Behold, the unpoetic mushroom. Squat in stature, with a bland complexion and faintly displeasing fungal odour, it lacks the excitement of its stir-fry contemporaries: the vibrant carrot, the exotic bok choy, the piquant red pepper. Other than a few well-known varieties, which we thoughtlessly slice into our salad (button), barbecue (portobello) or toss into a pasta sauce (cremini), who among us gives this spore-producing structure a second glance?
In his new documentary, Know Your Mushrooms, director Ron Mann (BA 1980 Innis) showcases the attributes of the fine fungus. Mann travels to the annual Telluride Mushroom Festival in Colorado, where fungophiles gather every August to attend lectures, test culinary dishes and take trips of the more hallucinatory sort.
One of the most fascinating people Mann meets is Larry Evans, a self-professed mushroom gypsy who spends his days “chasing the rain” in his dented hatchback, driving from Alaska to Mexico – wherever the mushrooms are at their plumpest and in season. Through his eyes we can see their beauty, and the beauty of obsession. Evans investigates samples with the panache of a wine connoisseur. He wafts one under his handlebar mustache, proclaiming it “a little bit like cucumber and a little it like bad fish.” His Holy Grail is the Alaskan morel, which he gathers, sells and eats by the crateful.
Mann explores every possible aspect of the fungi world, including health and environmental benefits and, of course, the psychotropic features of magic mushrooms. He interviews Gary Lincoff, who co-led the Telluride Mushroom Festival for 25 years, about his first mushroom trip when he travelled to, um, “outer space – somewhere near the Andromeda Galaxy.” The tie-dyed, bongo-playing tripsters also make a brief appearance, but the film isn’t a one-note lampoon, which a movie on mushrooms could have easily lapsed into.
Mann excels at tapping into the emotional experience of those consumed by their idée fixe, and captures this passion during Telluride’s mushroom parade. The procession, which includes men dressed as giant mushrooms, is led by a psychedelic Dumbledore wearing a magician’s hat and cape. The scene is half phantasmagoric, like something out of a Lewis Carroll novel, and half lowbrow Trailer Park Boys. But whether viewers see the paraders as inspiring or noisome, you know the revellers wouldn’t care. They are lost in the elation of paying homage to the almighty mushroom.