- Apr 18, 2019
Photo source: Wikimedia Commons
In her book of advice, Common Sense in the Household, Marion Harland includes a section on every type of vegetable. Only one begins with a warning: that for mushrooms. "Have nothing to do with them until you are an excellent judge between the true and the false." In the age before mushrooms were safely cultivated, the warning was not at all unneeded. Though only about three percent of known mushroom varieties are poisonous when eaten, those who misjudge and eat a wrong type pay dearly for their mistake.
People have been eating mushrooms for centuries. They are nutritious - one of the few vegetables with a high protein content - and delicious. They grow wild and thus are available to anyone willing to seek them out and pick them. And, most of the time they aren't poisonous. But - and it's an important but - sometimes they are. Nineteenth-century papers shared many stories of unlucky mushroom eaters. Often the stories claimed the unfortunate victims had mistaken toadstools for mushrooms, an easy error since mushrooms and toadstools are basically interchangeable - a mushroom only becomes a toadstool when it's proven poisonous.
Newspapers and recipe books in the 1800s often included guides for those gathering and preparing mushrooms - rules to follow that would help distinguish one type from the other. Modern day experts point out that many varieties are virtually indistinguishable from each other and only experts should eat wild mushrooms and even then, better to not. As my husband likes to say "There are bold mushroom eaters and there are old mushroom eaters but there are no old, bold mushroom eaters."
Advice was also plentiful on how to help those who ate mushrooms that turned out to be toadstools in disguise. But the advice varied. When one study claimed that large doses of alcohol would cure mushroom poisoning, a wag suggested that mushrooms would now be in high demand. No matter the advice for testing mushrooms before or after cooking, remedies often were not enough to save people who had mistakenly sat down to a plate full of toadstools.
Still, mushrooms were popular and recipes for their use were common. How to balance safety and culinary variety? In Europe cultivation of mushrooms in caves had begin in the 17th century. By isolating the desired funghi from outside influences, growers could generally ensure that their products were safe. These mushrooms came at a price though, and many common folk still hunted for mushrooms in the woods. In the United States commercial production of mushrooms started in the 1880s in Pennsylvania, where mushrooms are still farmed. Today nearly half of all mushrooms grown in the US come from Chester County, Pennsylvania (just west of Philadelphia). And yes, they're safe to eat!
Take fresh ones, - the size is not very important, - cut off nearly all the stalks, and wipe off the skin with wet flannel. Arrange neatly in a pie-dish, pepper and salt, sprinkle a little mace among them, and lay a bit of butter upon each. Bake about half an hour, basting now and then with butter and water, that they may not be too dry. Serve in the dish in which they were baked, with maitre d'hotel sauce poured over them.
Recipe from Common Sense in the Household by Marion Harland, published in New York in 1872, available at archive.org
All newspaper articles taken from the Library of Congress