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03 September 2010

Foraging at the John Cage Trust

Summer is upon us with a vengeance here in the Hudson Valley, and it was with great delight that I discovered a virtual forest of mushrooms in our very own expansive backyard. And not one but two different kinds! Does anyone know what these are?????

Cage was, of course, a more than amateur mycologist, one who, with Guy Nearing and others, founded the New York Mycological Society in 1962. He loved everything about mushrooms, but maybe especially their culinary possibilities. He nearly killed himself on one once, a mishap recounted with wry humor in one of the stories for Indeterminacy that didn't make it into the Smithsonian Folkways recording:

"When I first moved to the country, David Tudor, M.C. Richards, the Weinribs, and I all lived in the same small farmhouse. In order to get some privacy I started taking walks in the woods. It was August. I began collecting the mushrooms which were growing more or less everywhere. Then I bought some books and tried to find out which mushroom was which. Realizing I needed to get to know someone who knew something about mushrooms, I called the 4-H Club in New City. I spoke to a secretary. She said they'd call me back. They never did.

The following spring, after reading about the edibility of skunk cabbage in Medsger's book on wild plants, I gathered a mess of what I took to be skunk cabbage, gave some to my mother and father (who were visiting) to take home, cooked the rest in three waters with a pinch of soda as Medsger advises, and served it to six people, one of whom, I remember, was from the Museum of Modern Art. I ate more than the others did in an attempt to convey my enthusiasm over edible wild plants. After coffee, poker was proposed. I began winning heavily. M.C. Richards left the table. After a while she came back and whispered in my ear, "Do you feel all right?" I said, "No, I don't. My throat is burning and I can hardly breathe." I told the others to divide my winnings, that I was folding. I went outside and retched. Vomiting with diarrhea continued for about two hours. Before I lost my will, I told M.C. Richards to call Mother and Dad and tell them not to eat the skunk cabbage. I asked her how the others were. She said, "They're not as bad off as you are." Later, when friends lifted me off the ground to put a blanket under me, I just said, "Leave me alone." Someone called Dr. Zukor. He prescribed milk and salt. I couldn't take it. He said, "Get him here immediately." They did. He pumped my stomach and gave adrenalin to keep my heart beating. Among other things, he said, "Fifteen minutes more and he would have been dead."

I was removed to the Spring Valley hospital. There during the night I was kept supplied with adrenalin and I was thoroughly cleaned out. In the morning I felt like a million dollars. I rang the bell for the nurse to tell her I was ready to go. No one came. I read a notice on the wall which said that unless one left by noon he would be charged for an extra day. When I saw one of the nurses passing by I yelled something to the effect that she should get me out since I had no money for a second day. Shortly the room was filled with doctors and nurses and in no time at all I was hustled out.

I called up the 4-H Club and told them what had happened. I emphasized by determination to go on with wild mushrooms. They said, "Call Mrs. Clark on South Mountain Drive." She said, "I can't help you. Call Mr. So-and-so." I called him. He said, "I can't help you, but call So-and-so who works in the A&P in Suffern. He knows someone in Ramsey who knows the mushrooms." Eventually, I got the name and telephone of Guy G. Nearing. When I called him, he said, "Come over any time you like. I'm almost always here, and I'll name your mushrooms for you."

I wrote a letter to Medsger telling him skunk cabbage was poisonous. He never replied. Some time later I read about the need to distinguish between skunk cabbage and the poisonous hellebore. They grow at the same time in the same places. Hellebore has pleated leaves. Skunk cabbage does not."

And years later he gambled with the lives of many of us attending the 1989 "Composer-to-Composer Festival" in Telluride, Colorado, when he cooked up a batch he couldn't quite identify for a communal, post-concert dinner. We gobbled them down and, obviously, lived to tell. By the way, in case you don't know it, the Telluride Mushroom Festival is a very big deal in the Rocky Mountain West, being a celebration of "all things fungal & entheogenic" whose 30th annual just passed.

Cage's personal library, housed here at the John Cage Trust, was full of books about mushrooms, many for use in the kitchen. One of his favorites was this one here -- Wild Mushroom Recipes (1976), put out by the Puget Sound Mycological Society, edited by Pauline Shiosaki -- obviously pre-dating his devotion to macrobiotics. Look below for three randomly drawn recipes from this sweet little collection.

Anyone interested in the subject will want to peruse the holdings of the John Cage Mycology Collection, gifted in 1971 by Cage himself to the University of California, Santa Cruz, and long lovingly administered by Rita Bottoms. Alas, the materials comprising this collection are not available online, but there is quite a bit of detail about what's there (photographs, correspondence, newsletters, historical records) should you want to consider a visit. And don't miss one of the most beautiful compilation essays written to date on the subject that appeared in a little-known magazine called Fungi (Volume 1, Winter 2008), entitled "A Plurality of One: John Cage and the People-to-People Committee on Fungi," authored by David W. Rose. Really, really good reading!

Laura Kuhn