Book Review

Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois and Surrounding States: A Field-to-Kitchen Guide

By Joe McFarland and Gregory M. Mueller
2009; University of Illinois Press, Urbana, IL
ISBN 978-0-252-07643-5; paper; 212 pages

Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois and Surrounding States by McFarland and Mueller is totally delightful and quite a bit different from the many other mushroom guidebooks that come across my desk each year. Theirs is a different format and approach towards getting (primarily) beginners started into mushrooming.

Full disclosure: I have known Joe McFarland for several years and have always enjoyed his lectures and slide shows; I have even had the great fortune to taste a few of the recipes at the end of this book. More on the recipes later.

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Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois and Surrounding States should be required reading by all wild mushroom hunters in the Midwest, and especially beginners. I know this will be an instant success throughout the Midwest and beyond! McFarland and Mueller have come up with an entirely new format for getting the uninitiated involved in the joys of wild mushrooming. This book will go a long way towards educating any beginning mushroomer and as McFarland puts it, people will come to admire your amazing knowledge of fungi, and “knowledge is real power—delicious power.” Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois and Surrounding States is not so much a field guide as a series of very brief courses on how to know and safely identify the most common and sought after groups of edible wild mushrooms. The writing style is academic but very easy to understand, witty—at times hilarious—and entertaining. Bravo!

The nine chapters mostly are broken down into groups of related mushrooms with some other topics of importance to mushroom hunters: Tips for Beginners: How to find, identify, and understand wild mushrooms; Common and Poisonous: a few toxic mushrooms; Into the Forest: mushrooms found with trees; The Morels; The Chanterelles; The Boletes; The Puffballs; Take the Field without Getting Hurt: Agaricus, Macrolepiota, Lepiota,and Coprinus; Let’s Eat: recipes and advice for cooking wild mushrooms. The book opens with all the usual information necessary to talk intelligently about mushrooms, favorable locations and conditions for different types of mushrooms to appear, and a discussion of the visible parts of various mushrooms. There are cautionary notes on the frustrations all mushroomers suffer in the bad times; and humorous tales of bragging during the bountiful.

Before any real discussion on edible species begins, the authors soberly discuss poisonous species—not alarmingly so—but with adequate frankness. Fools rush in. And with mushrooms, you may only get one chance to be foolish. The chapter on poisonous species covers what to look for and how to tell toxic species from the lookalike edibles we are pursuing. Elsewhere in the book, variability among edible species is pointed out; important to all mushroomers, as it can lead to confusion. For example, in “The Chanterelles” he notes that most authors mention the apricot smell as an identifying characteristic of chanterelles, but McFarland notes, rightfully, that in some regions these mushrooms never seem to demonstrate this. Also, just because some mushrooms are not edible (or may be poisonous) that doesn’t mean they’re not still beautiful or fascinating. For example he points out that the gills of the Jack O’Lantern glow in the dark. Field guide authors invariably note this but never show a photograph of the eerily glowing gills as do McFarland and Mueller.

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With “Into the Forest” I was glad to see much information on the life history of many of the mushroom producing fungi we seek out. Many are valuable members of a closely-knit community and degrade nonliving organic material or function symbiotically as a mycorrhizal partner with trees and other plants. More mushroom hunters seek out morels than any other type, and they’re given their due in the chapter on “The Morels.” Besides tips on how and where to spot morels, I was surprised to see pictures of morels past their expiration date. McFarland points out that all too many morel hunters have adopted a “no morel left behind” policy and cannot bring themselves to leave any morel unpicked, regardless of how old and crumbly it may be. I, too, know several folks with this affliction. More than simply advice on what to pick, the authors also tell you when it’s time to leave some for the maggots!

McFarland gives precise dates when morels can be found through the different parts of Illinois and he would know: each of the past several years Joe has been credited with finding the first morel in the state of Illinois. “Children waiting for Santa Claus to appear at Christmas have more patience than morel hunters waiting for morels to show up each spring.” We ALL feel the anticipation. “It will frustrate you. But it will also tease your curiosity, and every year, about two weeks before you think morels are scheduled to appear, you’ll lose your battle with patience and walk into the woods while knowing perfectly well morels should not be up yet. But you will look anyway, because nature is hard to predict.” And because morels have that effect on people.

But so do chanterelles. For me anyway. The authors discuss the finer points of chanterelle hunting and for much of the Midwest, these are very fertile grounds. Frankly, I don’t know why there is not more emphasis placed on these delectables and the authors seem to agree. Of all the chanterelles and relatives covered in “The Chanterelles,” my favorite is the black trumpet. And again, the authors agree. And like most, I can look all year and never find many. McFarland echoes these sentiments, “Nobody ever sees Black Trumpets. One must first be led by the hand and shown their invisibility.” The author demonstrates incredible modesty here. “Nobody” ever sees them? McFarland ALWAYS seems to find them. I’ve been on forays and found one or two tiny specimens and he’ll come in with an entire basketful! In fact, he never seems to go to a mushroom event without a large bag of dried trumpets, or basket of fresh, in tow!

Now, a word on the recipes. First off, there are only 28 recipes described, and I think this is yet another strong point of this book. You won’t find all the usual recipes for simple mushroom dishes and sauces and soups that you already have in the numerous books previously published on the subject. For Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois and Surrounding States many of the most famous chefs in Illinois were invited to share a recipe or two and you’ll be enticed at the offerings. First off, let me say that nearly every one of the recipes is nothing like you’ve ever even heard…at least within the realm of wild mushroom cookery. But all seem to be reproducible by anyone with a moderately outfitted kitchen. And I can attest to the succulence of a few of these dishes, including the “Double Oyster Chowder” which blew me away and you’ll flip over the “Puffball S’mores”! I can’t wait for next year’s morel season so I can try “Black and Bleu Morels” and “Tempura Morels.” Of all the dishes, the ones with an Asian flare really seem to push the envelope, as well as cause my salivary glands to go on full alert: “Cool Oyster Salad with Ginger Sauce,” “Enchanted Grifola,” and “Chile Oyster Soup.” Besides recipes, Joe also provides some other tips for mushroom use and preservation. Most intriguing—and you’ll just have to buy the book to find out more—is his trick for “Semi-dry Preservation” of fresh mushrooms and he demonstrates with morels. All I’ll say is that he all but guarantees this “revolutionary process will keep mushrooms truly fresh” for an entire year or more.

— Review by Britt Bunyard
— Originally published in Fungi

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