Picky Eating Chronicles: Defeated by Fungi

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It is not a proud day when a grown woman has to admit defeat to a fungus. But that's where I find myself after a solid month of trying to overcome an aversion to mushrooms. Despite the protestations of friends and family who swear that mushrooms are culinary treasures, the mere thought of spores still makes me shiver with what I believe is clinically termed "the heebie jeebies."

Mushrooms have posed the biggest challenge yet in my quest to expand my palate because the root of my dislike is threefold. Food aversions that are a matter of flavor can often be overcome simply by finding fresher ingredients, trying different varieties of the food, or incorporating it into a favorite dish. Similarly, there are straightforward approaches to dealing with texture. Preparation can be key—peas with bite replace green goo, thinly-sliced beets retain little grittiness.

With mushrooms, flavor and texture are joined by a more complicated problem that I can only identify as conceptual distaste. What does that mean? Consider this: for most of my freshman year of college, I happily—if obliviously—ate mushrooms in the beef stroganoff served weekly in our dining hall. They lent a vaguely savory element to the dish (in fact, many food experts now consider umami, the complex flavor typified by mushrooms, to be the fifth taste, along with sweet, salty, bitter, and sour). And their sliminess was so well masked by the viscous industrial gravy that for six months I mistook the mushroom slices for tiny pieces of beef. It was only when a friend pointed out that the piece of beef on the fork headed toward my mouth was actually a mushroom that I became unable to eat beef stroganoff.

It is the idea of the mushroom that I could not—and cannot—get past. Mushrooms are fungi. They grow on logs, or in what we'll politely call manure. They are the type of organism you might break down and eat if lost in the woods for weeks, but maybe not even then. The Smurfs lived in mushrooms.

Everything about the mushroom—from the gills to the cap to the stem—screams "inedible object" to me.

There may be evolutionary reasons for my mushroom antipathy. Over the centuries, many cultures have avoided mushrooms because of the difficulty of distinguishing poisonous specimens from more benign varieties. Tales of famous deaths by mushroom poisoning have embedded themselves in our cultural consciousness, with victims including the Buddha, the Roman emperor Claudius, and both parents of the physicist Daniel Fahrenheit, creator of the Fahrenheit scale. As recently as 2008, Nicholas Evans, author of The Horse Whisperer, had to undergo kidney dialysis after eating poisonous wild mushrooms he had picked in the woods.

Not everyone considers mushrooms as primarily inedible or hazardous, of course. The Italians love their porcini, and some Chinese revere mushrooms for rumored medicinal or aphrodisiac qualities. In Russia, mushrooms are beloved—they are the main characters in a popular children's song and are traditionally used to illustrate the letter "g" (for grib) the way American picture books use "A is for Apple."

But many cultures are mycophobic (yes, there is an official fear of mushrooms), including my own Gaelic stock. Every year in Ireland, according to The Oxford Companion to Food, fields of potentially valuable mushrooms go unharvested. And despite their reputation as sophisticated epicureans, the French may be most responsible for cultivating generations of mycophobes. L'Histoire de Babar, known in the States as The Story of Babar the Little Elephant, is familiar to anyone who was once a five-year-old. What you may have forgotten—but what traumatized the more impressionable among us—is that our hero Babar becomes king only after the elderly King of the Elephants dies from eating a poisonous mushroom. The demise is illustrated in gruesome images of the king turning green and croaking. All because of a mushroom.

I tried to set aside the memory of the dying Elephant King as I cleaned mushrooms recently in my kitchen. It was harder to avoid noticing their resemblance to toadstools, which flourished in our backyard when I was growing up and were the subject of repeated warnings. My mom needn't have bothered. Everything about the mushroom—from the gills to the cap to the stem—screams "inedible object" to me.

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Amy Sullivan is a correspondent for National Journal and the director of the Next Economy Project. More

Amy Sullivan is a writer and former senior editor at TIME Magazine who covers politics, religion and culture. She previously served as the magazine's nation editor and as editor of The Washington Monthly. Her first book, The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap, was published by Scribner in 2008. She was a 2009 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science & Religion.

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