February 3, 2013

Mushrooming throughout our history

In the history of North-Eastern of North America, mushrooms have been intriguingly absent. In general, Native Americans here seem to have had mixed feelings: a fear of eating them and a fascination for their spiritual potency.

Spirituality

The Jesuits of New France noted the ceremonial use of mushrooms, a practice which has disappeared through colonization and the spread of Christianity. The Jesuit Lallemant wrote; "They believe in the immortality of our souls and that after death they go to the Sky World, where they eat mushrooms, and communicate amongst themselves." Was it the hallucinogenic fly agaric they were eating ? The Attikameks, Micmacs and Cheyennes all associated mushrooms with death but recognized them as food for times of great scarcity. Unfortunately, there are no direct testimonies or traces left.

Fire

Some species such as chaga were used to start fires, a custom most likely brought to North America by the earliest migrants migrating from Siberia. The Attikameks that we joined recently on an excursion collecting morels explained that, in the past, chaga allowed for the transportation of fire in canoes from one campsite to another. In the neighboring Cree community of Oujé-Bougoumou, elders remember having used another species, the timber polypore, to light fires. Interestingly, a timber polypore was unearthed in the bag of a prehistoric man that was discovered in the Italian Alps in 1991 that had served a similar purpose 5000 years ago.

Traditional medicine

Many indigenous cultures in North America traditionally used mushrooms to cure ailments, but much of this knowledge has been forgotten. The Inuits of Northern Québec find their area carpeted by a few species like the common scaber stalks in late summer. They disdainfully nicknamed them "caribou food" for the large quantities hunters typically find in the stomachs of their catch, but they are known to have used puffball mushrooms to heal wounds.

The understated presence of mushrooms in our history contrasts with the notoriety acquired recently by many indegenous species such as turkey tail, ganoderma and chaga, prized today for anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor and other medicinal properties.

Diet

For indigenous communties west of the Rockies, mushrooms were an important staple of their diet. In British Columbia, for example, native people from the Thomson nation eat chanterelles, shaggy manes, oyster mushrooms, matsutakes, puffballs and a variety of lepistas called ‘lightening mushroom’. In northern Mexico, the Tarchumara people still harvest a species of amanita, similar to caesar’s mushrooms, lobster mushrooms and many other varieties. Curiously, they ignore matsutakes, which grow in abundance in their area.

In this part of the continent, traditional diets were typically made up of wild game, fish and other marine animals found along coasts and in rivers. Algonquins are said to have eaten puffballs while Iroquois may have harvested chanterelles, morels and many other edibles. In general, mushrooms had a fatal role in their myths and stories. Otherwise, they are nowhere to be found in descriptions of traditional feasts in which outsiders have participated.

It wasn’t until the arrival of Eastern European immigrants in Abitibi, Québec, from 1928 onward that wild mushrooms made their way into the local diet. In mining communities of Rouyn-Noranda and Val d’Or, guest houses received Ukrainians, Russians, Serbians and Slovakians who brought along recipes for baked pike with mushrooms, meatballs with mushroom sauce, barley-mushroom soup and mushrooms with sour cream. The History of Traditional Cooking in Quebec mentions, for example, a slovak recipe for potato gratin with fresh sliced boletes, baked in the oven with butter and salt. Later on, in Montreal, the first generation of Europeans who settled here after the Second World War continued their habit of harvesting in the surrounding woods.

In the past decade, we have seen a spectacular come-back. Those passionate about nature have joined foodies in gathering expeditions. Additionally, the decline of the logging industry has stimulated mushroom-picking as an alternate source of income. Mushrooming has now become trendy. 

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