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No mushrooms on the traditional menu

Posted: October 20, 2013 - 12:03am

I wanted to write about hunting mushrooms, but Mary Catharine Martin beat me to it with a story in the Capital City Weekly.

I have my own pocket guide to mushrooms and have used it to identify mushrooms in my yard and along the trail, though I don’t feel safe actually eating one of my self-identified mushrooms without an experienced hunter to back me up that the mushroom is, indeed, edible.

Maybe I could write from another angle, others encouraged. Well, when I think of sustainable harvest of local foods, I immediately wonder what Alaska Natives have done — they were here first, after all, surviving off this land.

First, I consulted my copy of Our Food Is Our Tlingit Way of Life, scanning the entire glossary of terms for mention of mushrooms. Not one.

I called Ernestine Hayes, who had been integral in organizing the Edible Art of Place series put on by the University of Alaska Southeast earlier this year. We chatted a couple times, both about who else to reach out to and mushrooms themselves.

I asked Libby Watanabe, who has a background in nutrition and was one of the presenters for AoP. Libby was not aware of mushrooms being a traditional Tlingit food. But, she said, I should ask some others. A wise woman always knows there is much she may not know.

Libby suggested I call Helen Watkins, who has a vast wealth of knowledge of traditional foods, and who presented at nearly every AoP session, even when she wasn’t explicitly on the agenda — she just knows so much and shares such great stories. But Helen had the same response, it wasn’t a traditional food that she knew of.

“When I was a girl, I thought puffball
(mushrooms) were just something to kick in the forest,” Helen told me with a laugh.

It’s safe to say mushrooms might be on the menu at the Watkins house today, but she had no record of it being a traditional food.

Carol Biggs was recommended — she’s the author of Wild Edible & Medicinal Plants Alaska, Canada, and Pacific Northwest Rainforest — but it turns out Carol is allergic to mushrooms and it wasn’t a focus of the two volumes published. Marie Olson provided the Tlingit translations for the book and no doubt knows a ton, but I was unable to get in touch with her.

I even contacted Petersburg-born Rob Kinneen, an Anchorage chef of Tlingit heritage who has dedicated his life to fresh, local foods. According to Kineen’s website, fresh49.com, he and his wife Carolyn are working on a documentary exploring Alaskan regional cuisine and Alaska Native identity.

Rob wrote in an email response, “I do not know of any traditional uses or whether or not they have been eaten, so I don’t know enough to weigh in on the issue. I will keep this in mind though!”

He shares some tasty looking recipes and interesting webisodes on the website, including a recipe for muktuk sushi (no mushrooms there, but it sounds wild, right?) and things as basic as lasagna with reindeer sausage (and mushrooms). It’s definitely modern cuisine, but influenced by Alaska Native traditional foods and attitudes.

Based on the responses from everyone I was able to chat with, I determined mushrooms just weren’t on the menu. But why?

All anyone could do was speculate.

I thought maybe people were cautious; there are mushrooms that look quite appealing that contain neurotoxins, and there are plenty of edible mushrooms with poisonous look-alikes.

Helen suggested mushrooms may not have been worth harvesting because there wasn’t a good way to keep them, and a lot of the traditional foods were easy enough to store and save, like smoked salmon or dried seaweed. Yum. I know you can buy dried mushrooms at the store, but they may not store as well as the other traditional foods.

Ernestine, when I asked her if she could make a conjecture, said she thought maybe mushrooms weren’t nutritious enough to warrant putting on the menu. She pointed out that Southeast Alaska has a bounty of healthful foods, including salmon, seaweed, venison, root vegetables, berries and so much more. With a serving of basic white mushrooms listed as having just 15 calories, and with little else listed that might contribute to vitamin-rich diet, Ernestine might be on to something here. Blueberries, for one serving, boast 84 calories and 24 percent of the daily recommendation of Vitamin C. King salmon, for one ounce, boasts 52 calories, three grams of (arguably healthy) fat and a solid six grams of protein.

For the effort that goes into hunting and gathering in a subsistence lifestyle, mushrooms would fall way behind other foods with higher nutritional value and, some might argue, a lot more flavor.

Some might say this endeavor in writing about mushrooms was fruitless — or mushroomless — but it was really interesting to talk with people I admire about the topic and to think about why mushrooms weren’t on the menu.

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