Books help us find the fungus among us
One of the many things I love about fall is that it is a great time for spotting mushrooms.
Recently, my husband and I took trips to both Missouri and Wisconsin, and a large proportion of our vacation photos consist of various types of fungi. Oddly, I am not interested in eating them (I can't get past the texture), but I love finding them in the woods, photographing them and identifying them. Their wide variety of strange shapes and colors fascinates me, and their propensity to suddenly appear overnight makes them seem almost magical.
For all my curiosity about mushrooms, I know very little about them, so I consulted the library catalog for books on the subject and found some titles to help further my fungal education:
— "Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms" by Eugenia Bone presents an overview of all things mushroom that is very informative for the beginning enthusiast.
The author arrived at mushrooms from a different perspective than mine, as she loved eating wild mushrooms and joined the New York Mycological Society in hopes of finding cheaper access to them. The NYMS and the characters she meets there became her entry point for exploring the science and history of mushrooms, as well as the culture that surrounds them.
"Mycophilia" gives the reader a brief introduction to mycology, which is the general study of fungi, and explores new facts and theories about this strange life form. Bone looks at ways mushrooms have been viewed and used throughout history and the ways they are being used today. She also delves into the subculture of obsessed mushroom hunters and fans, visiting mushroom competitions and festivals around the United States and introducing the reader to all manner of quirky and enthusiastic mushroom lovers.
— A book that takes a more narrow view is Langdon Cook's "The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America," which zeroes in on the often invisible world of the foragers, entrepreneurs and chefs who bring wild mushrooms to the tables of high-end restaurants and the shelves of fancy grocery stores in Washington and Oregon.
These establishments pay top dollar for the right mushrooms, and they can be elusive and difficult to harvest in bulk, so competition is fierce. Cook manages to befriend several of those involved in this often secretive business so that he can take the reader behind the scenes.
The foragers he meets are often living on the fringes of society and are very secretive about their foraging areas (which are sometimes illegal, involving parks or private property). The entrepreneurs are distributing the mushrooms they buy from foragers in search of profit, a tricky business when fresh mushrooms are hard to keep and transport.
Cook also talks to chefs who are finding new ways to incorporate these trendy and in-demand wild foods into restaurant menus. This is a compelling and eye-opening glimpse into the journey wild mushrooms take before they end up on the table.
— Guidebooks are a vital part of learning about nature, and in the case of mushrooms, they can be especially entertaining due to the descriptive and often whimsical names given to various species (for example: Garland Slime-head, Fetid Mummy-cap and Old Man of the Woods). There are quite a few useful guides out there, but one of particular interest is "Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois & Surrounding States: A Field-to-Kitchen Guide" by Joe McFarland and Gregory Mueller.
Helpfully organized, it starts with tips for beginners and outlines toxic mushrooms to avoid. It discusses how to search for mushrooms based on what type of trees they are associated with and how to locate them, and then breaks down the chapters into mushroom types: morels, chanterelles, boletes and puffballs. It also includes a chapter on edible mushrooms often found in grassy areas like lawns.
This book is illustrated with large color photographs that make it easy to identify the features of the mushrooms so you can find them in the field, and it presents examples of look-alikes which should help avoid confusion.
Many of the mushrooms are ones I have seen in and around Champaign-Urbana, so expect to see some familiar fungi here. The book concludes with cooking tips for your finds and some interesting recipes, which maybe someday I will work up to trying!
These three titles are just a small sampling of the intriguing books we have on mushrooms at the Urbana Free Library, so I look forward to delving further. If you are interested in some other facet of the natural world, be sure to check the holdings at your local library.
Kasia Hopkins is an adult services librarian at the Urbana Free Library. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.