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MOUTHING OFF

A real fun guy: As a hired belly, I am no stranger to exotic and unusual foods. Rattlesnake, you ask? Bring it on. I've also tried yak, goat and, at a restaurant in Beaver, Pennsylvania, called the Wooden Angel, lion that the owner had flown in from Africa for a wine dinner (very tough, very gamey and tastes nothing like chicken). But by far the oddest thing I've consumed has been kombucha tea.

Kombucha comes from a fungus discovered 2,000 years ago in Manchuria, and it carries with it all the mystique and mystery of an ancient cure-all. Among the reported effects of drinking a half-cup of this stuff daily: no more gray hairs, wrinkles, digestive problems, arthritis, acne, multiple sclerosis, gout, cancer, impotence or shingles...and some people even think it boosts the immune system and T-cell counts for those with HIV. A spokesman with the Food and Drug Administration says his agency is looking into certain claims in the medical community that the fungus contains, among other things, something called usnic acid that is thought to prevent tumors from forming. At the very least, he adds, the FDA wants to determine if kombucha is toxic.

Not surprisingly, the fungus--which many mistakenly refer to as a mushroom--has taken California by storm. People are buying the fungus tea from juice bars and through mail-order catalogues. Once you have the fungus, it's easy to propagate in an infusion of black tea, sugar and sterilized water, all of which must be cooked/kept in glass or ceramic containers, because metal kills kombucha. And every seven days, the fungus (visually, a cross between a flattened jellyfish and clear gelatin) makes a baby underneath itself, which you can then sell for the $50 it's fetching in L.A.--or you can give it to a friend, which is much more in line with the ancient prophecy that making money from kombucha will bring only sadness.

It brought me and my husband only sickness. The first week I drank the tea--which tastes like flat sparkling apple cider about to go bad--I came down with a terrible flu, and three weeks later my husband caught the worst flu of his adult life. So much for boosting the immune system. Then we both discovered that our allergies were kicking in about a month early. Sure enough, a call to my doctor confirmed that if you're allergic to molds, stupid, then kombucha is not a good thing to be ingesting. A friend I passed the fungus on to said she couldn't keep it in her kitchen anymore because it was smelling up the whole house. The celebrities who supposedly are drinking the stuff--one L.A. publication lists Graham Russell, Elizabeth Montgomery (I guess twitching her nose isn't enough anymore), Rosanna Arquette and Herbie Hancock--must be devoting entire rooms in their mansions to the thing.

As a matter of fact, a few Denver restaurateurs have devoted space on their shelves to it, which is where I got the stuff in the first place. And I wouldn't be surprised if a few local health-food stores decide to carry the fungus, or at least its juice. Since kombucha is considered an agricultural product rather than a drug, few restrictions apply to its manufacture and distribution.

Meanwhile, I'm trying to get ahold of the softball-sized tuna eyeball that the Japanese are eating like sushi because it's supposed to increase brainpower.

 
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