Mushrooms in Prague

I have always been fascinated with the persistence of old practices of eating in cities. We are so accustomed to thinking about urban provisions as something that happens in marketplaces and supermarkets that we rarely notice the households that continue to bake, pickle, can, and smoke their own food products. Even older than these practices are those city dwellers who gather their foods, seasonally, from urban spaces most of us would never think of as sources of edibles.

Back in those romantic days of Counter Culture communes (1965-75), there was an anthropologist (Hawaii 1948) and author of handbooks for gathering wild foods in North America named Ewell Gibbons.

Wild Food Adventures

Euell Gibbons

In a series of books, Stalking the Wild Asparagus; Stalking the Blue-eyed Scallop; Beachcombers Handbook; and Staling the Good Life, he advocated eating nutritious but neglected wild plants, like lambs quarters, rose hips, young dandelion leaves, stinging nettles, cattails, purslane and amaranth. Some of these have become popular enough to be sold at food stores (rose hips, dandelion leaves, and amaranth seeds) or farmer’s markets (purslane and amaranth leaves), but others still must be gathered in the wild. I would love to find a box of fresh lambs quarters in the lettuce section of the food stores I frequent. They are here in Vienna. What a delicate, sweet green they are! They are served here as a topping for vinegary potato salad or combined with other lettuces in a “leaf salad.’ A foodie friend of mine in Chicago in the 1990s told me he picked lambs quarters in his yard!. But his yard had never been chemically fertilized and was mostly weeds anyway. So what treasures he found there rarely surprised me. Still I doubt he got enough for a salad.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago, while visiting relatives in Prague. Tom, my second cousin-in-law  (Is that a thing?) is an avid mushroom hunter. One Saturday morning, after playing his usual round of tennis down the street, he walked to his secret places in the forested, river ravine preserve in front of his house (He swears he’ll go to his grave without revealing where it is. Except his son knows exactly where tit is, of course. Ah, kinship!), returning home about an hour later with a basket full of fresh-picked, wild mushrooms. I couldn’t identify most of them, but I accepted that they were perfectly edible. After all, Tom had been picking and eating wild mushrooms since he was a boy and he’s my age (i.e. OLD). His wife, Maryla, never flinched. She had been eating whatever he brought home for all the forty-odd years of their marriage. For supper, she made a simple scramble of chopped, sautéed mushrooms and eggs. No herbs, no fancy oils, just salt and black pepper. It wasn’t a pretty dish. Maryla did not scrape off any black gills, as I might, before she chopped the mushrooms. The resulting scramble had a grayish tint. But it was delicious.

Most Europeans today are still deeply enmeshed in the seasonal round of uncultivated foods,even though many of the wild foods have begun to be cultivated to meet the demand. These include fiddle ferns and ramps in the spring, wild strawberries through the early summer, wild mushrooms in the late summer, chestnuts and venison in the late fall. The positive feelings toward seasonality, namely, that “We can eat them now, so let’s do that, because soon the best tasting ones will be gone and we’ll not taste them until next year,” are reflected in agricultural produce as well. Asparagus, cultivated strawberries, potatoes, tomatoes, sweet and chili peppers, gooseberries and currents in high summer, hazelnuts in late summer, wine, lambs and suckling pigs in Spring, ducks and geese in late autumn,  All have the reputation for at least having their finest, most refined taste only at certain times of the year. At other times, it is a compromise to eat them. Many choose to forgo such off-season produce in favor of other options. This is really different from the attitude of most city-dwelling North American foodies. I can’t speak for rural dwelling folks there, although hunting in general is a well-know part of how small-town folk in North America represent themselves. But in the cities, the recipe rules. And if the recipe says fresh strawberries, then regardless of whether they have any taste or not, fresh strawberries, flown in from somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, are purchased and ‘enjoyed.’

Mushroom Venor at a Farmer's Market in the Technical University, PragueIf your European household is not blessed with someone who has a secret forest full of wild mushrooms, all is not lost. All the markets have mushrooms in season. Here is a stand at a farmer’s market that is held every Saturday on the campus of the Technical University, down the street from Tom and Maryla’s house. As you can see, there are lots of healthy looking chanterelles (lower right) and porcini (center), as well as cultivated shiitake (upper right) and oyster (lower left). You can tell the porcini are wild because their edges have been nibbled by little furry forest animals. That’s the sign of authenticity!

Let’s face it, most of us city-dwelling foodies are not about to down a plate of pre-nibbled mushrooms. And that is precisely what eating Tom’s mushrooms brought to mind for me. The relationship between people in cities and those aspects of reality that they categorize as nature is an instrumental one. By that I mean that only those aspects of nature that can be controlled (infections and other pests), sanitized (foods and fibers), channeled (water and sewage), regulated (air temperature, velocity, and moisture), or camouflaged (marshlands, deserts, and scrub) are acceptable neighbors. All other ‘inhabitants’ of nature are unwelcome, and certainly to be avoided at all costs. I’ve written about this before with examples of what city engineers do with wild animals who invade neighborhoods (it’s not pretty), and extreme weather events, like hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires. In such cases, our fears of a world out of balance can only be placated by feats of engineering and logistical marvels that return the status quo ante in a ridiculously short time. WE DECLARE THAT WE WILL NOT SUFFER AT THE HANDS OF NATURE! and if we are forced to do so, we will hold humans accountable for our pain.

I’m still working out the implications of this particular view of nature held by many urbanites, even if it is only spoken of when the going gets tough. I suspect it is only one of several views that are available depending on the context. Like I said, it’s still a work in progress. Watch this space.

Weather Talk

A dual tropical storm/hurricane system that is currently disrupting people’s lives in Hawaii, a rare event for those islands. I am fascinated by such sublime weather events. I will stare at approaching Midwestern thunderstorms as if they were the latest zombie apocalypse movie. I grew up on the southeast Massachusetts coast. So, the huge hurricanes and Nor’easter blizzards of my youth are as real to me today as they were then. I still track these storms with enthusiasm (and apps!), even though they rarely reach Chicago. City folk love to talk about the weather at least as much as country folk. What makes weather such a compelling topic is the danger and disruption of extreme events. This is how our shared histories are composed. Even today’s ‘ordinary’ weather is fodder for elevator conversations among strangers.

Hawaii’s plight put me in mind of other islands and other weathers. I’ve recently discovered the British fascination with the channel and seas weather forecast known as the Shipping Forecast, broadcast four times daily on BBC radio. This two minute long report covers the thirty-one areas that describe the seas and channels surrounding the British Isles, the European Coast and Iceland (see map). In the forecast, each one (or group) is described in terms of the wind speed, visibility, and sometimes barometric pressure. So a typical report might read: “Rockall, Malin, Hebrides. Southwest gale 8 to storm 10, veering west, severe gale 9 to violent storm 11. Rain, then squally showers. Poor, becoming moderate.” Growing up with these forecasts, Brits incorporate this information as part of their common knowledge as “islanders,” even though very few will ever sail these waters. Hundreds of thousands of them listen to the forecast every day. References to the shipping forecast can easily be found in British popular song lyrics, radio and television productions, and novels. In the 2012 opening ceremony for the London Olympic Games, the shipping forecast was recited over the Nimrod section of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. You could actually engage fellow elevator riders in a building in the heart of London about the day’s shipping forecast and someone in the car would know where the trouble spots will be!


What’s the appeal? According to one BBC producer, “It scans poetically. It’s got a rhythm of its own. It’s eccentric, it’s unique, it’s English. It’s slightly mysterious because nobody really knows where these places are. It takes you into a faraway place that you can’t really comprehend unless you’re one of these people bobbing up and down in the Channel.” A frequent reader of the forecast describes the appeal this way,”To the non-nautical, it is a nightly litany of the sea. It reinforces a sense of being islanders with a proud seafaring past. Whilst the listener is safely tucked-up in their bed, they can imagine small fishing-boats bobbing about at Plymouth or 170ft waves crashing against Rockall.

Weather talk is always local, even when it really doesn’t have anything to do with the local weather. The shipping forecast is local even though the weather it describes is several hundred miles away. It’s just like my fascination with hurricanes and Nor’easters.

City Bugs

The conceit of the city dweller is that nature has been banished from the urban confines. Snow storms, floods, the pair of coyotes you glimpse while walking your dog at night, the rats in the alley, and the annual epidemic of flues and colds can all be dismissed as the final mop-up phase of an engineering problem: no nature allowed, except in parks and zoos. Guess again, pitiful humans! You will always be condemned to carry nature around with you wherever you go.
I was reminded of this fate as three different ‘bugs’ came back into my life, though indirectly. The first was a phone conversation with friends visiting their grandkids, who reported to us that once again, they were dealing with an outbreak of head lice. Our friends spent their current visit shuffling clothing in and out of hot dryers, and working various portions through the childrens’ hair. Head lice love cities. Not only are there lots of heads in close proximity to each other, but these silly human are so vain that they refuse to shave their heads to remove the preferred nesting places!
The second was the conversation at our annual condo owners’ meeting about our bed bug policy. This is a new effort at forging community ties in our complex, thanks to a ordinance the City Council passed last December requiring us to have a policy. We were able to agree on something, but only after detailed conversations about the impossibility of ever eradicating a bug so well adapted to living with humans that it spends 90% of its life hiding, and can find us from our body temperature signature and the density of CO2 gas that envelops us as we are sleeping. Still, we accepted our marching orders and submitted to the superior wisdom of the public health engineers.
The third was an New York Times article yesterday about leprosy. We don’t think of this as a urban disease, but city life gave this disease new opportunities. This bacterium is one of the oldest human infections. It is so old that it has evolved into a wimp of a bacterium: it takes weeks to reproduce; 60% of the DNA in its body has been turned off because it would produce surface proteins that are too easily recognized by our immune system; and it needs a genetically susceptible human before it can establish itself in the body. Even then, it takes years to build up enough damage to produce symptoms. The heyday of leprosy in Europe was the city building era of the Late Middle Ages. Monastery-like leprosaria were built in the new downtowns to house those infected by a reinvigorated bug. So many people were infected that rather than shunning the leper, the afflicted were embraced and integrated into urban life! The buildings were an early example of multi-investor development where charitable patrons earned religious “points” by contributing to the building fund. If you can’t conquer nature, redefine it as a condition of urbanity and leverage it as an economic development strategy. Now that’s what I call engineering. I wonder how that might work with head lice and bed bugs?