Book Review

Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms of New England and Eastern Canada

By David L. Spahr
2009 / ISBN 978-1-55643-795-3
U.S. $19.95 / CAN $24.95 (softcover, 229 pp.)
North Atlantic Books

This is the second of the Maine-authored mushroom books recommended to me in Girdwood by my pilot friend. As the title indicates, it focuses on the commoner edible and medicinal mushrooms of the Northeast (or Southeast, if you prefer a Canadian geographic bias). It offers information necessary for identifying the mushrooms and general guidance on how the different species should be prepared to make the most of their individual culinary qualities. It does not, however, claim to be a field guide, and it does not provide specific recipes.

The book is organized in six sections, each of which contains from one to 10 chapters. Section I-Mushroom Collecting Basics (what is a mushroom; rules, tips, and equipment for collecting them; and how to take their pictures); Section II-Mushrooms with Gills, Ridges, or Teeth (golden chanterelle, craterelluses both golden and black, hedgehogs, Agaricus arvensis and A. campestris, parasol, shaggy mane, matsutake, blewit, and oysters); Section III-Mushrooms with Pores (king bolete, two-colored bolete, maitake, sulfur shelf, and Dryad’s saddle); Section IV-Other Mushrooms (morels both yellow and black, puffballs, lobster, and aborted entoloma); Section V-Medicinal Mushrooms (reishi, artist’s conk, turkey tail, and chaga); and Section VI-Further Uses of Mushrooms (how to prepare them for eating, some propagation tips, and dyeing with mushrooms).

The species treatments in Sections II through V are given chapter status and presented in a standardized format including a brief introductory paragraph, macroscopic description of cap, gills/tubes/teeth, stem, flesh, spore color, when and where to find them, preparation, and comments. The text is augmented by typically six or more photos, usually ones of the subject species (singular or plural depending on chapter), but sometimes of look-alikes or the subject species being prepared for the table. The text is clearly written and largely avoids technical jargon. It emphasizes Spahr’s personal experience and allows for the experiences of others being different from his. The photos vary in quality - some are excellent, the best being those of large mushrooms or groups of mushrooms in their natural setting, and taken from snapshot distance. The close-ups are not as well done. While serviceable, they are lacking aesthetically. Most are taken back at the ranch on a deck, patio, or similar background, many in direct sunlight causing washed-out highlights and colors and distracting shadows. Many of the compositions are basically dump-the-basket ones and depth-of-field is insufficient in some cases. Including multiple illustrations of each species is a good idea, however some of the photos show the same, or nearly identical, mushrooms and don’t really illustrate the variability of the species. The photos are reproduced at various sizes, which adds visual interest, but some are so small that it is difficult to appreciate the features being illustrated.

For me, the best aspect of the book is the discussion of edibility and how to prepare mushrooms for the table (despite the fact that I rarely eat mushrooms and virtually never prepare them myself). Spahr’s characterization of different species as “white wine” or “red wine” types concisely provides valuable information on the types of dish in which they should be used and his emphasis on matching the style of preparation to the characteristics of the particular species is spot on. Although some of the characterizations and advice are nearly the same for many of the species and so get redundant when reading cover-to-cover, repetition of the information makes sense for someone using the book as a reference for a particular species. The lengthy descriptions of how to prepare tinctures and decoctions of medicinal species, however, should have been put in an appendix or in the preparation chapter rather than being repeated.

The information on the mushrooms is generally accurate and, commendably, Spahr often qualifies his statements as applying in his home area, allowing for things to differ elsewhere. There are, however, a few inaccuracies. For instance, discussion of the aborted entoloma should have been brought up to date with our current understanding of the phenomenon (largely based on a 2001 paper by Daniel Czederpiltz et al. in Mycologia). Although details of the functional relationship have not yet been worked out, it is clear that the aborted blobs (carpophoroids) are honey mushrooms, although apparently permeated with entoloma hyphae. Thus, the traditional common name ‘aborted entoloma’ appears to be a misnomer. The precaution that you should never let toxic mushrooms touch edible ones is baseless, although it certainly is advisable to keep the two types separated to avoid having one of the bad ones inadvertently slip into your supper. In many of the discussions of dyeing, ammonia is incorrectly referred to as a mordant. Actually it is used to control the pH (acidity/alkalinity) of the dye solution.

Wisely, Spahr is careful to warn readers not to rely on just this book for identifying mushrooms for the table. Books that focus only on target species, be they edible, dye-worthy, or medicinal ones, don’t provide the overall perspective necessary for competence in identification and safe use. Thus, users of this book would be well advised to augment it with broader-scoped guides such as Mushrooms of Northeastern North America (Bessette, Bessette, and Fischer) and Mushrooms of Northeast North America (Barron). With that caveat, I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in finding and eating Northeastern mushrooms.

— Review by Steve Trudell, Seattle, WA
— Originally published in Mycophile