After years spent foraging in New England forests and a week of exploring the shelves and researching fungi in the collections at the library, Susan Heuck Allen, former Athenaeum board member and Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classics at Brown University, gave a talk before the Review Club enigmatically entitled, Where the Wild Things Are. Allen described her actual subject as Foraging for Fungi, a “personal romp through the history of the human experience with fungi.” Finding colorful plates and quotes from the Natural History Collection at the Athenaeum to elucidate the history of mycology, the study of mushrooms, Allen raved about Worthington Smith’s gorgeous 3 x 2’ fold-outs (above) as “pin ups” from the golden age of illustration.
Allen also shared the peculiar humor of mycophile William H. Gibson, Our Edible Toadstools and Mushrooms and How to Distinguish Them, by (New York, 1895). Gibson, a gifted artist and enthusiastic naturalist promoted edible mushrooms as a good food source, and along with the beautiful chromolithographic plates in his book, included recipes for preparing them. Of the Chanterelle, Gibson writes “peppery and pungent in the raw state; mild and sweet after cooking.”
In addition to her talk which focused on her experiences foraging, cooking and eating wild mushrooms, Allen exhibited various species which she had dried. To top off her multisensory extravaganza, Allen sautéed black trumpets, whose gamey fragrance permeated the Bound, and then served them with brie to share her passion for foraging and eating edible mushrooms with the delighted audience.
While conducting her Athenaeum research, Allen noticed that many of the books were donated by the same member, Abby F. Taft. Following a professional interest in Excavating Women (her future book), Allen found that the spinster’s father had been, among other things, governor of RI and president of the Athenaeum. Allen ended her talk sitting in Governor Taft’s chair that was donated by his mycophilic daughter in 1933.
To make your own discoveries in the Special Collections consult the online catalog, peruse the card catalog at the library, or contact Kate Wodehouse, Collections Librarian, for additional information.
Here is the full text of the Bibliography on the Natural History Collection at the Athenaeum.