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The true value of mushrooms

It’s omajova season. The giant mushrooms are back. The termites have been busy, and so have drivers dashing off to harass termite nests and chase off whatever wild animals they find eating the things.

Personally, having eaten a piece of omajova before, I have my doubts about their value as a culinary delight. I ate it with scrambled egg, and the egg had more flavor than the mushroom. I had a discussion with someone about the lack of flavor, to which she responded that it is nothing that garlic and butter can’t fix.

Uncle Iconoclast has something to say about this. It involves index linking the value of a large chunk of fungus, cultivated in compost and / or dung, to the flavor of garlic and butter. If there is a positive correlation, how come noodles are so cheap? Why don’t people squabble in the aisles of shopping stores over those things.

Let’s start with the root of the thing, the common mushroom.

Mushrooms definitely had value, when they grew wild in forests. Picture Oleg the notional flatfooted hunter, chasing after some or other fleet dear. Sooner or later, inept hunting techniques would lead notional hunter to eat something, anything.

Assuming the hunter was also challenged by squirrels, rabbits, birds and field mice, and didn’t want to eat leaves, a mushroom would be fairly useful. Given my personal experience, it would take quite a lot of them though, and most of the full feeling would probably come from the butter and garlic.

What must have also added to the value of the notional hunter’s notional mushroom was that it grew among poisonous and hallucinogenic mushrooms. Taking that a step simpler, if you didn’t fall over and die, or start seeing trees walking, the edible mushroom was a jackpot.

Let’s round up. A notional hunter, Oleg, is so inept that he has to eat potentially lethal or hallucinogenic fungus that grows in dung and / or compost. How does he get around that among his buddies? Most likely, he distracted the hunting party from their laughter by telling them how wonderful mushrooms taste, and possibly offering the poisonous or hallucinogenic ones to those who didn’t fall for his spiel.

If you repeat the same lie often enough, it becomes the truth.

On the other hand, the truth is that mushrooms are regarded as a luxury ingredient, mostly more valued for their appearance in the dish, than the flavor they impart to it. The exception to this rule is probably the hallucinatory mushroom, which is ingested, but then vomited up before trees start walking. And the poisonous ones of course.

Some mushrooms can be tasted, but those are expensive, and usually need to be rehydrated for hours before they can be added to the dish. For the rest, they serve better as carriers for the flavours of garlic, butter, the salt or herbs in the white sauce, or as décor on the pizza.

If anything proves the point that people choose mushrooms for their appearance in the dish, rather than the flavor, it is the pizza. A pizza begins with a tomato base and a mild but slightly cheese, both of which have more flavor than most mushrooms. Yet people get all excited about mushrooms on pizza, even with salami, bacon or pineapple.

This type of consumer behavior is not uncommon. There are still people out their flaunting a certain brand of very expensive mobile phone, which has more in common with a braai lighter that spoils the flavor of chops, rather than a technological miracle.

And while we are here, I have asked before what prompted someone to put a prawn in his mouth, especially given that the thing looks like the sort of insect that makes people jump for the bug spray. I’ll bet nobody would eat them if they walked around on land.

This is the wonder of economics. If you tell someone something is valuable, or rare, or luxurious, they will pay a premium for it, without thinking too hard about the actual value.

For my part, I will stick to noodles. They don’t look great on pizza, which is better decorated with salami or bacon, but they are affordable.

About The Author

Pierre Maré

Pierre Maré is a multi-awarded Namibian advertising strategist and copy writer. From 2004 to 2016 he wrote a weekly tongue-in-cheek column for the Namibia Economist, eventually amassing an impressive 590 articles over the almost 12-year period. This series of Offbeat is a digital rerun of his pieces that received the highest reader acclaim. - Ed.

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