Notes from Underground by David Rose

Old Ironguts - Captain Charles McIlvaine

This column originally appeared in the Spring 1999 issue of Spores Illustrated, the newsletter of the Connecticut-Westchester Mycological Association (COMA).

            At COMA's November meeting, many of us were "hoppin' mad" at the nonchalance of a New York Times Magazine food columnist who suggested mushrooms add "an element of danger and a dash of decadence" to a meal. Our objection was obvious: hyping the danger element can lead the unwary to succumb to the last dinner she or he will ever eat. Period. On the other hand, the culinary allure of mushrooms and the foolhardy pretense of tempting fate demand to be studied carefully. 'Danger and decadence' interpretations of fungi have a long history. They stand somewhere between mycophilia and mycophobia not because fungi delight the palate but because they engage the imagination. Mushrooms tease us with uncertainties but hold fast to their many mysteries by remaining hidden. In fact, the term 'cryptogamia' finds its meaning here. 'Crypto' means 'hidden.' As one author remarked, "The greatest treasures and most wonderful things lie hidden underground - and not without reason."

Consider Charles McIlvaine, author of the classic One Thousand American Fungi. An amateur, Mcllvaine was a great popularizer of mycology and tireless promoter of mycophagy. In the latter capacity he achieved a renown not to be matched easily, for his extraordinary appetite for wild mushrooms included several poisonous species, e.g. Russula emetica and Hypholoma fasciculare. Incredible as it seems, he ate Hypholomas indiscriminately, insisting "wherever and however they grow, Hypholomas are safe." During his lifetime (by the way, he did not die of mushroom poisoning) McIlvaine consumed prodigious quantities of fungi, edible and otherwise, lavished praise on their dietary advantages, and convinced others to enjoy them as he did. He once claimed to have eaten 437 species - some say his life total was over 800 - in either case a record certainly worthy of a Mushroom Book of Records. Does it surprise us that the good Cap'n Mcllvaine is endeared to some as 'Ole Ironguts,' the greatest 'toadstool tester' of his time?

Born in 1840, McIlvaine first worked with local Pennsylvania railroads. When the Civil War began, he led Company H of the 97th Pennsylvania Volunteers as Captain. After the war he had yet to discover a career and in 1873 embarked on his 'grand tour' of Europe, dispatching letters on art criticism home to U.S. newspapers. Returning home he visited the 'mountain state' of West Virginia in 1880, again employed by a railroad company. In the decades after the Civil War spectacular forest fires devastated huge areas of the state's mountainsides, and he readily noticed fungi fruiting in great numbers on the burned-over hills. As he described one instance, "I saw miles of the blackened district made white by a growth of Lactarius piperatus."

At once, it seemed, the mushrooms captured his imagination, and, as with many curious intellects, changed his life. Just as R. Gordon Wasson preferred to dramatize his beginning in mycology with the 'once-upon-a-time' story of his and Valentina's mushroom honeymoon, McIlvaine did much the same in the preface to One Thousand American Fungi: "A score of years ago (1880-1885) I was living in the mountains of West Virginia. . ." So he inaugurated the story of his happy relationship with "my little friends - the toadstools . . . my constant companions." Here began a literary career as well as a mycological one.

Though not well known, McIlvaine really did manage a sort of literary career. Beginning in the 1880s, just as he became deeply involved with mycology, he published an assortment of tales, poetry, and sketches in periodicals such as Lippincott's Magazine, Harpers, and Women's Home Companion. The Detroit Free Press published his stories - "The Twins of Weasel Creek," The Ghost of Aaron's Prong" - written in the vernacular of West Virginia mountain folk. He approximated this vernacular in a poem "Our Church Fight" published in Century Magazine:

I'm that nigh near disgusted with the fight in our old church,
Where one halfs 'g'in the t'other, an' the Lord's left in the lurch,
That I went an' told the parson if he'd jine me in a prayer,
We'd slip out 'mong the daisies and' put one up from there.

Well, I believe the author would rather have shouted hallelujahs from a meadow of Agaricus campestris standing reverently in August sunlight. Mcllvaine also used a dialect of his Scots heritage in verse like "Coom, Lassie, Be Good To Me" in which a young swain implores his sweetheart, "Like kiss o' the sun to the life-springin' sod, / Put your lips to my ain; were I you I wad." One biographer remarked that such verse carried absolutely no threat of rivalry with that of the famed Scottish poet Robert Burns.

'Tobe Hodge' was the pseudonym McIlvaine used for much of his literary work. This was the case in two book-length stories, The Legend of Polecat Hollow ( 1884) and Indoors, Outdoors, and Up the Chimney (1906), both of which achieved some popularity. But what have these to do with mycology? How do McIlvaine's children's stories and mock-inspirational (and loving) verse for adults relate to his mycological interests? We find one answer in his descriptions of mushrooms themselves. One Thousand American Fungi rests on a taxonomic order based on spore color and is true to a scientific purpose, but the author's commentary often seems more fanciful than scientific for McIlvaine perceived a world of wonder ripe with gastronomic possibilities that vividly beckoned to his native aesthetic. Perception is all. The purely objective is illusion. McIlvaine's literary leanings infected what he perceived, and with a poet's (or a poetaster's) language he imbued the fungi with another kind of life.

True to character he dressed his mushrooms in fancy, ever on the verge of narrative. Here are some examples. First, mushrooms can be pure spectacle. McIlvaine: "A magnificent specimen of Polyporus berkeleyi fully four feet high and from two to three feet broad was exhibited in the window of Doyle the florist." He visualized the anthropomorphic in Polyporus sulphureus - "a giant yellow tongue." His Amanitas were zoomorphic, "smelling faintly of polecat." A mycophagist above all, McIlvaine continually overstated their salutary properties: "The writer saved the life of a lovely woman by feeding her upon Marasmius oreades." By some sudden charm, mushrooms acquired magic: "Cantharellus cibarius. . . might even restore the dead." Finally, don't overlook the sprightly red devil bored with his toxicology text under the shade of dire Amanitas in Plate VI of One Thousand American Fungi. This imp means business.

So beware of those who exaggerate, those who recklessly recommend "danger and a dash of decadence" essential to haute cuisine, and those who conquer fungi, like Cap'n Ironguts' McIlvaine, with mycotoxic abandon and needless heroism: >Hypholoma fasciculare is good eating, is innocent. I have not seen Hypholoma lachrymabundum. When I do I shall eat it and expect to live." (Reminds me of a fine West Virginia recipe for preparing carp - you season the carp on a two-by-four, roast it through, remove it from the oven, then throw away the carp and eat the two-by-four.) McIlvaine has yet to find his biographer, one who will detail his follies and his accomplishments in the contexts of personal and family difficulties, Victorian natural history, and the popularization of mycology. Amid balderdash and loopy recipes, "To Stew the Tougher Toadstools (Hydnaceae, Polyporaceae)," we may discover a man to whom mushrooms were not so much a chimera of the mind but a resplendent reality. And mighty good eatin', too.

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