sure yet if it does.

CGP: You write in depth about the role of mushrooms in the ecosystem and how fungi are really ubiquitous in our lives, even though we barely perceive them. What’s one example of how mushrooms are beneficial to our lives that might surprise people?

Greg Marley: Life—as we know it—would be almost impossible without mushrooms. Fungi have evolved to be experts at breaking down dead plant matter. In every living ecosystem, they are busy doing just that 24/7. Without fungi breaking down the cellulose and other complex organic compounds that make up vegetation, within a few short years the leaves, twig, branches and trunks of dead plants would build up on the forest floor. What is worse, very soon all the nutrients from the soil would be bound up in dead tissue and the living plants would die from the lack of nutrients. Can’t get more basic or essential than that!

CGP: What’s your favorite mushroom to eat and how do you like to use it in cooking?

Greg Marley: Wow, that’s kind of like asking a choco-holic his favorite truffle (no pun intended. One mushroom consistently in my top trio is the Black Trumpet, a dark gray forest-dwelling mushroom in the same family as the Chanterelle (another favorite). The French call these Trompette de la Mort, or Trumpet of Death. I think the misnomer is deliberate and serves to scare people away from collecting and eating this very distinct and incredibly tasty mushroom. If ever you try it, you will know that it’s delicious. In fact, a basket of them have a distinctly rich odor reminiscent of chocolate. As you can imagine, it’s a favorite of all my family.

Black Trumpets are also great because they are easy to dry and almost as good to use in many dishes dried as well as fresh. We frequently have them in eggs, or with chicken in a cream sauce and they are a wonderful topping for a traditional or white pizza.

CGP: You’ve been a volunteer specialist for your regional poison control center for years and have been called in to consult on many suspected mushroom poisoning cases. What’s the one thing you wish people knew about poisonous mushrooms?

Greg Marley: Actually, I have two things. First, most mushrooms are not toxic (they may not edible, but that doesn’t make them poisonous) and despite what you may have heard, there are actually twice as many edible mushrooms as those that are poisonous (although there are several common mushrooms that are toxic). That leads to the second thing everyone needs to know. The best way to avoid becoming sickened is to be absolutely, 100 percent confident of the identity and edibility of any mushroom you consider cooking to eat. When in doubt, throw it out!

Most of the calls to Poison Control involve toddlers who put mushrooms in their mouths—along with everything else they find. Most of these kids never get sick. Many of the other calls involve cases of mis-identification through haste or lack of effort; someone who eats a mushroom simply because it looks good. The most severe cases often involve immigrants collecting and eating a deadly Amanita in the mistaken belief it is an edible mushroom they previously found in their country of origin.

CGP: So how dangerous are poisonous mushrooms?

Greg Marley: During the past 30 years, an average of 2 people per year have died from mushroom poisoning in the entire United States. Compare this with lightning strikes at about 100 deaths per year and you can see the number is really quite small. Still, the incidence of mushroom-related deaths may be going up as more people eat wild mushrooms in America.

CGP: You also write about cultural attitudes toward hallucinogenic mushrooms. Do you see any changes in our views of psilocybin and other hallucinogens?

Greg Marley: Many researchers had developed strong evidence of the appropriate clinical applications of hallucinogens, especially in Europe and the Americas, during the 1950s and early 60s. All this came to a screeching halt in the late 1960s when Timothy Leary muddied the waters with his pop slogan “Turn on, tune in, and drop out” and his popularization of group LSD gatherings. Though LSD was seen as the dominant and most potent of the psychedelic drugs, all hallucinogens were banned.

Only recently, have clinical studies begun again, such as those at Johns Hopkins Medical Center and a few other institutions, using the mushroom hallucinogen psilocybin. When used in carefully controlled clinical settings, it shows great promise for treating anxiety and depression in patients with terminal illnesses. We are, I think, on the edge of a new age, where the thoughtful use of psychedelics will return, one that brings back the sense of reverent ritual to the place and time of their application.

Greg Marley is the author of Chanterelle Dreams and Amanita Nightmares: The Love, Lore, and Mystique of Mushrooms.

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