Mushroom: A Global History
Cynthia Bertelsen is also our food-blog favorite for this month.
by Cynthia D. Bertelsen(
Reaktion Books, 2013
Review by Leo Racicot
When I was a kid, if our mother had put mushrooms in front of us for supper, my sister, Diane, and I, would have screamed and run from the table. The idea that anyone in their right mind would serve what science books taught us was "a fungus" and expect us to put it in our mouths revolted us. I hardly ever even ate cheese, so vile did that plastic-y slab seem to me.
Not that any such sporous monstrosity would have appeared on our plate. The 1950s American table did not allow for anything more exotic than hamburgers and mashed potatoes. Occasionally, a Sunday steak. Side dishes consisted of peas, carrots, green beans, corn. That was it. I was a picky eater, to be sure. Ma had a hard time getting me to try anything beyond my beloved peanut butter.
But how life can transform an unadventurous palate! When a Polish friend, Jolanta Strojek, shared stories of her family's mushroom hunts, escapades into the fields and forests outside her native Krakow—her folks were poor and often had to make do with whatever they could forage from the woodlands and river banks of an impoverished nation—I showed interest enough that she brought me on a foraging excursion to the woods behind her home. I had a ball. The joy of the hunt was in me, made even more exhilarating when Jola lit a happy match under a pot of our booty on the stove, turning the mushrooms into one of the most delicious, smoky soups I have ever tasted. Its aromas intoxicated me. Some hearty dark rye bread, homemade, to soak up the rich, musky, brown juices, and I was all set!
Charmoon Richardson, too, the still-renowned Sonoma mushroomer, regaled friend, M.F.K. Fisher, and her house guests with gentle, loving tales of his mushroom hunts amid the deep, dark, velvet forest-floors of Northern California. He once whipped us up a mushroom chowder that I have never gotten over. Charmoon's love of the humble fungus so keenly captured me that mushrooms are the first item I look for when planning a special or a holiday meal.
Add now, please, to my personal duo of mushroom revellers the name of food aficionado, author, and photographer, Cynthia Bertelsen. I spent several deluxe days in the company of her wonderful, colorful new Mushroom: A Global History, and can't say enough good things about it. In a cavalcade of stunning photos and prose, Bertelsen accomplishes the near-impossible: she makes us fall in love with the homely spore. Columns of color, buttons of surprise and delight, each mushroom cap is as individual as a snowflake or a human face. Their humble umbrellas beckon us to come find them and serve them forth. Bertelsen delivers a command performance from start-to-finish.
We realize how marvelous it can be, foraging in Indian moccasins down a cool pine path, and suddenly spot one! Ruby red, sunny yellow, emerald-pretty sitting in a hidden nest just begging to be picked. Here, the whole golden world of mushrooms is laid out before us, a treasure chest of history and folklore, knowledge and astonishment. Bertelsen magically turns what could have been an arcane investigation into an intimate and involved roundelay of mushroom facts and fictions, as well as mushroom recipes you’ll want to try yourself.
There’s also a ravishment of images here, each one more indelibly striking than the last, most of them taken by the author. (An accomplished photographer herself, Berteksen has a marvelous blog you’ll want to be sure to visit: Gherkins & Tomatoes.) This book makes me hungry. The lids of the meaty, musky toadstools dare us to cook and eat them. Pop one in your mouth and your tastebuds will know joy! O, Tremendousness! That the gods themselves (and Bertelsen) have blessed us with such gustatory pleasure!