CA Mushrooms
CA Mushrooms

Book Review

Mushroom: A Global History

By Cynthia D. Bertelsen
2013; Reaktion Books
ISBN: 978-1-78023-175-4
160 pages; $18.00 cloth

Mushroom: A Global History is a very small book (I read it in a single sitting) and not so much about the big picture of mushrooms (their science, ecology, taxonomy) as it is on the much more narrowed topic of the history of mushrooms as food. The author is “a culinary historian and photographer” and the book is part of the “Edible” series which bills itself as a “revolutionary new series of books dedicated to food and drink that explores the rich history of cuisine. Each book reveals the global history and culture of one type of food or beverage.” Other disparate titles in the series include: Apple, Cheese, Hamburger, Gin, Curry, Hot dog, Lemon, and Offal— it is a UK publication after all.

A Global History reasonably covers the history of sentiment towards mushrooms as food in Europe, North America, Asia, even Africa. Likewise there is pretty good background on the history of cultivation down through the ages, beginning in Asia (though with few details), then to Europe a few centuries ago, and winding up in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania (not actually in Philadelphia as the dust jacket asserts) in modern times. Kennett Square, historically, has produced the vast majority of North America’s mushroom crop (nearly all of it Agaricus until very recently); A Global History provides adequate details though there have been similar, if not better, treatments in the past (The Romance of the Fungus World by Rolfe and Rolfe, Mushrooms & Toadstools by John Ramsbottom, Celebrating the Wild Mushroom by Sara Ann Friedman, Introduction to the History of Mycology by G.C. Ainsworth); Chester County Mushroom Farming (Images of America series) by Bruce Edward Mowday (2008, Arcadia Publishing) has the definitive collection of photos of the major places and persona of Kennett Square fame (reviewed in FUNGI vol. 3, no. 2; 2010).

Overall I found the writing style of A Global History to be very enjoyable but the content, especially when the author strayed from her comfort zone of culinary history, to be fraught with errors. (Employing a mycologist as editor would have been a good idea.) On the use of spore print to determine edibility: “Should the mushroom be poisonous, it may contain white basidiospores…” Yes, it may. On physiology, contrasting (erroneously) how fungi and animals obtain nutrition: “… in a reverse… of animals, fungi produce exoenzymes or extracellular enzymes…” Truth be told, fungi and animals both digest organic matter extracellularly. On the toxicity of eating raw mushrooms: “All mushrooms contain agaritine, a phenylhydrazine, which breaks down into derivatives… These carcinogenic compounds damage the DNA of humans. Mycologists strongly urge the cooking of all [her emphasis] mushrooms for this reason.” Actually, no. While it’s a good idea to cook all mushrooms, this is to make them more easily digestible (they’re mostly fiber), to kill off microbes and insects present, and to make them more palatable. Agaritine is a well-known carcinogen, but known only from species of Agaricus, Leucoagaricus, and some Lepiotas. Her very brief treatment of psychedelic mushrooms perpetuates many myths passed down through the years; she cites a number of authors who formulated ideas of mushroom cults preempting modern religions but omitted the most infamous of these authors, John Allegro (The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross). She devotes quite a bit of paper to the famous Gordon Wasson and cites his book Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality but never mentions his paper in Life Magazine that started it all. On medicinal mushrooms, her explanations are awkward: “Cordyceps and Metarhizium in particular, produce pathogens helpful in controlling insect pests.” Actually, those fungi are the pathogens of insects. And further on: “After all, people have been killing flies for centuries with fly agaric.” More than once in A Global History we hear that Amanita muscaria is lethal to flies, which is completely false. I don’t know where this myth comes from, but break one open and you’ll see them loaded with fly maggots that feed exclusively on this mushroom with no ill effects. On differences, taxonomically, between Ascomycetes and Basidiomycetes, she describes basidiospores as being found “on the interior of clublike cells.” Then there are the problems with several of the photos. Many are stock images and are posted over and over, almost daily on Facebook, or were likely taken right from the pages of Wikipedia (e.g. Mike Wood’s well-known image of Amanita phalloides). Two photo montages are misleading: “Poisonous Mushrooms” are mostly not toxic species; there are boletes, what appears to be a Coltricia and one is clearly a Laccaria. The montage of “Psilocybin or ‘magic mushrooms’” doesn’t appear to show any species of psilocybin-containing mushrooms; instead there are Amanitas, boletes, Pholiotas, inky caps, even turkey tails! I reiterate: employing a mycologist as editor would have been a good idea.

Ok, so A Global History may not have been intended to be a scientific text. I do have to admit, there were some bright spots in this little book. Cynthia D. Bertelsen really shines when she writes about the history of cooking mushrooms. And I suppose this is meant to be the entire point of this book. Her perspective on early American mushroom cookery from the 1930s to 1970 (“the Dark Ages”) is fun, with the advent of Campbell’s mushroom soup as the book’s high water mark. A Global History closes with several historical and modern recipes for mushroom cookery; some from eastern and western Europe, and some from really farflung places like Haiti and Nigeria.

— Review by Britt Bunyard
— Originally published in Fungi