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Dietribes: Mushrooms

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• There's nothing newfangled about mushrooms. Morels (the genus of edible mushrooms) have been around since dinosaur times, evolving into over 177 species all over the world (including Antarctica - more on that later). The fungi have also been primarily championed by humans: "Oddly enough, most animal species aren't particularly attracted to morels," says Oregon State University researcher Nancy Weber. "A few slugs and other things will eat them. But humans have probably been eating them for about as long as there have been humans." More for us!

• It's a bird! It's a plane! It's … a giant mushroom! A mushroom in Oregon has claimed the title of World's Largest Living Organism. "The Armillaria ostoyae, popularly known as the honey mushroom, started from a single spore too small to see without a microscope. It has been spreading its black shoestring filaments, called rhizomorphs, through the forest for an estimated 2,400 years, killing trees as it grows. It now covers 2,200 acres (880 hectares) of the Malheur National Forest, in eastern Oregon." But can it be stopped?

• Mushrooms are more than just a tasty delicacy, they can also serve as the architectural basis for a house as well as a compostable car.

• From the Department of Controversy, mental_floss has been tireless in our coverage of questionable mushroom-related products, such as a mushroom cloud stuffed toy, and a mushroom cloud postage stamp (really, what were they thinking?).

• It's important to know the difference between a portobello and, say, a Death Cap (just ask Russian Czar Aleksandr I, Roman Emperor Claudius, French King Charles V and Pope Clement VII - just four of several historical figures who died after eating the wrong type of mushroom fungus). Before you go foraging, consider taking a class or reading up on some mushroom literature (and even then … beware!)

• "Mushrooms are masterpieces of natural engineering," and yet … some scientists still think with a little nip and tuck here and there (maybe a splash of botox), the gill mushroom could achieve perfection.

• It's a bird! It's a plane! It's … wait, we've done this one. Yeah, it's a mushroom, but not the world's largest …. the world's creepiest. Living in Antarctica, this "feisty" fungi feasts on the remains of an early 20th century hut constructed by polar explorers who all perished on their journey. Does the fungi have an alibi?

• Not all mushrooms enjoy coming out to devour our things, some like to stay well hidden. Take the white truffle, for example. Though its (inferior) cousin, the Périgord, can be cultivated, the white truffle can only be found by setting discerning pigs to roam across the Italian piedmont to root them out (only to have them snatched away from the pig and put, instead, on very expensive foods). "One of [New York City cheff] Daniel Boulud's favorite stories involves Puff Daddy, as he was known at the time, urging the chef to 'shave that b*tch' onto his food; Boulud obliged (as the bill mounted accordingly).

• When a buffalo may not always be a buffalo: A cave mural in Spain may suggest "magic mushroom" usage in Europe as part of religious rituals up to 6000 years ago. Egyptians boarded that train not long afterwards, "The delicious flavor of mushrooms intrigued the pharaohs of Egypt so much that they decreed mushrooms were food for royalty and that no commoner could ever touch them." In various other civilizations, including Russia, China, Greece, Mexico and Latin America, "Many believed that mushrooms had properties that could produce super-human strength, help in finding lost objects and lead the soul to the realm of the gods."

• Once again, if it's a food, there is a festival for it. Has anyone been to Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, mushroom capital of the world?

• As this is going to press, it seems Time has just written another article about this fabeled fungi and how, according to them, "it became as common as apple pie." (I like that, Time. Well played).

• Mushroom lovers? Mushroom haters? Do white mushrooms really make things taste that much better? I will put mushrooms on anything - pizza, burgers, eggs, wraps, Indian food, spaghetti, as a sandwich, as a side - anything!

Hungry for more? Venture into the Dietribes archive.

Food photos taken by Johanna Beyenbach. You might remember that name from our post about her colorful diet.

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University of Pittsburgh
Researchers Create Motorized Wheelchair Made for the Water Park
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University of Pittsburgh

Despite advances in technology, there are many aspects of the world that remain inaccessible to people with disabilities. But researchers at the University of Pittsburgh are working to make one activity easier for people who use motorized wheelchairs: navigating water parks.

The average motorized wheelchair has a number of electrical and battery components that can’t get wet, limiting who can access the joys of splash parks and pools. But a new wheelchair that uses compressed air instead of a heavy battery could change that, Gizmodo recently reported.

Created through a joint research project between University of Pittsburgh engineers, the university’s medical center, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the PneuChair is lighter and quicker to charge than traditional motorized chairs. It can also be repaired with basic hardware tools if something breaks in the midst of all the splashing.

The 80-pound chair (a traditional device can weigh up to 400 pounds) can travel about three miles on one charge, about a third of the maximum distance of an electric mobility device. Another benefit: It only takes 10 minutes to recharge rather than eight hours.

The university's Human Engineering Research Laboratories is also working on a scooter version for people who don't need the assistance of a full chair. “The potential to open opportunities for people with disabilities who need powered mobility to access splash parks, water parks, beaches or pools is transformative,” lab director Rory Cooper told the university's press service.

The PneuChair was designed in part for use at Morgan’s Inspiration Island, an upcoming water park in San Antonio that’s designed for people with disabilities. The accessible splash park—which is part of Morgan’s Wonderland, a fully accessible theme park—will initially offer 10 of the chairs to its guests for use while they’re there.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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Dietribes: Cabbage
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• Cabbages are derived from the wild mustard plant of the Mediterranean region, and have been popular since ancient times. Cato the Elder praised the cabbage for its many medicinal uses.

• Cabbages are highly nutritious, containing large amounts of Vitamin C, folate and fiber. That and its low calorie count is why some people use cabbage on weight-loss diets.

• However, the cabbage is also known to have a certain undesirable gastric side effect. As Nicholas Culpeper said in A Complete Herbal (1653) "Cabbages are extremely windy, whether you take them as meat or as medicine, as windy meat as can be eaten, unless you eat bag-pipes or bellows."

• Remember "freedom fries"? That wasn't the first time the name of one of our foods has been attempted to be changed because of political fervor. During World War I, Americans renamed sauerkraut "liberty cabbage."

• No one knows exactly how the Cabbagetown neighborhood in Atlanta got its name, though stories include the idea that the original poor Scotch-Irish residents (workers at the nearby cotton mill) would grow cabbages in their front yards, and that the smell of cooked cabbage was a nuisance (and later a point of pride). Other apocryphal suggestions include a train derailing or a Model T car overturning and spilling cabbages everywhere for people to snatch up, shouting "Free Cabbages!"

• Georgia has another cabbage connection - Cabbage Patch Kids, which were originally called Little People. In the late 1970s, art student Xavier Roberts started creating "soft sculptures," which he later expanded on by giving them birth certificates and allowing "adoptions." In 1982 the name changed to Cabbage Patch. By the mid-80s, the dolls went on record as having the most successful and in-demand introduction of a toy ever.

• Though cabbages have often been thought of throughout history as a cheap food, that's certainly not true in Northern Canada, where a cabbage can cost $28. The northern Canadian territory of Nunavut is so remote that anything not a product of hunting and gathering must be flown in.

• By the way, that corned beef and cabbage you cook up for St. Patricks Day? Not actually Irish. Though corned beef was made in Ireland in the 17th and 18th centuries, most Irish families were too poor to eat it. Instead it went to British citizens as well as the British and U.S. military. These days, the Irish reportedly find the dish just plain boring.

• Cabbages can have a killer instinct - genetically modified cabbages can produce scorpion poison that kills caterpillars when they bite leaves. But don't worry, the toxin is modified so it isn’t harmful to humans. (I like that the title of the article is "Venomous Cabbage"!)

• Another way to get rid of pests in your cabbage? Er, human urine. According to a 2007 study, "Our results show that human urine could be used as a fertilizer for cabbage and does not pose any significant hygienic threats or leave any distinctive flavor in food products." Good to know?

• The largest cabbage on record was called "The Beast" and weighed 127 pounds. Reportedly it wasn't actually particularly tasty, so it ended up as compost rather than on anyone's plate.

• How do you like to eat your cabbages, Flossers? And have you found a way to counteract their less-desirable side-effects?

Hungry for more? Venture into the Dietribes archive.

‘Dietribes’ appears every other Wednesday. Food photos taken by Johanna Beyenbach. You might remember that name from our post about her colorful diet.

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