January 25, 2008

A Name I Hadn't Heard in Years: Debbie Viess

Years ago, when I was quite new to the wonderful world of mycology, I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area and going out on my first mushroom hunts. One of my favorite places to foray was Tilden Park in the hills of Berkeley. I was also a new member of the Mycological Society of San Francisco and had bought my first book about identifying wild mushrooms, David Arora's excellent Mushrooms Demystified.

One of the first things that a new mushroom fancier needs to know, especially if he/she plans on eating anything found, is how to identify Amanita mushrooms at least to the genus. While going through Arora's section on those mushrooms, I learned of an edible species, Amanita velosa, the spring amanita. Not long after that, I found a couple of very nice specimens while scrounging about Tilden. At least, I thought they might be. Then again, amanitas are nothing for amateurs to fool with. Arora warns that they should be consumed only after positive identification by an expert.

Luckily for me, there was a woman in MSSF who went by the nickname Amanita Rita. When I brought my putative A. velosa to the next meeting, which was perhaps my second or third, I sought her out and asked her to identify the mushrooms I'd found. She confirmed that they were spring amanitas. Eager to try them, I took them home after the meeting, lightly sauteed them, and ate them. They were absolutely delicious; to this day, I still consider them high on the list of the best mushrooms I've ever had. Still, I then spent the rest of that night wondering if maybe the expert could have made a mistake. Was there some chance that I was going to die?

Clearly, Amanita Rita was correct about the identity of the mushrooms or else I probably wouldn't be around to be recollecting the experience.

A couple of weeks ago, one of my colleagues stopped off in San Francisco on his way back from Malaysia and attended an MSSF meeting (he's from the Bay Area and also used to be a member, though our paths never crossed there). I asked about Amanita Rita; I couldn't recall her real name. He hadn't run into her there.

As it turns out, Amanita Rita, whose real name is Debbie Viess, left MSSF some time ago to help start another organization, the Bay Area Mycological Society. The only reason I remember her real name now is because of an article that ran in The Marin Independent Journal today in which she's quoted:

"My specialty, the amanita genus of mushroom, includes some of the best edible species worldwide, as well as some of the deadliest mushrooms," said Debbie Viess, co-founder of the Bay Area Mycological Society. "The trick is knowing which is which. Unfortunately, it can be a 'one trial' learning process."
That certainly jarred my memory!

I'm sure that Amanita Rita doesn't remember me, but she's one of the people who is responsible for my decision to go back to school after a decade-long career in the business world with the goal of earning a doctorate in mycology. Her simple act of identifying my A. velosa and explaining to me how she'd done it was one impetus that propelled me to the point at which I'm at today. Funny how there are small things we do, perhaps all the time, that change people's lives... and we usually never find out about it.

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