Chapter 19 Summary
In “Gathering: The Fungi,” Michael Pollan continues his exploration of the personal food chain, in which he attempts to prepare a meal made from ingredients he has directly and independently collected. Pollan has already shared his hunting experiences, and he now sets out into the forest to collect mushrooms. Although Pollan is a gardener, he discovers that there are many surprising differences between gardening and mushroom gathering. He also shares the unique characteristics of mushrooms.
A gardener works with domesticated species and has a considerable amount of control over the garden, so it is not surprising that gardeners tend to view their gardens as their own. Pollan points out that the pests come to be viewed as “Others.” In other words, Pollan concludes, gardening is steeped in dualism. However, Pollan admits that he never recognized these gardening attitudes until he went mushroom hunting.
Mushroom hunting involves a great deal of mystery. For example, it is difficult to find mushrooms, and mycophiles (lovers of mushrooms) must develop an eye for finding fungus—or “get their eyes on”—before they will be able to worry about identification. In fact, finding mushrooms can be so difficult that most mushroom hunters prefer to keep their mushroom locations a secret. Pollan admits that he struggled to find a guide before Angelo Gallo agreed to take him along on a hunt for chanterelles.
Mushrooms not only grow in hidden places but are, themselves, mysterious. Pollan points out that scientists know relatively little about mushrooms. Chanterelles are a mycorrhizal species, which means that they live with the roots of plants. Beyond that, little is known. Pollan explains that fungi are difficult to observe because
what we call a mushroom is only the tip of the iceberg of a much bigger and essentially invisible organism that lives most of its life underground.
Most of the organism exists in the soil at a microscopic scale. Although some mushrooms can be cultivated, Pollan points out that the choicest mushrooms are nearly impossible to cultivate. The most amusing illustration of the mystery that surrounds mushrooms may be that one thinker speculated that mushrooms grew from lunar energy.
Pollan argues that mushrooms represent the omnivore’s dilemma of choosing between trying new food and fearing new food. In contrast to Pollan’s earlier chanterelle experience, in which he could not bring himself to eat a chanterelle because he worried that it would kill him, Pollan finds that he is now able to eat his chanterelles because Gallo guided him through the process. By the end of the chapter, Pollan completes two successful expeditions to gather mushrooms and is ready to prepare his final meal.