Another retro review, this time from October 10, 2011.

Review: Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms, Eugenia Bone, 2011.Mycophilia_

I don’t know how she is as a food writer, but, as a popular science writer, Eugenia Bone is pretty good.

To be honest, I had a little trepidation that this book would be filled with rhapsodies on the culinary qualities of various mushrooms and a lot of recipes. While the stomach of Bone led her into the woods to look for mushrooms, we don’t get any specific recipes. And, by the end of the book, she’s taken us on a chatty, gossipy, personal trip not just into the world of mushrooms but the larger kingdom of fungi.

We go on mushroom journeys and to mushroom festivals and scientific conferences and trade organizations. Bone tags the five groups of mushroom enthusiasts as conspiracy theorists (here, oddly, a mostly Canadian group), Masters of the Forests (guys and gals who like hanging out in the woods and nature as a whole), World’s Leading Experts, Off the Gridders, and Belly Feeders. Some hunt for food. Some are migrant harvesters of mushrooms. Some are involved in mushroom farming – mostly of white button mushrooms – while others hope to crack the tough problem of commercially growing truffles.

But fungi as food is just the beginning of modern economic interest in the fungi kingdom. Some are promoting the potential of mushrooms as a “superfood” or as medicines. I think Bone walks the right line between being skeptical of these claims – you have to eat a lot of mushrooms to get any particular benefit (outside of hallucinogenics) and just because something is a part of traditional Chinese medicine (the “discipline” that thinks rhino horns are nature’s Viagra) doesn’t mean it has any value — and noting that many drugs have come from fungi and that fungi may turn out to be a good future source of Vitamin D for vegans.

Then there is the promise of using fungi to clean up sites polluted with any number of substances that contain carbon. But, because she has done such a good job explaining the biology – what’s known of it – before that point of the story, we can already anticipate some of the technical and scientific problems of realizing that potential. Her explanations of the symbiotic, mutualistic, and parasitic roles fungi play is clear and interesting. And, while the black and white photos don’t add much to the book (many are kind of murky), the book is very well sourced so the reader can pick up any of several threaded ideas to pursue on their own. That includes the role fungi play in various diseases – including the dropping off of limbs via ergot poisoning.

And, speaking of ergot poisoning and its sometimes attendant hallucinations, Bone does have a chapter on magic mushrooms and their possible place in human social evolution. It’s capped off by her munching some psilocybin bearing mushrooms. Psilocybin is a chemical relative of LSD, but Bone’s trip is void of hallucinations but does give her at least one of those useful personal insights that those advocating LSD and psilocybin as therapeutic chemicals cite.

While I liked the science aspect, Bone also give enough time to some of the celebrities in the mycophiliac world and — a bit of a travelogue when she goes places like Telluride or the Breitenbush Retreat in Oregon — to probably please those whose interest may center on other aspects of the mushroom world.


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