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A fungus among us

Make room for mushrooms

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It's amazing what we'll consume. We eat milk that's gone bad and call it cheese (and sometimes it's even moldy), we eat slimy fish eggs on toast points and it's the oh-so-ritzy caviar. And we eat fungus, a parasitic lower plant. Of course, by calling it a mushroom we can forget it's in the same family as mildew and rust.

When it's been damp and rainy, you'll see mushrooms sprouting on your lawn or up the side of that big old tree in your front yard. Although they're not necessarily poisonous (98 percent of all mushrooms are edible), you probably don't want to pick them to top off your pizza. There's no foolproof rule to differentiate a poisonous mushroom from a safe one. My Italian uncle would put a silver coin in with mushrooms while they were cooking; if it turned black, the mushrooms were poisonous, according to Uncle Mike. According to plant pathologists, there's no basis in fact for that.

For millennia, supernatural powers have been attributed to mushrooms. Many believed that mushrooms could produce super-human strength, help in finding lost objects, and lead the soul to the realm of the gods. Hieroglyphics dating from 4,600 years ago illustrate that Egyptians believed mushrooms were the plant of immortality. The greedy pharaohs decreed that mushrooms were food for royalty and no commoner could touch them. Mushroom rituals were practiced by civilizations around the world, including Russia, China, Greece, Mexico and Latin America. In Wonderland, too, as evidenced by Alice's adventures:

After a while she remembered that she still held the pieces of mushroom in her hands, and she set to work very carefully, nibbling first at one and then at the other, and growing sometimes taller, and sometimes shorter, until she had succeeded in bringing herself down to her usual height.

When Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland was published in 1865, it was hardly the first reference to the hallucinatory effects of mushrooms. A well documented hallucinogenic mushroom experience took place in London in 1799. A man drank broth made from field mushrooms he'd gathered. About an hour later, black spots and odd flashes of color burst across his vision and he became disorientated and had difficulty standing and moving around. His family experienced similar symptoms -- except for his eight-year-old son who was "attacked with fits of immoderate laughter." Although mushrooms were identified as the source of the family's reactions, only in later years did it become clear that this was intoxication by Liberty Caps (Psilocybe semilanceata), the "magic mushrooms" which grow across the hills, moors, golf courses and playing fields of Britain every autumn. In the 1950s, Albert Hoffman, the discoverer of LSD, identified common chemistry between LSD and hallucinogenic mushrooms.

But if you're interested in a culinary adventure rather than a psychedelic one, you don't need to forage in the forest or harness up your truffle-hunting pig. Supermarkets carry a wide variety of mushrooms, from white button to shiitake, cremini to enoki, porcini to portobella. Some, like enoki, have a delicate flavor; others, especially portobella, are dense and meaty. All are low in calories, cholesterol-free, virtually fat- and sodium-free, and are a good source of potassium, iron, B-vitamins, riboflavin and niacin. They also have anticancer properties. Not bad for a lowly fungus, huh? Those ancient cultures may have had it right about mushrooms' super powers.

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