A Study of Cultural Bias in Field Guide Determinations
of Mushroom Edibility Using the Iconic Mushroom, Amanita
muscaria, as an Example
AND DAVID ARORA*
Center for Cultural Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz, CA, USA
Department of Forest Science, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR, USA
*Corresponding author; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
A Study of Cultural Bias in Field Guide Determinations of Mushroom Edibility Using the
Iconic Mushroom, Amanita muscaria, as an Example. Mushroom ﬁeld guides teach identif-
ication skills as well as provide information on the edible or toxic qualities of each species of
wild mushroom. As such they function as modern-day village elders for an increasingly urban,
nature-ignorant population. This paper identiﬁes underlying cultural bias in the determination
of mushroom edibility in English-language ﬁeld guides, using the iconic mushroom, Amanita
muscaria, as an example. We explore a selection of ethnographic and medical texts that
report the use of A. muscaria as a food, and we accept parboiling as a safe method of
detoxifying it for the dinner table. Mushroom ﬁeld guides, however, almost universally label
the mushroom as poisonous. We discuss the cultural underpinnings and literary form of
mushroom ﬁeld guides and demonstrate that they work within a mostly closed intellectual
system that ironically shares many of the same limitations of cultural bias found in traditional
folk cultures, but with the pretense of being modern and scientiﬁc.
Key Words: Edibility, ﬁeld guides, mushrooms, Amanita muscaria, mushroom edibility,
mushroom ﬁeld guides, ﬁeld guide bias.
Modern-day ﬁeld guides teach readers how to
differentiate life forms; if they are ﬁeld guides to
mushrooms or plants, they frequently also provide
information on edibility or other uses. In other
words, they function in many ways as parent,
grandparent, village herbalist, or shaman for people
who do not live in a village or rural area and whose
direct experience of nature is limited. Given the
unprecedented wealth of information available to
specialists in any ﬁeld, it is tempting to assume that
mushroom ﬁeld guides have been good teachers.
But have they? Without question they have been
excellent teachers of taxonomy and identiﬁcation
skills. Mushroom morphology is described in detail
using a specialized language, and ﬁeld guides have
more or less kept up with changes in nomencla-
ture and advances in scholarship (most recently,
molecular studies) from Linnaeus to the present,
thereby enabling careful readers to identify many
mushrooms successfully. With respect to edibility,
however, the mushroom ﬁeld guide literature has
not kept up with advances in scholarship. The
ﬁeld guide literature tends to lack curiosity, to be
resistant to change, and even to ignore facts that
contradict the prevailing cultural consensus on a
mushroom’s edibility, as we will show.
Flora Londinensis (1777–1798), by English
naturalist William Curtis, heavily inﬂuenced the
development of the ﬁeld guide genre. In fact, it
should be considered one of its principal English-
language prototypes. In this work, the author
described the natural history and distinguishing
characteristics of wild plants and mushrooms
growing around London. Curtis (1777–1798)
In some Countries, Mushrooms are made much
more an object of food than with us... With us they
are used more as an article of luxury.
Economic Botany, 62(3), 2008, pp. 223–243
© 2008, by The New York Botanical Garden Press, Bronx, NY 10458-5126 U.S.A.
Published online 23 October 2008.
He also pointed out that most of the mush-
rooms sold in English markets were cultivated,
and while he offered some information on the
edibility of wild mushrooms, his overall message
to readers was one of prudence:
The best advice would be to caution persons in
general, to meddle with no other sort than the
common ﬁeld Mushrooms...
Curtis was clearly aware that he was writing for
an audience more comfortable eating cultivated
mushrooms than wild ones, and therefore an
audience that would be reassured by his extreme
caution rather than disappointed or exasperated
More than a century later, in North America,
the cultural underpinning for mushroom ﬁeld
guide authors erring on the side of extreme
caution remained the same. Louis Krieger, in
The Mushroom Handbook (1936/1967 reprint:
The wild growing kinds [of mushrooms] are not of
economic importance in this country, except with
certain recent immigrants, chieﬂy from Russia and
southern Europe. The average American of “Nordic”
stock either does not care for mushrooms at all, or he
stands in such mortal fear of the wild kinds that
nothing could tempt him to eat one of these.
Despite signiﬁcant changes in culinary culture
over the past two centuries, fear of mushroom
poisoning still runs as a leitmotif through
English-language ﬁeld guides, even those that
explicitly seek to encourage consumption of wild
mushrooms (e.g., Fischer and Bessette 1992;
Schwab 2006; Kuo 2007).
We chose the well-known mushroom Amanita
muscaria (L.) Lam. (or A. muscaria sensu lato—see
Oda, Tanaka, and Tsuda 2004;Gemletal.2006)
as a convenient vehicle for exploring the nature of
the edibility determination in English-language
mushroom ﬁeld guides because it has an extensive
literature both inside and outside the ﬁeld of
mycology. Furthermore, it is so easily identiﬁed
that its “poisonous”label cannot be attributed to
authors trying to protect their readership from
confusing it with more dangerous species.
The Fly Agaric: Amanita muscaria
Amanita muscaria is one of the easiest of all
mushrooms to identify—the “red one with the
white spots”(Fig. 1). As Letcher (2007)points
out, “Even a child with no knowledge of natural
history could identify one,”as there are no other
terrestrial life forms in the temperate zone with a
similar color pattern. A. muscaria is also a cultural
icon. It is widely depicted in cartoons and child-
ren’s books, and is the mushroom that the dwarfs
dance around in Disney’s 1937 animated feature,
Snow White. While most people are familiar with
its caricature in commercial art, many are unaware
that such a mushroom exists in nature. But it is, in
fact, a common forest species in much of the north
temperate zone and is widely naturalized in the
southern hemisphere as well.
Most authors who write about A. muscaria
remark on its striking appearance. The Scottish
mycologist, Robert Greville (1823), called it the
“most splendid chief of the agaricoid tribe,”and
the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck,
writing around the same time, elegantly expressed
what so many feel when they come across it in the
forest: “Cette espéce est remarquable par sa
beauté”(Lamarck and Augustin 1815).
Fig. 1. The iconic Amanita muscaria is unmistakeable.
(David Arora, all rights reserved).
224 ECONOMIC BOTANY [VOL 62
Amanita muscaria is known in most English-
language ﬁeld guides as the ﬂy agaric or ﬂy
amanita. Steeped in milk, it has been widely used
to attract ﬂies; the ﬂies become intoxicated by the
infusion and then drown (Wasson and Wasson
1957:190; Michelot and Melendez-Howell
2003). But A. muscaria is also known as an
inebriant. In parts of Siberia where alcohol was
unknown, the recreational use of A. muscaria was
well documented in the 18th century (e.g., von
Strahlenberg 1736). Its modern use as an
inebriant is also well known (Letcher 2007;
Ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson (1968)
gained renown by focusing on its religious rather
than recreational use, for example, by proposing
that A. muscaria is the enigmatic Soma praised in
ancient Vedic texts. His theories have gained
currency in some circles but are still controversial
(Letcher 2007). A standard dose as an inebriant is
one to two caps (Greville 1823; Lincoff and
Mitchel 1977); an upset stomach may or may not
result. The active principle was long believed to
be muscarine—isolated from A. muscaria in 1869
and the ﬁrst mushroom toxin ever identiﬁed.
Much later, however, it was demonstrated that
muscarine, while found in a number of other
mushrooms, occurs in such minute quantities
in A. muscaria as to be clinically insigniﬁcant
(Lincoff and Mitchel 1977; Benjamin 1995). It is
ibotenic acid and muscimol (a more potent,
decarboxylated version of ibotenic acid) that pro-
duce its inebriating effects (Takemoto et al. 1964;
Bowden and Drysdale 1965; Eugster et al. 1965).
Both of the latter compounds are water soluble
and, as we will show, can easily be removed from
the mushroom by parboiling it and then discard-
ing the liquid. It should be noted that we use the
term “parboil”in this paper to mean precook by
boiling, as per the third deﬁnition of Rombauer
et al. (2006:1054). It should also be noted that the
dangerously poisonous, amanitin-containing spe-
cies, e.g., A. phalloides Secr., cannot be detoxiﬁed
by any normal cooking or processing method, and
are not discussed hereafter.
Despite being common, easy to identify, and
an excellent savory mushroom after parboiling
(Arora 2000; Rubel 2000), and despite a long-
standing, albeit scattered, tradition of being eaten
as a food in the European, Russian, North
American, and Japanese countrysides, A. muscaria
is almost universally characterized by modern
mushroom ﬁeld guides as being poisonous (e.g.,
Smith and Weber 1980; Lincoff 1981; Arora
1986; McKnight 1987; Hall et al. 2003; Miller
and Miller 2006), even deadly (e.g., Groves 1962;
As we will show, 19th-century investigators
from various disciplines established that the
mushroom could easily be detoxiﬁed by parboil-
ing it. This understanding was widely published
in the 19th-century medical and toxicological
literature but was ignored and decisively rejected
by English-language mushroom ﬁeld guide
authors of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The rejection was so thorough that knowledge
of A. muscaria’s food use appears to have
effectively been lost by the late 20th century.
Contemporary ﬁeld guide authors continue to
emphasize (and often exaggerate) the toxicity of
A. muscaria, seldom mention that anyone eats it,
and fail to provide precise and accurate instruc-
tions on how to detoxify it. As a result, A.
muscaria is rarely picked for the dinner table
except by those who inherit a local or family
tradition of eating it.
The Toxicity of Amanita muscaria
English-language mushroom ﬁeld guides agree
that Amanita muscaria is poisonous and should
not be eaten (“This is a dangerous fungus and
should be avoided”—Miller 1972:32; see also
McIlvaine and Macadam 1902; Marshall 1905;
Güssow and Odell 1927; Smith 1975; Arora
1979; Lincoff 1981; Fergus and Fergus 2003;
etc.). In many of these cited works, the authors
mention the possibility of A. muscaria being fatal.
Some authors even classify it as deadly (Gibson
1899; Krieger 1936), and the mushroom guide
belonging to the prestigious Peterson Field Guide
series (McKnight 1987) marks A. muscaria with
the universally intimidating skull-and-crossbones
Yet in researching this article, we were unable
to ﬁnd a single adult death in North America
indisputably caused by A. muscaria. Recent
literature typically lumps poisoning by A. musca-
ria with poisoning by the closely related but
signiﬁcantly more toxic A. pantherina (DC.)
Krombh. (Lincoff and Mitchell 1977; Benjamin
1995; Michelot and Melendez-Howell 2003).
Furthermore, during the 19th and 20th centuries,
atropine (the active principle of deadly night-
shade, Atropa belladonna L.) was commonly
225RUBEL & ARORA: EDIBILITY, BIAS, AND AMANITA MUSCARIA2008]
prescribed as an antidote to A. muscaria poisoning
in the mistaken belief that muscarine was the
principal toxin. Atropine, however, may aggravate
the symptoms of A. muscaria ingestion (Mitchel
1980). These variables complicate research into
A. muscaria poisoning, but if A. muscaria has
caused fatalities in North America, they have
been few and far between. The only fatality cited
by modern authors (Benjamin 1995:313) is that
of Count de Vecchi, legate to the Italian Embassy
in Washington, D.C., who allegedly died of A.
muscaria poisoning in 1897 after dining on two
dozen (!) mushrooms purchased in a local market
(Prentiss 1898). Though his death has been
linked repeatedly with A. muscaria (e.g., Jordan
1917:20), we use the word allegedly because it is
impossible from the published accounts to
reconstruct exactly what he died from; indeed,
there is enough uncertainty to justify a separate
article on the subject. The second most-often
cited death by A. muscaria poisoning after that of
Count de Vecchi is that of the Czar Alexis of
Russia (e.g., Marshall 1905; Hard 1908)—in
1679! But authors do not agree on whether it was
the Czar or the Czar’s wife who was poisoned
A few mushrooms with histories of being eaten
have been shown to be quite dangerous. Gyromi-
tra esculenta (Pers.) Fr., for example, is popular in
northern Europe but has caused deaths when not
properly prepared, in part because there is a
narrow dosage threshold between serious symp-
toms and a complete absence of them (Benjamin
1995). Another mushroom, Paxillus involutus
(Batsch) Fr., has a history of being eaten in
Europe but can cause severe allergic reactions in
people who have eaten it for years. A. muscaria,
however, does not have such a record, and an
adult who eats one or two caps, even uncooked,
does not, according to the literature, risk such
severe consequences. The fatal human dose for A.
muscaria has not been determined. Benjamin
(1995:309) speculated that 15 caps would be
fatal, but it is unclear whether he was referring to
A. muscaria or to the more toxic A. pantherina.
Lincoff and Mitchel (1977) reported a man who
ate 20 caps and survived, but also did not specify
which species he ate. Many websites mention a
fatality caused by the consumption of 20 or “two
dozen”A. muscaria caps, but these apparently
refer back to the unfortunate Count de Vecchi.
What is known is that none of the hundreds,
even thousands, of adults who have used A.
muscaria as an intoxicant in North America have
directly died from doing so (McDonald
1978:225), and early reports of A. muscaria usage
as an inebriant in Siberia were not accompanied
by references to fatalities.
Early Literature on the Edibility
of Amanita muscaria
The documentation of historic Amanita mus-
caria food use is sparse, though persistent, and
includes Europe, Asia, and North America. Most
accounts merely mention its use as a food, but
omit information on its safe detoxiﬁcation. This
dichotomy in the literature does not pertain only
to A. muscaria or only to English-language ﬁeld
guides. See, for example, French mycologist
Roget Heim’s mention of the “poisonous”Boletus
satanas Lenz being eaten by some people while
failing to describe how “some people”detoxiﬁed
the mushroom (Heim 1963:176).
The most explicit, widely-circulated, early
account in English of A. muscaria’suseinthe
kitchen was by German physician and naturalist
George Heinrich von Langsdorf, brought into
the English-language literature as part of Robert
Greville’sinﬂuential presentation to the Wer-
narian Natural History Society in 1823. In
Greville’s(1823:344) translation: “[in Siberia it]
is sometimes eaten fresh in soups and sauces,
and then loses much of its intoxicating proper-
ties.”While his translation might be construed
to allow for the possibility of savory dishes that
intoxicate slightly, it is more likely that the
mushrooms were detoxiﬁed by being ﬁrst
parboiled, which would be consistent with the
Russian method for detoxifying “poisonous”
mushrooms described by Pallas (1794:76) from
his visit to a region near Moscow. It is also
consistent with our experience of current prac-
tice in Russia (as well as Lithuania), where many
or most species of wild mushrooms are ﬁrst
boiled in water, drained, and then used as an
ingredient in a dish.
While von Langsdorf’s detailed descriptions of
A. muscaria’s use as an inebriant in Siberia were
subsequently cited (e.g., Christison 1829:653),
his description of its use as a food was never cited
again. But there were other mentions of kitchen
use of A. muscaria—in, for example, Charles
David Badham’s(1863) book, A treatise on the
esculent funguses of England. Its use as a food in
226 ECONOMIC BOTANY [VOL 62
Russia was noted in the Annals of Horticulture
(1848:423), by Cooke (1880:211), and by
William Delisle Hay (1887:154), who wrote,
“The plant is eaten both in North Russia and in
Southern France, but of course [emphasis ours]
after being boiled and washed.”These, plus more
general references to “poisonous”mushrooms
being eaten in the Russian and European
countrysides (e.g., Pallas 1794; Porcher 1854;
Whetstone 1898:263) formed a backdrop to the
more precise work on A. muscaria detoxiﬁcation
published in the 19th-century medical and
During the 19th century, efforts were made to
prove in a methodical way that A. muscaria, as
well as various other “poisonous”mushrooms,
could be made safe for the dinner table. A French
physician, Dr. Félix Archimčde Pouchet, was
especially inﬂuential in establishing the efﬁcacy
of boiling A. muscaria to remove its toxins, but he
had a distinctly practical quest: he was looking
for a way to unlock the nutrition tied up in wild
mushrooms that the rural poor were not
collecting because they thought them poisonous.
In this quest to use “poisonous”mushrooms to
help feed the poor, he was inspired by the root
crop manioc (Manihot esculenta Crantz), de-
scribed by one of his contemporaries (Taylor
1859:626) as follows:
The root of one variety of this West Indian plant,
known under the name Bitter Cassava, contains in its
juice prussic [hydrocyanic] acid. It is, therefore, when
recently expressed, highly poisonous, inducing coma,
convulsions, and death... The vegetable principles of
the plant, evaporated to dryness, form what is called
Cassava-cake, which is not only inert, by reason [of]
the poison being volatized, but highly nutritious.
The starch obtained from this root is well known
under the name Tapioca. Neither cassava nor tapioca
yields any trace of prussic acid.
Pouchet (1839:323) explicitly acknowledged
the example of manioc. As he put it (translated
from the original French by the authors),
Manioc forms the staple nourishment of a large
number of people but has in its tissues the most
violent of poisons; through skill, man extracts the
poison from the nutritive part, and we think that
science could do the same for mushrooms.
Pouchet’s reference to manioc was a conceptual
breakthrough. In suggesting that the French eat
A. muscaria, he did not argue that it was a
traditional food someplace else, like in Italy or
Russia, but simply that through scientiﬁc meth-
ods he had determined it could easily be rendered
safe to eat. He was also saying that mushrooms
could be thought of in the same way we think of
other foods that are edible, and that by analogy
what he was doing to A. muscaria was no more
extreme than detoxifying manioc.
One of Pouchet’s experiments was to boil ﬁve
A. muscaria caps per liter of water for 15 minutes.
He strained out the mushrooms and fed the broth
to dogs, who died, thus demonstrating that the
toxins were water soluble. But he also fed dogs
boiled caps without the broth, and they thrived,
thus demonstrating that the caps were no longer
poisonous. (Note: smaller dogs are cheaper to
maintain for experimental purposes than large
ones, so we can infer that ﬁve caps for one of
Pouchet’s dogs is equivalent to 20 or more caps
for a human adult.)
Pouchet’s experiments were widely described.
Reese (1874:346) said in his manual on toxicol-
ogy, “A third [dog] which was fed [by Pouchet]
on boiled amanitas for two months actually
fattened on this food.”Pouchet’s experiments
were also cited in the standard medical references
of that era, for example in Medical Jurisprudence
(Wharton et al. 1860:569; Wharton et al.
1873:470; Wharton and Stillé 1882:675). In all
of the above cases, the edibility of parboiled A.
muscaria was accepted as fact.
While Pouchet, to demonstrate edibility,
experimented on animals, another Frenchman,
M. Gerard, experimented on himself, and on his
family. In 1851, Gerard demonstrated that A.
muscaria, along with a number of other “poison-
ous”mushrooms, could be safely eaten if par-
boiled (Gerard 1852). He was also widely cited in
the 19th-century toxicological literature. Here is
Gerard’s recipe for A. muscaria as translated by
the Southern Society for Clinical Investigation
To every ﬁve hundred grams of mushrooms cut up
into a medium size, a liter of water, slightly
acidulated by two or three spoonfuls of vinegar (or,
if nothing else is on hand, gray salt), should be used.
If [only] water alone can be obtained, this must be
renewed once or twice. In this ﬂuid the fungi are to
be macerated for two entire hours, after which they
are to be washed in an abundance of water. Next,
they are to be put into cold water and boiled for half
227RUBEL & ARORA: EDIBILITY, BIAS, AND AMANITA MUSCARIA2008]
an hour, after which they may be taken out, washed,
dried, and used as food.
Interest in Gerard’s work was so great that it
was republished a decade later, again in English,
under the title, “A simple means of removing the
poisonous properties of suspicious mushrooms”
(Gerard 1863), and it was cited in Hay’s(1887)
book on British mushrooms. It is worth noting
Gerard’s use of vinegar. This use may be traceable
to Jean Jacques Paulet, a French botanist and
mycologist who was credited with demonstrating
in 1776 that “the mode in which... [mushrooms]
were cooked”affected toxicity, and that salt and
vinegar were particularly helpful in this regard
The belief in the edibility of parboiled A.
muscaria was apparently not a controversial one in
the 19th-century American medical community.
Dr. Francis Porcher cited most of the above
sources (including Pouchet) in his report to the
American Medical Association entitled The Med-
ical, Poisonous, and Dietetic Properties of the
Cryptogamic Plants of the United States (Porcher
1854). He also cited several sources as saying of
A. muscaria that, “in the middle of France they
had constantly been in the habit of eating them”
(Porcher 1854:61). Of the ethnographic literature
in general, he concluded that what was written
was really true: that many poisonous mushrooms
could be rendered edible through knowledgeable
processing. In his own words, “There is no reason
to doubt the fact that sorts justly esteemed
poisonous are really used [author’s emphasis]”
(Porcher 1854:47). Porcher’s work, with its
imprimatur of the American Medical Association,
was also cited in the aforementioned and inﬂu-
ential Medical Jurisprudence (Wharton et al. 1860;
Wharton et al. 1873; Wharton and Stillé 1882).
At the end of the 19th century, the noted
American botanist, Charles Peck (1895:214), in
an extensive passage on the use of A. muscaria as a
food, described Americans who detoxiﬁed A.
muscaria with vinegar and/or water. But the most
detailed, objective, and accurate description of its
edibility was written in 1898 by Frederick
Vernon Coville, a distinguished botanist, explor-
er, and ethnographer, who authored 170 books
and articles (but who, signiﬁcantly, was not a
mushroom ﬁeld guide author). Coville was the
ﬁrst to discover the importance of soil acidity to
blueberries; he also wrote books on desert plants,
served as Chief Botanist for the United States
Department of Agriculture and as Chairman of
the National Geographic Society Research Com-
mittee, and was the ﬁrst director of the United
States National Arboretum. Coville published a
report on Amanita muscaria in 1898 for the
United States Department of Agriculture as part
of an investigation into the death by mushroom
poisoning of Count de Vecchi of Washington,
D.C. In this work, entitled Observations on Recent
Cases of Mushroom Poisoning in the District of
Columbia, Coville exhibited a reasonably solid
grasp of the scientiﬁc understanding of the
edibility of A. muscaria. He went to the market
where the Count had purchased the mushrooms
that allegedly poisoned him and, remarkably,
discovered A. muscaria being eaten in Washing-
It is well known that in some parts of Europe the
ﬂy amanita, after the removal of the poison by
treatment with vinegar, is a common article of food.
It was interesting to discover not long since that
among some of our own people the practice prevails.
Though most of the colored women of the markets
look upon the species with horror, one of them
recited in detail how she was in the habit of cooking
it. She prepared the stem by scraping, the cap by
removing the gills and peeling the upper surface.
Thus dressed the mushrooms were ﬁrst boiled in salt
and water, and afterwards steeped in vinegar. They
were then washed in clear water, cooked in gravy like
ordinary mushrooms, and served with beefsteak. This
is an exceedingly interesting operation from the fact
that although its author was wholly ignorant of the
chemistry of mushroom poisons, she had neverthe-
less been employing a process for the removal of
these poisons which was scientiﬁcally correct.
(Coville 1898: 19)
Coville’s work stands as a model for writers
today. While Coville was not a mushroom expert,
he reviewed the scientiﬁc literature, the ethno-
graphic literature, and did his own ﬁeld work.
Although he did not go on to recommend that
his readers eat A. muscaria, he used his under-
standing of mushroom toxicology to explain the
ﬁndings of his ﬁeld research and to reconcile
the two. He unambiguously concluded that “after
the two treatments the mushroom is free from
poisons.”Thus he is notable for using the science
of his day to explain why a folk method of
detoxiﬁcation was effective.
228 ECONOMIC BOTANY [VOL 62
on the Edibility of Amanita muscaria
Since contemporary mushroom ﬁeld guides
teach that A. muscaria is poisonous, even poten-
tially deadly, it is difﬁcult to appreciate the extent
to which the 19th-century toxicological literature
was united behind the ethnographic literature
in declaring that A. muscaria is edible after
parboiling. Knowledge, particularly in written
form, is widely assumed to progress over time as
more and more bits of information are accumu-
lated, examined, and tested. In the case of A.
muscaria, however, 20th-century mushroom ﬁeld
guides have proved strangely impervious to the
facts, as we will show, and knowledge of its
edibility seems actually to have regressed.
Coville’s work was cited in the early 20th-
century medical literature (e.g., Wiley 1917:445).
Furthermore, a medical doctor, Beaman Douglass
(1917b:212), reported that, “The negroes of the
southern states are said to have learned empiri-
cally how to prepare [A. muscaria, as well as
Russula emetica (Sch.) Pers.] which they eat
freely.”The ﬁeld guide literature, however, did
not follow up on Coville (despite his excellent
reputation) and the other explicit 19th-century
literature on A. muscaria edibility. Instead, the
ﬁeld guide literature rejected its edibility and
closed ranks around its toxicity.
In an act of omission for the apparent purpose
of distorting or suppressing evidence of its
edibility, Nina Marshall, in The Mushroom Book
(1905:49–50), cited Coville but failed to say that
A. muscaria was eaten in Washington D.C., and
that there was a “scientiﬁcally correct”way to
detoxify the mushroom. Instead, she labeled A.
muscaria “poisonous,”and emphasized its danger
by stating, “It is known to have caused much
sickness and many deaths. It caused the death of
the Czar Alexis of Russia, and of the Count de
Vecchi in Washington.”While she did mention
that A. muscaria is “cooked and eaten by the
Russians,”she prefaced that statement with the
phrase “it is said”(rather than “it is known”), thus
implying that it may not be true. Her respected
contemporary, Prof. George F. Atkinson of
Cornell University, said of A. muscaria in his
ﬁeld guide (Atkinson 1900), “... deadly as
ordinarily found, [but] is undoubtedly used quite
largely as food in parts of France and Russia, and
it has been eaten repeatedly in certain localities in
this country without harm.”But Atkinson, unlike
Coville, did not explain in which localities in the
United States A. muscaria was eaten, nor how such
a“deadly”mushroom could be safely prepared.
The most inﬂuential North American mush-
room ﬁeld guide of that era, however, was One
Thousand American Fungi by Captain Charles
McIlvaine (McIlvaine and Macadam 1902), a
book that is still in print. McIlvaine was
interested in the science of his day, but he
proudly broke with the tradition of ﬁeld guide
authors simply following each other’s lead, and
sought to establish edibility on a sound personal
and scientiﬁc basis. He tested hundreds of mush-
rooms on himself, including some routinely
characterized as poisonous, and even had a group
of designated “undertasters”(McIlvaine and
Macadam 1902/1967 reprint: xv, 454).
Uncharacteristically, however, McIlvaine exag-
gerated the toxicity of A. muscaria, a mushroom
that he asserted was “undoubtedly poisonous
[author’s emphasis] to a high degree”(McIlvaine
and Macadam 1902/1967 reprint: 15). McIlvaine
claimed to have become intoxicated from eating a
hazelnut-sized piece of raw cap—an impossibility
according to Phipps (2000), unless the effects
were psychosomatic; that McIlvaine experienced
an anxiety reaction is also suggested by the fact
that he counteracted the mushroom’s effects by
smoking a pipe! McIlvaine emphatically rejected
the use of vinegar, or any other method, for
extracting poison from the mushroom on the
grounds that one couldn’t be sure it had all been
removed. His mention of the use of vinegar
(McIlvaine and Macadam 1902/1967 reprint:
15–16) implies that he was familiar with Coville’s
“scientiﬁcally correct”method for detoxifying A.
muscaria. His rejection of the detoxiﬁcation
procedure was subsequently cited by others as a
reason to reject it (e.g., Benedict 1908:94).
Why didn’t McIlvaine test detoxiﬁcation pro-
cedures prior to rejecting them? The answer
seems to be his personal bias, for he was no
stranger to conducting experiments to prove a
point. McIlvaine injected etherized cats with
A. muscaria juice, killing them. This inspired a
physiologist, William Carter (1901), to conduct a
bigger study of the effect of injecting a range of
animals—cats, dogs, rabbits, even frogs—with A.
muscaria juice. These experiments, unlike those of
Pouchet, had no chance of demonstrating that
the mushroom was edible. With the hindsight of
229RUBEL & ARORA: EDIBILITY, BIAS, AND AMANITA MUSCARIA2008]
one hundred years, it is evident that McIlvaine
and Carter presaged a 20th-century shift toward
using increasingly sophisticated laboratory techni-
ques to study toxins and toxicity while abandon-
ing Pouchet’s quest to use science as a means of
learning how to safely detoxify mushrooms for
The ﬁrst comprehensive academic treatment of
North American agarics was written by Prof.
Charles Henry Kauffman (1918). Kauffman gave
a detailed morphological description of Amanita
muscaria in which he called it “deadly poisonous,”
saying, “It is a delightful object for the artistic eye
of the nature lover but in all other respects a
menace.”Yet buried in the appendix of this same
ﬁeld guide (Kauffman 1918; 1971 reprint: 841–
842) is a section called “Treatment of Amanita
muscaria poisoning,”written by Dr. O. E.
Fischer, who, signiﬁcantly, was not a mycologist
but a medical doctor, like Porcher and Douglass.
Fischer cited A. muscaria as being eaten as food in
Saxony and Bohemia. He also cited Coville, and
gave the African-American market woman’s rec-
ipe for its safe preparation.
Writing ten years later, William Sturgis Thomas,
president of the New York Mycological Society and
author of the mushroom volume (Thomas 1928)in
Putnam’s Nature Field Books series, based most of
his mushroom edibility information on Peck.
Incredibly, however, he skipped over the informa-
tion that Peck (1895) provided on the use of A.
muscaria as food, just as Marshall had purposefully
dropped Coville’s authoritative information on its
The next important ﬁeld guide mention of A.
muscaria being eaten was in The Mushroom
Handbook (1936), by Louis Krieger. A mycolog-
ical bibliographer, Krieger was conversant in
English, French, and German, and his knowledge
of the relevant literature was second to none.
Perhaps reﬂecting the prevailing climate of
hostility toward drugs (the notorious anti-drug
movie, Reefer Madness, was also released in 1936),
Krieger chose to exaggerate the intoxicating
effects of raw A. muscaria by describing, appar-
ently without basis, Siberian villages full of
“intoxicated people running amok with drawn
knives and false courage endanger[ing] the lives of
their fellows.”Regarding the edibility of A.
muscaria, Krieger stated, “This species, though
known to be deadly, is eaten without ill effects by
some people.”He provided no speciﬁc informa-
tion on who ate A. muscaria nor did he give any
details for safely preparing it.
But no major ﬁeld guide author so fully
embodies the dichotomy between the careful
and scholarly treatment of mushroom taxonomy
and the idiosyncratic treatment of mushroom
edibility as Alexander Smith, the preeminent
North American mushroom taxonomist of the
20th century. Smith authored approximately 200
articles and books over a long and distinguished
career and named many new species. He dedicat-
ed his ﬁrst ﬁeld guide for the general public,
Mushrooms in Their Natural Habitats (Smith
1948), to his mentor, the aforementioned Charles
Kauffman, and labeled A. muscaria as poisonous,
thus following Kauffman (1918)aswellas
Gibson (1899), McIlvaine and Macadam
(1902), Marshall (1905), and Krieger (1936),
among others, in rejecting or ignoring the 19th-
century toxicological and ethnographic literature.
Like Gibson (1899), Smith attributed stories of
people safely eating A. muscaria to misidentiﬁca-
tion. He even speculated that the people were
probably eating A. frostiana Peck, a North
American species unknown in Europe and Asia.
Smith’s next work for the general public was A
Mushroom Hunter’s Field Guide (1958, 1963), a
book that sold 100,000 copies and was hailed as
the “ﬁrst modern [mushroom] ﬁeld guide for
amateurs”(Thiers 1987). In the ﬁrst version of
this book, Smith (1958:136) said this of A.
Poisonous. If someone claims to know how to
cook it so that it is edible, do not argue with him,
but do not eat any. Apparently there are ways of
extracting the poison, but the risk is not worth the
It is unclear to us what Smith’s reasons were
for saying not to argue the point (because it truly
is edible?), or what the “effort”is that he refers to.
But in the second “revised and enlarged”version
of the same book, Smith (1963:177) labeled A.
muscaria “poisonous,”and then immediately
went on to say,
However, some people extract the poison and then
eat the mushroom, apparently with no ill effects.
They claim it is a most delicious species. The
instructions, as I have heard them, are to parboil
the specimens in salt water until no more yellow
scum comes to the surface...
230 ECONOMIC BOTANY [VOL 62
As we can ﬁnd no other speciﬁc mention in the
mushroom literature of “yellow scum,”we con-
clude that Smith was in touch with credible
informants who regularly ate A. muscaria and
considered it delicious. But he provided no
information about who these people were, and,
unlike Coville, he didn’t stand behind his own
ethnographic report. Instead, he went on to tell
readers that if they tried the detoxiﬁcation
method he had just described, that they did so
at their own risk (Smith 1963:177). Smith’s
distrust of his own ﬁnding suggests that he was
unaware of the substantial body of l9th-century
literature on the subject, and furthermore, that
this body of knowledge regarding A. muscaria’s
edibility had already effectively vanished. Further-
more, Smith seems to have made no personal
effort to verify the efﬁcacy of parboiling A.
muscaria, an indication of his and his culture’s
lack of interest in wild mushrooms as food. Thus
he was clearly working within the same intellec-
tual framework as the 18th-century English ﬁeld
guide author William Curtis, one in which the
accuracy of the edibility information is not as
important as that of the taxonomic information.
Western Mushrooms, under the description of A.
muscaria, he reverted to labeling it poisonous and
dropped the reference to detoxiﬁcation (Smith
1975:167). However, as in Kauffman (1918),
there is completely different information buried
in the chapter on mushroom poisoning, namely,
the unambiguous statement “People who know
how to boil the poison out of it use it as an
esculent”(Smith 1975:15). Five years later, in the
revised edition of The Mushroom Hunter’s Field
Guide (Smith and Weber 1980:171–172), Smith
once again changed his position, or at least his
emphasis. Instead of continuing to characterize A.
muscaria as “poisonous,”he broke with his own
past as well as with the entire history of
mushroom ﬁeld guides by labeling it as “poison-
ous to most people,”thus implying that some
people are immune to its toxins and can eat it
with impunity. Smith then went on to say that
“some people can eat this species and suffer no ill
effects; others parboil the specimens and discard
While specimens of A. muscaria vary in the
amounts of toxins they contain (Benedict 1972),
and while individuals may vary in their sensitivity
to the toxins, there is no literature to support the
idea that anyone is immune to its toxins and
could eat as many non-detoxiﬁed specimens as
they wanted without becoming intoxicated or
nauseous or worse. Smith cited no references for
his extraordinary claim that non-detoxiﬁed A.
muscaria is edible for some people, but the phrase
“some people can eat this species and suffer no ill
effects”is almost verbatim from Krieger (1936/
1967 reprint: 238–239).
Despite his inconsistencies, his apparent dis-
trust of his own ﬁndings, and his failure to use
science to support (or debunk) folk detoxiﬁcation
techniques, Smith deserves credit for breaking
with his 20th-century predecessors in publishing
accounts of A. muscaria’s usage as food. Smith
was a mushroom taxonomist, not an ethnogra-
pher, and he did not often report ethnographic
uses of mushrooms in his books. He clearly did
not trust the detoxiﬁcation procedure he de-
scribed for A. muscaria, and strongly recommen-
ded against employing it. Yet, in four books
spanning more than 20 years he repeatedly
described or alluded to this same detoxiﬁcation
procedure which he distrusted. Why would he do
so when it would have been so much easier not to
mention it being eaten and simply to agree with
the 20th-century ﬁeld guide consensus that A.
muscaria was poisonous? We think his repeated
references to detoxiﬁcation point to food use of A.
muscaria in North America consisting not of
isolated instances, but of a tradition sufﬁciently
developed and widespread enough that Smith
anticipated some of his readers encountering it,
and thus felt compelled to inform them of it.
Though Smith was a highly respected mush-
room expert, his repeated references to the use of
A. muscaria as an esculent were ignored by
subsequent ﬁeld guide authors (e.g., McKenny
and Stuntz 1971; Miller 1972; Guild 1977; Arora
1979,1986; Lincoff 1981;Fischer and Bessette
1992; Jordan and Wheeler 1995; Bessette et al.
1997), suggesting a broad cultural bias against
taking ethnographic references to mushroom food
use seriously when they contradict prevailing
practices. However, we ﬁnd Smith’s allusions
In addition to the aforementioned references
by Peck, and more speciﬁcally to the food use of
A. muscaria by African-Americans in America’s
South, we surmise that there was, and may still
be, an undocumented tradition of eating A.
muscaria in North America. Besides Smith, who
231RUBEL & ARORA: EDIBILITY, BIAS, AND AMANITA MUSCARIA2008]
collected mushrooms extensively in the Paciﬁc
Northwest and Midwest, Chilton (in Rumack
and Salzman 1978:112) mentioned a “few people
in Europe and North America”preparing A.
muscaria for the table. He described a procedure
similar to that of Coville’s African-American
market woman, though without the ﬁnal soaking
in vinegar. Lincoff and Mitchel (1977:85) men-
tioned unconﬁrmed reports from the Paciﬁc
Northwest of people who “eat the Fly Agaric as
a food after peeling the cap, parboiling the peeled
mushrooms, discarding the cooking water, and
recooking them,”but, like so many 20th-century
authors, they warned against doing so. Denis
Benjamin (pers. comm.) reports similar usage of
A. muscaria in the Paciﬁc Northwest during the
1980s, with one man telling him that his family
had been eating A. muscaria as food for three
We have also encountered people who eat A.
muscaria as food, both in Europe and North
America. One such person, a man living in the
Sierra Nevada foothills of California, actually
came to doubt the safety of his family’s tradition
of eating parboiled A. muscaria based on what he
had read in Arora’s (1986) ﬁeld guide. The man
asked Arora if there were any long-term ill effects
from dining on parboiled A. muscaria because he
hadn’t noticed any short-term ill effects. It is
difﬁcult to imagine rural Tibetans or Mayans who
had been taught by their parents how to safely
prepare a particular mushroom losing conﬁdence
because of what was written in a book. But in
20th-century North America, the prestige of the
written word was such that this rural man sought
assurance for something that he had been doing
all his life, and he ironically sought it from a ﬁeld
guide author who had never (at that time) eaten it
as a food, and, unaware of the 19th-century
understanding that it was edible, had merely
repeated the 20th-century consensus that it
wasn’t. As a result of this encounter and further
research with Alan Phipps in Sanada, Japan,
where A. muscaria is an esteemed edible mush-
room (Wasson and Wasson 1957; Arora 2000;
Phipps 2000), Arora has changed his assessment
of the edibility of A. muscaria and now considers
it to be a delicious edible mushroom if parboiled.
This information, however, has not yet made its
way into his ﬁeld guides (Arora 1986,1991).
The only modern English-language ﬁeld guide
we have found that categorically states that one
can make A. muscaria safe to eat is The Mushroom
Manual by Lorentz Pearson (1987). Citing the
Swedish ﬁeld guide author Bengt Cortin, who
personally tested more than 300 species of wild
mushrooms including many of doubtful edibility,
Pearson (1987:61) offered the following detoxiﬁ-
To render Amanita muscaria safe to eat: (1)
carefully peel the cap, removing every bit of the
pellis or rind...; (2) cut into relatively small bits; (3)
place the bits in boiling water and boil for exactly ﬁve
minutes; (4) discard the water, and boil again in
fresh, boiling water for an additional ﬁve minutes;
(5) discard the water and prepare the mushroom in
the usual way.
Paradoxically, however, just as references to A.
muscaria food use were buried in chapters on
poisoning in Kauffman (1918) and Smith (1975),
the above recipe was placed in a chapter
ominously titled “The Fatal Five,”thereby
severely undercutting its impact. As we have
already noted, other English-language ﬁeld guide
authors have not followed up on Smith’s descrip-
tion of A. muscaria’sedibility, nor on Pearson’s
rendition of Cortin’s precise instructions.
By the end of the 20
century, mention of the
use of parboiled A. muscaria as a food had been
practically expunged from the written record.
Kenneth Lampe (1979:95), in a pharmacological
review of toxic mushrooms, stated, “Cooking
does not markedly affect [its] activity,”and
Didier Michelot and Leda Maria Melendez-
Howell (2003), two scientists favorably disposed
towards A. muscaria, wrote in an otherwise well-
researched paper that “Contrary to some statements,
cooking does not notably lower toxicity, demon-
strating that the active components are not heat
sensitive.”Michelot and Melendez-Howell wanted
to show that the mushroom could be detoxiﬁed and
then eaten for dinner, but the late 20th-century
literature that they worked with no longer included
the 19th-century knowledge that the toxins in A.
muscaria are water soluble. Thus they didn’trealize
that “cooking”per se, i.e., the application of heat,
does not detoxify A. muscaria, but that boiling it in
water does. Their failure to match the correct
cooking method to the mushroom testiﬁes to a
more general failure on the part of the literature
(and especially mushroom ﬁeld guides) to be more
accurate and explicit in reporting the well-
232 ECONOMIC BOTANY [VOL 62
established fact that A. muscaria’s toxins are water
Recent Food Use of Amanita muscaria
outside North America
This work focuses on English-language ﬁeld
guides. A methodical survey of mushroom ﬁeld
guides from Europe and Asia would be instruc-
tive. As an example of what one is likely to
ﬁnd, the Swedish author Bengt Cortin (1942)
wrote (translated by Eric Danell), “Nowadays it
has been determined, that this poisonous mush-
room is harmless if treated in the right way.”
The literature that supports that statement
would be well worth knowing. An Italian author,
Bruno Cetto (1994) mentioned A. muscaria
being eaten as a food in contemporary Italy.
Lucius von Frieden (1964)alsomentionedit
being eaten in Europe. But neither author
provided concrete details, and both focused on
the broader national attitude towards A. muscaria
rather than on regional practices that deviated
from the norm. Even so, the mention of A.
muscaria use as food in parts of Italy suggests
that a broader survey of ﬁeld guides might
uncover useful information on the practice of
A. muscaria consumptioninEuropethatcould
then be used to focus ﬁeld research where one is
most likely to still be able to ﬁnd people who can
explain how they detoxify the mushroom, what
they do with it, and how it ﬁts into their culture
The best English-language report on the
current use of A. muscaria as food in Asia, or for
that matter, anywhere, is Phipps’(2000) treatise
focused on the town of Sanada in Nagano
Prefecture, Japan. Phipps’primary goal was to
ascertain through laboratory testing whether the
traditional salting method there rendered A.
muscaria totally safe. It did. After boiling and
storing the mushrooms in salt—the predominant
treatment of A. muscaria in and around Sanada—
Phipps found that there was no detectable
muscimol or ibotenic acid. Phipps documented
two other preparation methods: grilling and
drying. The grilled caps are typically eaten by
groups of men along with sake, while the dried
caps are powdered for use as a ﬂavor-enhancing
condiment, producing the taste sensation the
Japanese call umami (Kawai et al. 2002); accord-
ing to Lincoff and Mitchel (1977), ibotenic acid
and muscimol are far more powerful than the
better known umami agent, MSG. In contrast to
parboiling, Phipps found that both grilling and
drying, far from detoxifying the mushroom,
convert some of the ibotenic acid into the much
more potent compound, muscimol (Phipps
2000:52–58). Phipps’work offers a model for
combining ethnographic research with laboratory
processes—drying, grilling, roasting, frying, boil-
ing—in eliminating or concentrating mushroom
Amanita muscaria: A Special
Mushroom but Not a Special Case
The consistent labeling of A. muscaria as
poisonous and the failure of modern ﬁeld guides
to acknowledge its use as food is by no means a
special case. Many other mushrooms that can be
made edible through knowledgeable processing
are routinely dismissed as “poisonous”or not
edible in mushroom ﬁeld guides, whether out of
bias, ignorance, or both. For example, B. luridus
Schaeff., B. erythropus sensu auct. mult., and
their close relatives are commonly eaten in China
and Europe (especially Italy) but are labeled
poisonous by many English-language ﬁeld guides
(e.g., Miller 1972; Bessette and Sundberg 1987;
Bessette et al. 1997; Hall et. al 2003). B. satanas
Lenz is eaten in Sicily after a complex cooking
process (Galli 1996) but is described as poison-
ous by most ﬁeld guides, including Italian ones
(e.g., Cetto 1994;Testi1995; Papetti et al.
1999). B. subvelutipes Peck is eaten in Japan
(Imazeki et al. 1988) and has been safely served
for years by restaurants in Massachusetts but is
listed as poisonous in ﬁeld guides written
speciﬁcally for that area (Bessette et al. 1997;
Bessette et al. 2001). Gomphus ﬂoccosus
(Schwein.) Singer is often listed as poisonous
(e.g., Miller and Miller 2006), but is commonly
sold in the markets of Mexico and China. Acrid,
red-capped russulas such as Russula emetica are
widely eaten after being cooked or salted but are
labeled poisonous by ﬁeld guides in many
languages (e.g., Hagara 1987; States 1990;Kuo
2007). Various peppery species of Lactarius such
as L. torminosus (Schaeff.) Gray are condemned
as poisonous by assorted English-language ﬁeld
guides (e.g., Glick 1979; Phillips 1981,1991;
McKenny et al. 1987; Miller and Miller 2006)
but form an important part of northern Euro-
pean, Russian, and Siberian cuisine, as noted by
233RUBEL & ARORA: EDIBILITY, BIAS, AND AMANITA MUSCARIA2008]
Heilmann-Clausen et al. (1998: 30) in their
monograph on Lactarius:
Lactarius torminosus is listed among the poisonous
species in southern Europe, but in Finland the
edibility of the species is not questioned.
Not only individual species but entire genera
are routinely dismissed by ﬁeld guides as poison-
ous or inedible or worthless (e.g., Lincoff 1981;
Arora 1986; Jordan and Wheeler 1995), despite
containing commercially-valuable edible species
with long histories of usage. These genera include
Astraeus, Calostoma, Cortinarius, Entoloma,Hebe-
loma, Helvella, Schizophyllum, Scleroderma,Suil-
lus, and Tremella, to name just a few.
Criteria for Edibility Determinations
of Mushrooms versus Plants
Listing A. muscaria as edible rather than
poisonous is a completely unremarkable judgment
in a culinary context, or even in the context of
most books on plant identiﬁcation and uses. In
many cases, the processing required for traditional
plant foods is far more exacting and labor-intensive
than the parboiling required to make A. muscaria
edible. For example, most bamboo shoots (e.g.,
Dendrocalamus, Phyllostachys,andBambusa spp.)
require boiling, in some cases with two changes of
water. Researchers have determined that the
traditional parboiling method for preparing the
seaweed hijiki, Hizikia fusiforme (Harvey) Oka-
mura, removes potentially dangerous quantities of
arsenic found in the raw product (Hanaoka et al.
2001;Ichikawaetal.2006). Lupine or wolfbean
(Lupinis albus L.), which the authors recently
purchased at a California supermarket, may require
up to four days of soaking and water changes to
make it safe for the table (Grande et al. 2004). The
Canadian Food Inspection Agency (2005)recom-
mends detoxifying ﬁddlehead ferns (Matteuccia
struthiopteris L.) prior to “sauteeing, frying, or
baking”by rinsing them in several changes of
water, and then boiling for 15 minutes, or
steaming for 12 minutes. Pokeweed (Phytolacca
americana L.), the subject of a popular radio song
in 1965 and a frequently eaten wild food in the
American South and Midwest, has roots that can
be fatally poisonous and shoots that are “one of the
best tasting vegetables on the planet”(Brill 2002);
the shoots, however, need to be boiled three times
(and the water discarded) to render them safe to
eat (Brill 2002:164–165). We have already men-
tioned that cassava, the source of tapioca, requires
special treatment to eliminate hydrocyanic acid
(Taylor 1859). Another staple, taro (Colocasia
esculenta [L.] Schott), must be cooked 10–45
minutes depending on the variety and the part of
the plant used in order to avoid experiencing “the
sensation of a hundred red hot needles”in one’s
throat (Solomon and Solomon 1998:375).
As can be seen, this list of examples ranges
from relatively obscure dietary supplements to
widely-used, culturally-salient staples, and the
consequences of improper preparation can be
milder than for A. muscaria, or more severe. Yet
all of these foods are consistently described in
plant ﬁeld guides (as well as cookbooks) as being
edible, and it is either taken for granted that
readers know how to prepare them (the packet
of lupine we purchased had no instructions for
its preparation!), or else directions for their
processing are provided. Their toxicity, while
acknowledged, is not used to dissuade people
from eating them, but is instead treated as an
inconvenience—something to be removed as
one would remove dirt from a garden carrot.
Jacquat and Bertossa (1990), for example, said
this about the Thai plant phak naam (Lasia
spinosa Thw.): “The young leaves are edible, but
must be cooked or fermented to neutralize the
hydrocyanic acid.”While mushroom ﬁeld guides
are not cookbooks, and cannot be expected to
carry the burden of an encyclopedic record of
mushroom use, it would be easy enough for
authors to say something equally terse, useful,
and non-inﬂammatory about A. muscaria,such
as, “edible if sliced thinly and parboiled in a large
pot of salted water for 15 minutes, rinsed, and the
water thrown out.”They are, after all, the
authorities that most urban people (including
many scientists) consult ﬁrst when they want to
learn about a mushroom.
Contemporary English-language cookbook
and plant ﬁeld-guide authors operate in the
same litigious climate as mushroom ﬁeld guide
authors, and all write for increasingly nature-
alienated, rather than nature-immersed, audi-
ences. But the formers’emphasis tends to be on
aplant’s edibility, not its toxicity, at least where
there is a history of usage, while wild mush-
rooms appear to be held to an entirely different
standard of accountability by English-language
234 ECONOMIC BOTANY [VOL 62
It is tempting to attribute this double standard
to the entrenched Anglo-American cultural an-
tipathy toward wild mushrooms called “myco-
phobia”by the husband-wife team of Valentina
Pavlovna Wasson and R. Gordon Wasson (1957),
and “fungophobia”by British naturalist William
Delisle Hay (1887:6), who commented,
[All mushrooms]... are lumped together in one
sweeping condemnation. They are looked upon as
vegetable vermin, only made to be destroyed. No
English eye can see their beauties, their ofﬁce is
unknown, their varieties not regarded.
While mycophobia undoubtedly limits the
range of mushroom species labeled edible, a more
speciﬁc Anglo-American antipathy toward boiled
mushrooms has probably also had an effect on
English-language authors’determinations of sev-
eral species’ﬁtness for the table, including A.
muscaria. In Anglo-American cuisine, boiling
mushrooms is an alien concept that approaches
taboo status. We boil green vegetables, tubers,
and eggs, not mushrooms. The last reference to
boiling mushrooms that we could ﬁnd in a major
English-language cookbook was in Robert May’s
The Accomplsht Cook (1660). English 18th-cen-
tury mushroom cookery practice was to stew,
grill, bake, and fry mushrooms, but without
parboiling (Glasse 1747; Briggs 1792). This is
the practice that entered the American cookbook
literature in the 19th century, and is the tradition
that North Americans follow to this day (Randolph
1836;Lincoln1884;Rorer1902; Rombauer et al.
2006). An exception is Kuo (2007), an American
ﬁeld guide author, who is not averse to boiling
the mushroom, Lactarius deceptivus Peck, three
times with water changes (a northern European
treatment), but nonetheless dismisses A. muscaria
as “seriously poisonous.”On the other hand,
most modern ﬁeld guides in other languages, even
those from countries with little or no aversion to
boiling mushrooms, clearly label A. muscaria as
poisonous, with no mention of it being edible if
parboiled or of its use as food by some people.
Our survey of ﬁeld guides in other languages,
though cursory, included several from mycophilic
countries such as Russia, Italy, and Japan (Hongo
and Izawa 1994; Testi 1995; Papetti et al. 1999;
It is also signiﬁcant that some mushrooms—
e.g., morels (Morchella spp.) and honey mush-
rooms (Armillaria spp.)—are invariably labeled
“edible”in English-language ﬁeld guides despite
being toxic raw (Benjamin 1995:278, 358). In
other words, there is no consistent logical
standard by which a mushroom is judged to be
edible or poisonous. Instead, the initial reputation
that a mushroom—or any potential food—
acquires, for whatever reason, tends to hold sway
through weight of precedence. Cultural assess-
ments of a food’s safety and desirability can
certainly change (see Yamin-Pasternak 2008, this
issue), but not easily. Thus peanuts (Arachis
hypogaea L.) and other tree nuts are in no
immediate danger of being labeled poisonous
despite causing more than 100 deaths a year in
the United States alone (Sampson 2002), while
ﬁeld guide authors list A. muscaria as poisonous
despite its edibility being solidly established in the
19th century. Furthermore, a particularly litigious
culture (such as that of contemporary America)
may function as an additional brake on the
dissemination of unpopular but scientiﬁcally
accurate information. The net result, evident in
the mushroom edibility literature, is a climate of
fear-based ignorance rather than knowledge-based
caution. As Douglass (1917b:207) so pungently
put it, “With bigoted abstinence on the one
hand, with gourmandizing and gluttony on the
other and perhaps a bad cook in the kitchen even
the most innocent and well-meaning mushroom
will acquire a bad reputation.”
Field Guides: Science or Culture?
Food choices and cuisine lie at the heart of
cultural, regional, and national identity, whereas the
taxonomy of nature, at least in modern urban
societies, does not. This dichotomy may explain
why food choices tend to be resistant to change,
while scientiﬁc taxonomy embraces change as proof
of modernity. The accuracy of the taxonomic and
nomenclatural information is scrupulously main-
tained in ﬁeld guides from decade to decade because
modernity confers credibility. If the taxonomy and
nomenclature of a ﬁeld guide are out-of-date, its
credibility suffers, and readers may well doubt the
knowledge of the author. The edibility determina-
tionsareasigniﬁcant part of almost all mushroom
ﬁeld guides; indeed, without the edibility informa-
tion their public appeal would be greatly reduced.
Yet the edibility determinations are free from the
need to be modern or accurate precisely because
they are culturally derived and reﬂect what it means
to be an American or English consumer of wild
235RUBEL & ARORA: EDIBILITY, BIAS, AND AMANITA MUSCARIA2008]
mushrooms, as opposed to a Chinese or Italian one.
As but one example, when the ﬁeld guide by
Thomas (1928) was reissued in a new edition
(Thomas 2003), the scientiﬁc nomenclature was
updated, but the edibility information was not.
The disparity between ﬁeld guides’treatment
of mushroom morphology versus edibility can
also be seen in the language. For example,
poisonous is an intimidating word: attached to a
potential foodstuff, it tends to discourage con-
sumption. For the past 250 years, the primary
meaning of “poison”has been a small amount of
something that causes immense harm, even death
(Oxford English Dictionary 2008), yet mush-
room ﬁeld guides routinely apply the label
“poisonous”to a wide range of species including
those that kill, those that merely upset one’s
stomach, and those that intoxicate. The imprecise
language of mushroom edibility determinations
(edible, poisonous) contrasts sharply with the highly
precise terminology applied to the morphological
features of mushrooms; for example, the surface
ornamentation of a mushroom’s stalk can be
described as squamulose, scabrous, ﬂoccose, punc-
tate, reticulate, or glandular-dotted. The difference
in language further suggests that the high quality of
analytical thought applied to questions of identiﬁ-
cation and morphology is not applied in the same
measure to a mushroom’s edibility, and is instead
superseded by personal and cultural bias.
There is nothing inherently wrong with teach-
ing edibility in terms of cultural practices as long
as the bias is declared. However, modern ﬁeld
guides tend not to explicitly declare their bias as
Curtis (1777–1798) did when he said of Agaricus
ﬁmetarius L., “It is not eaten with us.”Instead,
ﬁeld guides tend to declare a mushroom species as
“poisonous”or “not edible”as if it were an
objective truth (see, for example: Lincoff 1981;
Bon 1987; Phillips 1991; Jordan and Wheeler
1995; Bessette et al. 1997).
The problem of cultural bias in the evaluation
of mushroom edibility was recognized in the 19th
century when ﬁeld guides were still a new genre.
The Frenchman, Dr. Pouchet (1839), noted
many instances in which the absolutist language
of mushroom edibility asserted as fact the inedi-
bility of a mushroom that was either published as
edible by a different “expert,”or was known to be
eaten someplace else:
According to Bulliard, the Boletus cyanescens
[Gyroporus cyanescens (Bull.) Quél] is poisonous,
while Bosc says that it is eaten in Piémont; Agaricus
necator [Lactarius necator (Bull.) Pers], considered as
a violent poison by many authors, was eaten by M.
Letellier without the least problem, and Buxbaum
says that the Russians make a great use of it.
L’Agaricus acris [Lactarius piperatus (L.) Pers.], is
also described as poisonous by a great number of
specialists, and eaten in many places, according to M.
Little has changed since 1839, as mushroom
ﬁeld guides continue to disregard ethnographic
and scientiﬁc evidence of edibility in favor of an
intellectually closed system for assessing mush-
room edibility based on personal bias, the
culinary and cultural practices of the author’s
home country, and the information presented in
preceding ﬁeld guides.
Furthermore, the ﬁeld guide’s literary form
itself deceives. All of the information about each
mushroom appears to derive from one set of
objective facts led by the scholarly taxonomic
binomial for each species. But while the Linnaean
taxonomic system is concerned with mushroom
morphology and phylogeny, the edibility deter-
mination and information are there to advise
cooks, not taxonomists. Thus, two entirely differ-
ent classiﬁcation systems with different goals,
each resting upon a different body of knowledge
and arrived at using different methods, are
deceptively intermingled; the taxonomic and
descriptive information predominates (typically by
a ratio of more than 5:1), and the edibility
information derives much of its gravitas from
being embedded in the former. Sitting under the
taxonomic umbrella, the edibility information is
shaded, as it were, from the glare of objective
scrutiny. In summary, mushroom ﬁeld guide
authors teach the science of taxonomy. They could
teach the science of edibility, but they don’t. They
teach a cultural lesson, and always have.
Field Guides and the Future
Field guide bias has been an impediment to
sound scholarship, as we have shown for Michelot
and Melendez-Howell (2003). It may have
discouraged ethnographers from seeking informa-
tion on the consumption of mushrooms they
assumed could not be eaten, and it most certainly
has limited the number of mushroom tastes,
shapes, and textures available to cooks. Therefore,
we support Samuel Thayer’s(2006:12) insistence
that ﬁeld guide authors provide citations for every
236 ECONOMIC BOTANY [VOL 62
fact of edibility or toxicity not derived from
personal experience. In his words,
When the works of authors who abide by [this
principle] come to supplant those of sloppy scholar-
ship, the study of wild food plants will be taken
seriously again, and the oldest and most beautiful
pastime in history will rise from the ashes.
In the last century there has been a dramatic
urbanization of the landscape, widespread de-
struction of mushroom habitat, and a radical
transformation of the relationship between people
and forests. Both authors have shared the
company of traditional mushroom collectors on
all the major continents, and, except in the most
isolated villages, these people tend to collect many
fewer species than their parents, and their parents
collect fewer than the grandparents (see Guissou
et al. 2008, this issue). As with so many practices
related to forests, knowledge is being rapidly lost.
But if we methodically hunt for the remnants of
mushroom knowledge with the obsessive diligence
we search for mushrooms hidden under forest
leaves, we may still be able to preserve a broad
record of human endeavor regarding wild mush-
room edibility and preparation, and the role wild
mushrooms have played in people’s lives prior to
mass urbanization. For this hunt we must use
focused conferences, ﬁeld work, laboratory experi-
ments, and the many tools of the Internet to
assemble and disseminate information about mush-
room edibility and usage from all over the world.
We believe that concerted research will reveal
that the record of mushroom usage is far richer,
more intricate, and more varied than the modern
literature would suggest. Bringing ﬁeld guide
edibility determinations in line with accurate
ethnographic and toxicological scholarship would
create a body of work that will both preserve
culinary information that is at risk of being lost,
and facilitate a new mushroom cookery based on
the broadest possible deﬁnition of edibility. This
might seem a daunting task, but it coincides with
a renewed and growing interest in local and wild
foods (Ghirardini et al. 2007) that challenges the
homogenizing inﬂuences of globalization (a process
occurring even with respect to wild mushrooms, as
described by Sitta and Floriani 2008,thisissue).
As the scope of orally-transmitted mushroom
knowledge diminishes in countries where mush-
room collecting has been widespread, ﬁeld guides
will play an increasingly important role in shaping
human-mushroom relationships. They will sup-
plant parents and village elders as the most
signiﬁcant and obvious sources for information
on mushroom identiﬁcation, ecology, and edibil-
ity; indeed, in some countries they already have.
But greater inﬂuence entails heightened responsi-
bility and a more pressing need to be accurate.
For, as we have shown for Amanita muscaria,ﬁeld
guides not only reﬂect and reinforce cultural
consensus, they forge it.
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241RUBEL & ARORA: EDIBILITY, BIAS, AND AMANITA MUSCARIA2008]
HOW TO SAFELY PREPARE AMANITA MUSCARIA
FOR THE DINNER TABLE,AND WHY BOTHER?
The scattered historical references to the use of
Amanita muscaria as food offer only broad guide-
lines for its preparation. The research done on the
traditional method for detoxifying the seaweed,
hijiki, Hizikia fusiforme (Harvey) Okamura
(Hanaoka et al. 2001;Ichikawaetal.2006) offers
a model for what could be done for A. muscaria
and other “poisonous”mushrooms with a record
of being eaten. Research on the safe usage of
mushrooms with water-soluble toxins, such as A.
muscaria, could systematically examine such
parameters as the boiling time, number of water
changes, and quantity of water needed, the
advantage of using salt and/or vinegar, if any,
and the efﬁcacy of slicing the mushrooms thinly
or of presoaking them.
Until optimum methods for detoxiﬁcation have
been established through testing, broad guidelines
based on oral tradition and the limited written
record will have to sufﬁce. Pouchet (1839) boiled
A. muscaria for 15 minutes and Gerard (1863) for
30 minutes. Smith (1963) said the mushrooms
should be boiled until “yellow scum”comes to the
surface. Pearson (1987) recommended two boil-
ings in separate batches of water for ﬁve minutes
each time. Phipps (2000) reported that residents
of Sanada, Japan, boiled A. muscaria an
average of 10 minutes prior to storing them in
salt, but his ﬁnding that ibotenic acid and
muscimol were completely eliminated was
based on specimens that had been both boiled
and stored in salt. Both authors of this article
have been serving parboiled A. muscaria to
family and dinner guests for more than 10 years,
and have arrived, through judicious experimen-
tation, at the following recipe:
Cut the A. muscaria cap and stalk into thin slices
(no more than 3–4 mm or 1/8”thick) to hasten
dissolving of the active constituents. For each 110 g*
or 4 oz of mushroom, use 1 liter or quart of water
with 1 teaspoon salt. Garlic and bay leaf can be
added to the water for ﬂavoring. Bring the water to a
rolling boil, then add the sliced mushrooms. Begin
timing the cooking once the water returns to a boil.
Boil for 10–15 minutes, until the mushroom is soft,
then drain and rinse.
We believe that this method of preparation
renders A. muscaria safe, meaning adverse reac-
tions will occur no more frequently than for most
other widely-eaten foods, providing one doesn’t
overindulge. As Badham (1863:34) so aptly put it,
people should “eat what they like but not as much
of it as they like.”
Once parboiled, A. muscaria can be used in
most mushroom recipes, for example, in a mush-
room gravy (Coville 1898) or as an appetizer salad
dressed in a vinaigrette. It also works well as a
ravioli stufﬁng, and provides ﬂavor and texture as
the mushroom in almost any mushroom dish. We
sometimes boil A. muscaria caps for only ﬁve to
six minutes in order to retain a touch of the red
color, which looks especially beautiful when the
parboiled slices are lightly simmered in a clear
broth. When we do this, however, we only serve
each guest one-quarter to one-third of a cap.
Eating too much undercooked A. muscaria or using
too little water or not enough salt, or not slicing it
thinly enough, may be cause for inebriation
(Millman and Haff 2004).
Even after long boiling, A. muscaria retains a
pleasantly ﬁrm texture. Yet there is a popular
Anglo-American misconception that boiling
mushrooms makes them mushy. In reality, boiling
many kinds of mushrooms in lightly-salted water
has quite the opposite effect: it tightens their
structure, making them ﬁrm. Rombauer et al.
(2006:1055) acknowledge this when they general-
ize about vegetables (but not speciﬁcally mush-
rooms): “[boiling helps] to preserve nutrients and
to ﬁrm the tissues of vegetables.”Most mush-
rooms are actually safer and more digestible
cooked, but as Benjamin (1995:143–144, 147)
points out, our current cooking fashion favors raw
or lightly-cooked ingredients, and young chefs,
while embracing wild mushrooms, “lack the lore
that should accompany this experimentation.”
Properly prepared, Amanita muscaria is a deli-
cious mushroom. Yet we are frequently posed the
rhetorical question: Why eat A. muscaria when
there are so many other edible mushrooms
available? Or more succinctly: Why bother? The
reasons to eat it are as numerous and obvious as
the mushroom itself: it is big, it is beautiful, it is
delicious, it is there, and it is one of the easiest of
all wild mushrooms to identify. Safely preparing it
is not difﬁcult, and there is the added challenge and
pleasure of recreating historic dishes, such as the
one offered to Coville by the African-American
market woman in Washington, D.C. For anyone
who enjoys the occasional foray into the woods to
242 ECONOMIC BOTANY [VOL 62
pick wild mushrooms for dinner, the more logical
question would be: Why not eat it?
It also bears mentioning that amateur English
and North American mushroom hunters typically
do not collect a wide range of wild mushroom
species. Instead they tend to mimic the limited
offerings of gourmet restaurants: morels, chanter-
elles, porcini. An urban-based mushroom menu is
thus emerging. Yet many mushroom hunters com-
plain that these same few mushroom species they
seek are becoming increasingly difﬁcult to ﬁnd
because of competition (e.g., Boom 2005). A.
muscaria is an enticing and plentiful alternative. It
is thus worthwhile knowing how to prepare it safely.
243RUBEL & ARORA: EDIBILITY, BIAS, AND AMANITA MUSCARIA2008]
* 110 g is correct, not 250 g as stated in the printed version.