Many folks who hear about the Telluride Mushroom Festival wonder whether it focuses on mushrooms for eating, or mushrooms for, you know, seeing Pocahontas riding a dragon and stuff. The confusion is reasonable, considering fungi's dual history as both a food and as a catalyst for vision quests. See also: Colorado.com's Top Eleven Culinary Adventures in the State
But according to festival director Rebecca Fyffe, the answer isn't one or the other. "Timothy Leary and Ram Dass were doing legal psychedelic work at Harvard in the 1960s," she says. "It's been banned; people haven't been able to do research. It's important we study them as medicine. The psychedelic renaissance happening now is a reemergence of this."
That "psychedelic renaissance" is partly the focus of this year's Telluride Mushroom Fest, taking place August 15 through August 19 at venues around Telluride. The shrooms-as-meds focus is a high priority for Fyffe, who notes that fungi derivatives are being used for cancer and headache treatment. Bolstering these credentials is a roster of speakers that includes a Johns Hopkins scientist who specializes in the field of psychedelic research.
Mushroom Fest was not always such a well-organized operation. In fact, it all came together haphazardly.
Rewind to 33 years ago, when some hardcore mushroom hunters started a social group called Fungi File. (Ha!) They learned that the best place and time of year to get good 'shrooms locally was in Telluride in August. From there, the group grew and spread like spores on a log and, after reaching a core membership of about 75, they decided to turn their meet-ups into a bona fide fest. Eventually, their mission spread to incorporate the kind of issues that Mushroom Fest addresses today: mycoremediation (using mushrooms to combat environmental problems, e.g. pollution), medicinal fungi and treating psychological problems.
According to the fest's website, mushrooms are being used to manufacture shipping crates and surfboard cores. They're being researched for cleaning up oil spills and nuclear meltdowns. The humble fungi may not be a panacea, but with Ph.D.s now producing tomes of peer-reviewed research, its reputation is slowly moving beyond its status as a lowly spaghetti ingredient.
Oh, and there's the whole foodie aspect, too. Fest guests are invited to bring in mushrooms they've found, both for identification and, if they're deemed edible, cooking. "We have a sautée pan right there so they can cook them up," Fyffe notes. Mushroom experts will be leading hunts into the woods outside Telluride, in search of culinary-grade fungi.
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Still, she acknowledges that the stereotype of the hallucinating hippie persists. "I saw a comment on our Facebook page the other day, after I put up the poster for the festival," Fyffe says, "and a woman asked, 'Where do you put all the barf?'" The commenter was referring to the reaction people can have to hallucinogenic mushrooms, when they take too large a dose or ingest them on an empty stomach. "I wanted to tell the lady: there won't be any barf. And this is where she can learn more about how it isn't," Fyffe says.
But even if there won't be tripping en masse, the freaks will definitely be in attendance. Visit downtown Telluride during the fest's annual parade, and you'll see your share of tie-dyed shirts, prodigious beards and mycophiles (literally, "lovers of mushrooms") whose garb recalls Alice in Wonderland. The costumed revelers, like Civil War re-enactors whose outfits strive for accuracy, are a matter of pride and one-upmanship. Says Fyffe, "If one of the costumes is not just right, the experts will point that out."