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A very expensive fungus

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The other day I read that some Russian oligarch or other had paid $95,000 to a restaurateur in New York for a bit of fungus. Well, a fool and his money, as they say.

Alright, it wasn’t just any old bit of fungus. Apparently it was a “white alba truffle” – a special fungus that is quite difficult to find. And you can eat it. Meanwhile, this bit of fungus weighed about 4lb so it was quite heavy, for a fungus. According to Nello Balan, the man who says he sold the oligarch the fungus, it was the biggest such bit of fungus in the history of fungi, or something.

So there you go: Clearly this bit of fungus was worth every penny. Except, I’m still not convinced. Then again, if I were Vladimir Potanin, the oligarch who bought the fungus, I probably wouldn’t care.  I looked him up and discovered that he is Russia’s fourth richest man – worth around $14.3 billion,according to Forbes. That being the case, this purchase for him is the equivalent of me buying a Snickers bar – not particularly extravagant.

Even so, I can’t shake the feeling there are better things to spend $95,000 on. You see, I ate a bit of truffle once, I can’t tell you if it was a white one, and it tasted OK – but it didn’t do anything like cool like make laser beams shoot out of my eyes or anything. I’d eat it again if somebody else was paying, but I’d never blow my own cash on something which tastes, well, OK. Meanwhile I strongly suspect that if I were to sprinkle shavings of another, cheaper white truffle from a different part of Italy over Mr. Potanin’s food in a blind taste test, he wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
In fact, I think the primary function of expensive fungi is to be expensive. The main pleasure in owning the priciest white truffle ever is not its flavor but rather the knowledge that you have it and nobody else, and then letting other people know about your triumph. By passing 100 grand through your alimentary canal, you confirm for yourself and (you hope) to others that you truly are an awesome master of the universe.

It reminds me of a pair of Adidas trainers a friend of mine was once given as a gift by a wealthy Russian he taught English. Apparently they cost $1,000 because some Japanese dude had drawn a picture and that picture was used as instructions when they were making them. This made them special.

Unable to buy into the illusion, my friend suffered great anxiety over his $1,000 trainers. He thought it was absurd to put $1,000 on your feet, which are sweaty, and in constant contact with the ground. So he only ever wore the shoes in bad weather, hoping that the snow and the salt would disintegrate them as quickly as possible, as if to prove what he already knew: that these $1,000 shoes were indeed just shoes.

Of course, rich people are not alone in their desire to express their exquisite uniqueness. It’s a common, perhaps universal, human desire. And while a rich man might show how special he is by wrapping his feet in money or shoveling money down his alimentary canal, an individual with less cash  might decide to tattoo his face, or name his child Spacepencil, or…

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Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist originally from Scotland, who currently resides in Texas after a ten year stint in the former USSR. Visit him online at www.danielkalder.com
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