Mushroom: A Global History
A Short Synopsis by Author Cynthia Bertelsen
Mysterious and earthy, and often deadly, mushrooms have long mesmerized people. Take the words of the Rolfes, who wrote in 1925:
On the contrary, it [the mushroom] is a human subject. Many are the quaint fantasies which have been interwoven by man into its lore, and thus its history is almost his history. It starts with Adam and Eve, and it will continue after the ultimate man has looked his last on a dying world. It embraces not only our first ancestors, but such diverse characters as Judas Iscariot and the devil, Pliny and Erasmus Darwin, the fairies and witches, and baron Munchausen and Sir John Mandeville. ~ R. T. Rolfe and F. W. Rolfe, Romance of the Fungus World
Many of the earliest foragers were women, long known and respected for their intimate knowledge of this food – which is neither vegetable nor flesh. In the nineteenth century, when the U.S. government decided to print a small booklet about mushrooms, they sought out the women in the open market there, figuring that the women would know more than anyone which mushrooms were edible and safe.
From the introduction to Mushroom: A Global History, by Cynthia D. Bertelsen (Reaktion Books, 2013):
It’s hard to imagine another form of earthly life that has affected human beings as much as the kingdom Fungi. Seeking the taste and perceived medicinal benefits of mushrooms,human beings followed a path from superstition to science: from foraging to farming, from medieval old wives’ tales to modern clinical trials, and from food eaten to ward off starvation to haute cuisine. In other words, the three Cs – cuisine, cultivation and canning – in large measure drove the twentieth-century shift from mycophobia to mycophilia, at least in the West.
In recent decades there has been a growing awareness of the vital role that mushrooms and other fungi can play in the lives of humans, meaning that the story of the mushroom has just begun, in spite of its ancient origins. In the developed world, many species of mushroom are still considered specialty foods, linked in part to the influence of French haute cuisine. In the developing world, however, mushrooms are used as provender in times of hunger and as cures for illness; they also promise a better future for poor farmers and their families, who might commercially cultivate them in order to meet world demand. Mushrooms possess valuable medicinal qualities that can help to boost the immune system of the human body. The remarkable mind-altering effects of certain species may assist terminally ill patients by relieving anxiety at the end of their lives. And, of course, many groups of people from ancient times to the present have used these ‘magic mushrooms’ for religious and spiritual purposes.
In addition, in the case of the environment, mushrooms can be thought of as nature’s recycling ‘experts’, spawning high hopes for bioremediation – removing pollutants through growing micro-organisms – in polluted landscapes.
Mushroom: A Global History is available from your favorite bookstore or preferred online retailer. ISBN: 978 1 78023 175 4
Introduction: The Importance of Being Mushroom
1 Anatomy of the Mushroom
2 The Quiet Hunt: Mushroom Foraging
3 Take Ye Faire Mushrooms: Cooking
5 Nutrition, Medicine and Religion
6 Cultivation of Mushrooms
7 A Mushrooming Future
How to Grow a Mushroom
Among the Mushrooms: The Major Players
Websites and Associations