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Mushroom picking carries its dangers as an autumn ritual

Published November 19. 2011 09:01AM

Mushroom picking has long been a popular autumn activity in this part of the country. Whole families would often venture into the woodlands, picking bucketfuls which could then be dried or marinated for later consumption.

"A certain romance lends its fascination to this mysterious creature of the field and woodlands," a Tamaqua Courier writer said in his column a century ago. "In childhood we used to read how the fairies danced on the toadstool, and on the green rings of grass that often grow around them."

Although he rarely saw "men of a sporting temperament" gathering mushroom, he noted that the activity did arouse a "lust of competition."

"Your antagonist is not so much the chance of getting the wrong mushroom, as your sense of superiority over a neighbor whose ignorance and fear debar him from one of the choicest morsels in nature's larder, which is placed on your table by your own science," he stated.

He explained how fall when air is crisp, soil is damp and the trees are so rich in color was the perfect season for picking wild mushrooms.

"There is something rather picturesque in getting our breakfast in so unlikely a spot as one of the shade trees of your street, or the barren hills of your pasture," he stated. "Like the boy who sticks his finger in the jam jar, you seem to have extracted a goody from Mother Nature's pantry when she wasn't looking.

"Nature seems to have expended some of her most vital juices in this exotic creation," he continued. "Mushrooms are known to lift asphalt pavement and crack it in their desire to get light and air. It is no wonder that their fiber contains a powerful appeal to human appetite."

The writer warned, however, that along with the edible mushroom, there were poison varieties. He noted that even well-known scientists of the day admitted it was difficult for an amateur to tell the good from the poisonous.

"As everyone is an amateur to begin with, and all varieties unknown, most of us regard the mushroom fad in the light that you should not go into the water until you have learned to swim," he advised.

In his century-old book, "Preventive Medicine and Hygiene," Milton Rosenau stated that "the ill effects from eating mushrooms are usually done by children, immigrants or the ignorant."

Statistics proved him correct. The increased immigration from countries where mushrooms were more commonly eaten paralleled the increase in U.S. deaths.

There were a number of tragedies connected to the mushroom a century ago. Following heavy rains in New York in 1911, 22 deaths were reported in a 10-day period. The most tragic occurred in early September when Michael Loprete of New Rochelle went into the woods one Sunday morning with his 8-year-old son. Unfortunately, some toxic toadstools were among the mushrooms brought home. His wife prepared them with the meat and served them at the evening meal.

They soon became sick, suffering pain, nausea and vomiting. After his wife died that evening, Michael was so distraught he ran screaming through the house and into the street. He then rushed back inside the home, took out a revolver and shot himself. His son also later died.

In 1921, the number of species of poisonous mushrooms capable of causing death numbered 20 or 30.

According to Rosenau's book, the first historic case of mushroom poisoning occurred in the family of the Greek poet Euripides, who lost his wife, daughter and two sons in a single day. In the year 54, the Roman Emperor Claudius died of poison mushrooms at age 63. Another prominent casualty in history was Pope Clement VII.

The chestnut

The Courier reported in early November 1911, that Absalom Chester, 38, of Tamaqua ate a large quantity of chestnuts while visiting his sister in Reading.

"He did not feel any bad effects of them until the following day when he was taken violently ill with acute indigestion," the Courier reported. "This was followed by inflammation of the bowels which hastened his death. It is believed that the chestnuts were directly responsible for his death."

A coal inspector at No. 10 colliery, Chester was also active in a number of organizations, including the Odd Fellows and Sons of Veterans.

Ironically, a popular food book called The Grocer's Encyclopedia made its debut in 1911 and celebrated the chestnut culture, describing how whole villages would take to the woods for three weeks each autumn (and keep them busy all winter). The "vegetables-and-meat" ready-cooked combinations included a "chestnuts and sausages" casserole besides the more classic "beef and onions" and "green peas and veal."

Early in the 20th century, a chestnut blight destroyed about four billion American chestnut trees. Within 40 years, the near-four billion-strong American chestnut population in North America was devastated.

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