A few years ago, I hosted a man visiting the US from another country. The name escapes me, some small, poor dictatorship on the other side of the world. He described his homeland and was eager to travel abroad for a while. He told stories of Orwellian propaganda and government-issued food. Nutra-loaf had caught on in a big way there. Prison punishment food in the states, their government saved money by blending together scraps of produce, grain, and offal unfit for export. Baked into a bar and rationed to families. It was enough to keep one healthy, but that’s about it.
One Saturday, he asked if he could accompany me on my errands around town and experience the culture. Of course, I agreed.
We arrived at the grocery store, and got out of the car. Walking in, he asked “What’s this place?”
“The grocery store, I need to get some vegetables for dinner” I replied.
“Vegetables? Like plants?” He seemed surprised.
“Yeah, plants. I need a tomato, basil, garlic, and onions.”
“And you’re going to eat them? How do you know they’re safe to eat?”
“Well, it’s a grocery store. They sell food. I mean, people go on about pesticides and stuff, but they’re just vegetables.”
“But how do you know you don’t take a poisonous plant?”
“They don’t sell poisonous plants at the grocery store.”
“But what if one slipped in there, or someone left one there? How can you be sure it’s safe to eat those?”
“Um…why don’t you just come with me? I can show you, it’s really easy. I’ll show you right where the tomatoes are, what they look like…”
He started to look indignant.
“No. No, that’s not something I want to learn. That’s far too dangerous to try, and honestly, I think it’s kind of irresponsible that you’d even suggest telling someone to try to do something so risky. You’re going to get someone killed.”
I had to pause for a second and try to grasp what I was dealing with here. I think he caught my momentary incomprehension, and continued:
“You’re a nurse, aren’t you? You know you could lose your license if someone got hurt trying to pick out their own vegetables after listening to you. Why would you even want to try? They taste horrible, and there’s more than enough Nutra-loaf to go around. Where I’m from, everyone knows it’s far too dangerous and foolish to try getting your own produce. You never know what you might accidentally bring home.”
It was heartbreaking. The depth of his indoctrination saddened me. I thought, this is a teaching moment. I’m excited to see him enter the bright world of fresh fruits and vegetables, once I just show him the produce aisle. I tried to soothe his fears, and said:
“You really don’t have to be worried, it’s very easy to figure out. Why don’t you just come in with me, and I’ll show you? It’s right inside the front door.”
He replied, “Do you even have a microscope? You at least have to have that to know for sure. Did you study biology at a university?”
“Oh, no I don’t have a microscope…” I said, “honestly, you really don’t need one, or a botany degree…if you’ll just come in with me, you’ll see right away…”
He turned and started walking back toward the car. Over his shoulder, “If you want to take that risk, that’s up to you. I brought plenty of Nutra-loaf. One of these days, you’re going to end up dead, you know.”
And that’s about what it feels like to try teaching wild mushroom foraging to some folks.