Mushroom: A Global History

Feb 20, 2014

For many places still blanketed in snow, it may be a while until we even see the ground again. But waiting patiently under there and soon to sprout, is a species so unique, that it’s hard to categorize, yet so common, you’ll know it instantly.


“Mushroom a Global History” is the name of a book Cynthia Bertelsen, a food writer and blogger in Blacksburg and an award winning cook, who's lived all over the world. More than a recipe book, she’s written a highly readable cultural history of the sometimes-controversial fungus.

Cynthia Bertelsen

“Mushrooms have been associated heavily in England and parts of Europe with negative forces and so they were sort of rejected," said Bertelsen.

For most people, when it comes to mushrooms, you either love them or hate them. Bertelsen’s writes cultures had long fallen into two categories, those that are mycophobic and those she calls mycophiles, those who are still drawn to the elusive fungi the way humans have been for millennia.

"Mushrooms are one of the last foods that people could go out into the woods and gather and there’s feeling of the hunt, the surprise of finding the mushrooms, there’s the excitement and then there’s this little frisson of fear that I think is like, OK, are they OK?  And I can t emphasize this enough if they do go out to mushroom they must know what they’re looking for.”

While some mushrooms are delicious, others medicinal, some magical, a few are poisonous. And it can be very difficult, even for experienced mushroom hunters to identify them by sight alone.

"In France, where mushrooms are a huge part of the culture, the pharmacies have trained mycologists. And there’s a sign that said, please bring your mushrooms in and we can help you decide which ones are good and which ones are not."

Bertelsen has a background in library science, and a degree in human nutrition and exercise  from Virginia Tech.  

Her lovely kitchen has a view of the university and the mountains and. Hundreds of cookbooks fill bookshelves around her house.

“Because I write about food I use many of them for reference almost all the time. When you look at it from a historical point of view you can get cookbooks from a certain time and the ingredients won’t even be in those books.   And then you can trace the trajectory of the development of different types of recopies or the use of ingredients by using cookbooks as a primary source.”

For Bertelsen the joy of the hunt is to piece together bits of information, facts and folklore on a food that is gaining in popularity. More foreign and exotic species are showing up on store shelves.   But she says, even the ubiquitous white button mushroom makes a wonderful ingredient if it’s cooked right.

For mushroom caviar Bertelsen chops them into tiny cubes, A little melted butter and chopped green onions begin to release their liquid but she says, resist the urge to stir because that boils the mushrooms.  You want them to caramelize for deeper, subtler flavor.

Her book contains more tips on how to cook mushrooms and it also reminds readers of their importance in human history.