Paul Stamets claims that mushrooms can save the world. I'm not so sure about universal salvation through fungal means, but I do enjoy cooking with them, so I decided to call Paul up for some cooking tips. I also happen to have an autoimmune disease, and I was intrigued by Paul's TED talk about the incredible potential of fungi and extensive writing on the nutritional and medicinal properties of mushrooms in his book, Mycelium Running.
I went to the guru of 'shrooms in search of food medicine, albeit with my skeptic wits about me. I asked him to share some culinary tips that might also help ease my symptoms and prevent the progression of my disease. Take this all with a grain of salt—literally, because everything tastes better with salt—and also figuratively, because the science of fungi is still tenuous.
Paul will be the first to admit that he is eccentric. He is drawn to mushrooms for their mystery and danger as much as for their potential to help the human race. He often wears a hat made out of mushrooms. I asked, "Does it fall apart in the rain? Does it smell bad when it gets wet, like leather or wool?" He laughed as though to suggest my naiveté in the face of such fungal magic, then told me that the hat was crafted from Amadou, a hoof conk polypore found in Transylvania, and the same mushroom used by our prehistoric ancestors to transport fire. Back before the Common Era, Hippocrates wrote of the mushroom's anti-inflammatory properties.
Yes: The hat, being hydrophilic, gets heavy in the rain.
Nevermind wearing mushrooms as hats. How does one cook these beasts? Paul eats mushrooms as part of three or more meals a week, in the form of soups, stir-fries, and tea. He even bakes porcini mushrooms into bread, and has toyed with mushroom beer, ice cream, and cookies. (I, too, have experienced the shocking possibility of fungus desserts at a farmer's market in Santa Cruz; a little artisanal gelato food cart sold 'candy cap ice cream', made from a small orange mushroom with a flavor indistinguishable from maple syrup.)
Paul's strongest culinary recommendation is to always cook your mushrooms. He argues that many raw mushrooms contain unstable toxins which can be broken down through heat or acid. If you don't bake, grill, boil, or fry your fungi, you can pickle them, although Paul still recommends a quick boil before tossing them in a vinegar bath.
He speculates that when someone reacts badly to a nontoxic mushroom, the mushroom is interacting negatively with their gut flora, or the bacterial composition of their stomach.
This brings us to one of the greatest medicinal potential of mushrooms: their compatibility with our microbiome. Paul suggests that mushrooms might be the next hot prebiotic, because they assist the growth of 'friendly' bacteria like Lactobacillus acidophilus, and they repress the growth of inflammatory bacteria like Staphylococcus. The beneficial properties vary greatly from species to species, however. Your grocery button mushroom will offer less healing potential than the reishi mushroom from your local herbal apothecary, he says. Of the 15,000 identified species of fungi, just 200 have been designated edible and safe to consume, and 50 of these have been found to contain medicinal benefits. Paul believes that there may be considerably more species with healing properties, but research is limited.
Paul is like a prophet to the fungal spirits. He stands as the translator between the generally ignorant human population and the omnipotent gods of the fungi kingdom. He spoke with both awe and pride when he told me, "It is rare to find something powerful enough to heal you, feed you, kill you, or send you on a spiritual journey. Science and culture have been slow to catch up with the potential of these mushrooms, and there is still so much that we don't know."
We do know enough, however, to make a solid case for mushrooms as essential components of our nutrition and health. They are nutritionally dense, offering high percentages of protein, polysaccharides, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Paul writes in Mycelium Running that many species, such as chaga, red reishi, and agarikon, show promise for preventing and treating chronic illnesses. My disease, scleroderma, along with the entire range of chronic disorders and various cancers, trigger inflammatory responses in the immune system. The three aforementioned mushrooms are anti-inflammatory, and could therefore ease a host of tricky symptoms. Agarikon, in particular ,can be traced back to ancient Greek medical texts: it was described by Dioscorus as the "elixir of life," and, almost as importantly, a laxative.
Paul does not limit his curiosity to the nutrition of mushrooms, however. Once you have named yourself the "mycelial messenger" for the human race, there's no turning back, and Paul is charging ahead with full steam. It is important to make the distinction, however, that Paul does not pretend to be the master of mushrooms, but rather their minion. He is in awe of the potential that mushrooms hold to save the world's problems.
The earth, in Paul's mind, belongs more to the mushrooms than to those who step on them and eat them for breakfast. They were the first organisms to come to land, and survived numerous global disasters. For example, mushrooms absorb toxic waste, he says. In a study in Washington, Paul observed oyster mushroom mycelium transform a pile of diesel waste into a fruiting, buzzing, humming, green garden. Agarikon, the aforementioned shelf mushroom of Pacific Northwest old-growth forests, may offer protection from smallpox, and could therefore be used as a measure of national defense. Paul has conducted research about the antiviral properties of agarikon with the U.S. Biodefense program, and his findings were supported by scientists from the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) and the National Institute of Health (NIH). This mushroom, along with chaga, red reishi, and shiitake, fights and prevent the growth of dangerous viruses and bacteria, such as E. Coli, bird flu, and the H5N1 virus. If aimed properly, mushrooms could make quite a splash in medicine.
Mushrooms will save the Earth, but they're also just cool. At least, they're cool to nerds like Paul Stamets, who are loaded with mushroom fun facts. The largest organism in existence is a giant mycelial mat of honey mushrooms in Eastern Oregon. Paul has also suggested that mycelium—the threads beneath the fruiting body of the mushroom, which act as externalized stomachs and lungs—are actually neurological membranes. Pause for dramatic effect: the mycelium is "sentient." It is Earth's "natural internet." If a mushroom falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Yes, because apparently mushrooms speak to each other in hushed tones when we aren't listening.
So mushrooms will save us—and they're cool—but they also offer practical solutions for everyday problems, like bug infestations. Paul had a problem with carpenter ants and termites, which he solved by infecting the ants with a species of mycelium harmless to humans. He tricked the ants into eating the mycelium before it sporulated, and once the delayed spores were released they infiltrated the entire colony. The spores mummify the ants and then, lo and behold, a mushroom sprouts out of the ant's head.
In Paul's eyes, mushrooms cure disease, soak up toxins, kill unwanted pests, heal our chronically suffering bodies, prevent further sickness, taste good in pasta … what more could we ask for? Neither Paul nor I believe that consuming mushrooms will heal my autoimmune disease—nothing can return my body to its original state, but they could strengthen my immune system on the whole, which is a good first step. They're magic!
No, not magic mushrooms—that's for another interview. Paul hinted that he has a story or two in that vein, but when I prompted him to elaborate, he responded, "Who's the audience for this piece?"