In a previous post, I described the events leading up to my grandfather telling me, “You have to understand about mushrooms.” Learning recently about Charles McIlvaine, I recognized something of my grandfather in him. Both, I think, trusted his own experience to a degree that would ordinarily seem to result in an early death, only to have it validated.
He served in the Union Army for two years, rising to become a Captain. (Here is a point of difference between the two. My grandfather came to America in part to avoid service in the Polish army.)
I found no account of his next 17 years. Another similarity to my grandfather perhaps – a certain mystery about where he was and what he was doing. At that point McIlvaine moved to West Virginia. This is his account of what happened.
A score of years ago (1880-1885) I was living in the mountains of West Virginia. While riding on horseback through the dense forests of that great unfenced state, I saw on every side luxuriant growths of fungi, so inviting in color, cleanliness and flesh that it occurred to me they ought to be eaten. I remembered having read a short time before this inspiration seized me, a very interesting article in the Popular Science Monthly for May, 1877, written by Mr. Julius A. Palmer, Jr., entitled “ Toadstool eating.” Hunting it up I studied it carefully, and soon found myself interested in a delightful study, which was not without immediate reward. Up to this time I had been living, literally, on the fat of the land – bacon; but my studies enabled me to supplement this, the staple dish of the state, with a vegetable luxury that centuries ago graced the dinners of the Caesars. So absorbing did the study become from gastronomic, culinary, and scientific points of view, that I have continued it ever since, with thorough intellectual enjoyment and much gratification of appetite as my reward. I hope to interest students in the study as I am myself interested.
For twenty years my little friends – the toadstools – have been my constant companions. They have interested me, delighted me, feed me, and I have found much pleasure in making the public acquainted with their habits, structure, lusciousness and food value.
Charles McIlvaine “ OneThousand American Fungi”
McIlvaine’s method for leaning about mushrooms included eating hundreds of species of them. The ediblity and poisoness of many of these were not known at the time. His nickname came to be “Ole Ironguts”.
My grandfather came to America when he was 16. I don’t know what education he had there. His family was well off, so I’m sure whe went to school. But from the rough jobs he had in this country, I’m fairly sure his formal education stopped in Poland. Maybe he began to learn the ways of the forest there. Because of the way he talked about “the woods” I’m sure though, that his knowledge came from extensive personal obsevation and experimentaton.
If you ever drank his coffee you would know he deserved the name “Ole Ironguts” as well.