In the Company of Mushrooms:
A Biologist’s Tale
Elio Schaechter, the author of this attractive new book, is a professional microbiologist, long-time NAMA member, recipient of our prestigious Award for Contributions to Amateur Mycology, and recent cross-country transplant from Boston to San Diego. He has produced a very readable account of mushrooms and the people who love them, drawing on his experiences in vocation and avocation alike.
Even before opening the book, I was impressed by its particularly beautiful dust jacket. A photograph of a conifer woodland with mushrooms scattered about abundantly but subtly is overlain with inset photos of mushrooms to produce a very lovely presentation. Inside, there are four main sections -- “Mushrooms and other Fungi,” “Collecting, in Solitude and in Groups,” “Culinary Tales,” and “A Kingdom of Versatile Parts.” The first three are pretty much what their names suggest -- what mushrooms are and what they do, the thrill of the hunt, and the joy of mushroom cooking and eating. The final section consists of a potpourri of topics arranged in chapters entitled “Mushrooms, the Mind, and the Body,” “Murder and More Mushroom Mayhem,” “The Train Wrecker and Other Sturdy Mushrooms,” and “Insects as Fungus Gardeners.”
The entire book is entertaining and well written in a not too flowery style, which I appreciated. Along the way, Schaechter imparts some of his personal philosophy, which I found appealing. Consider, for instance, the following quotes:
“Going on a mushroom walk fulfills all sorts of other yearnings besides the gratification of foraging for natural food. I am excited by the zest of the hunt, challenged by the demands of identification, pleased by the encounter with species that have a special meaning to me, and charmed by especially handsome specimens.”
“Even if I bring home nothing for the table, I feel I have been rewarded by the pleasurable sight of mushrooms adorning the forest with a variety of shapes and colors. There is always something -- old or new -- to hold my attention.”
Fungi are immensely interesting organisms. Those who view mushrooms only as an exotic food are missing a lot!
The information in the book is an amalgamation of previously published things and personal anecdotes. Some of the former will be familiar to persons who have been done much mushroom reading -- for instance, the impression that stinkhorns made on certain Victorian ladies and that Nero ascended to the Emperorship of Rome as a result of the mushroom-assisted murder of his predecessor Claudius. Other tidbits, such as Sigmund Freud being an avid mushroomer and the prevalence of mushrooms in European coats-of-arms will be familiar to fewer readers. Overall, I found myself wishing for more of his personal experiences.
A problem I had with the book stems from the fact that Dr. Schaechter, until recently at least, lived on the East Coast and, apparently as a result, some of the information he imparts about the West Coast is misleading or wrong. For instance:
- Two serious poisoning incidents in the San Francisco Bay and Portland areas are attributed to Amanita virosa. The culprit actually was A. phalloides; A. virosa has not been documented from the Pacific Coast.
- It is stated that western King Boletes “tend to be free of ‘worms’” in contrast to their usual condition in the East. Many a frustrated day-late bolete picker from California and points north will respond “NOT SO” to that statement. Even here, it takes an early bird to beat the worm.
- The comments on the edibility of sulfur shelf and honey mushroom (he rates them quite highly) don’t quite fit with my experience in the West where these mushrooms are generally not at the top of most lists of favorite edibles. This may be due to east-west differences in species (both Laetiporus and Armillaria have been shown to be made up of several biological species) and perhaps in the type of wood they grow on. Certainly, sulfur shelf on California Eucalyptus is no gourmand’s delight, and may even add to the business at the local emergency room!
- And yes, even here in reputed “mushroom paradise,” we have more dry mushroom-challenged seasons than we care to think about.
However, these are details that will be of little concern to most readers (except perhaps those who come 3000 miles looking for worm-free ceps). Overall, I found the book to be interesting and enjoyable, and to paint an accurate picture of our favorite hobby. A good gift idea for friends who either enjoy mushrooming or wonder why you do.
— Review by Steve Trudell, Seattle, WA
— Originally published in The Mycophile