Most of us are familiar with one or two kinds of mushrooms, usually white or brown varieties that find their way onto pizzas. Actually, more than 3,000 types grow around the world in a wide variety of flavors and sizes. Some are less than an inch high, and others are more than 15 inches tall. Some have unusual names like Portobello and Black Trumpet, and they are listed on sophisticated menus in fancy restaurants. But many centuries ago, long before pizzas and fancy restaurants existed, people were eating mushrooms.

Ancient hieroglyphics from more than 4,600 years ago tell us Egyptians called mushrooms “the magic food.” They believed eating them resulted in immortality, and only pharaohs were given this privilege so that they could live forever. Of course, this meant Egyptian royalty enjoyed all the delicious mushrooms since no commoner could touch them! Other ancient civilizations in places such as Russia and Mexico thought mushrooms had ingredients that could produce superhuman strength and even help locate lost objects.

Centuries ago, people still associated magic with mushrooms. Sometimes they observed unusual places in a meadow, like a patch of bright green grass or a spot of bare soil. Then they imagined these places were the result of footprints left by fairies dancing at night. When mushrooms appeared near the edge of these “fairy rings,” people liked to think of them as seats where the tired fairies could rest. But today we have a more scientific approach to the mushroom.

All of the many species of mushrooms are classified as fungi. They are plant-like organisms that usually grow in damp, dark places like caves or forest floors, but they can also grow in grassy areas. Fungi work with other plants and animals called decomposers to keep the soil fertile for plant growth. Like many other plants, mushrooms serve as a source of food for insects and small animals. Mushrooms differ from green plants because they lack chlorophyll and do not require sunshine to grow.

As the demand for mushrooms increased over the centuries, people established mushroom farms to plant and grow the fungi in special environments. Some farms were in caves, some underground, and some in special buildings. In the 1600s, for example, France developed the formal cultivation of mushrooms in special caves near Paris. Until the 1940s, most mushroom farms were in the Far East, especially China and Japan. Then during World War II, many American soldiers tasted the delicious varieties of mushrooms and learned about mushroom farming. After the war, they took this knowledge back to the United States, which soon became one of the world’s major mushroom producers.

Health and safety are always concerns when growing any crop. One of the complications with mushrooms is that they can be poisonous or nonpoisonous. Common nontoxic varieties such as table and field mushrooms are safe to eat and can be purchased in grocery stores. These mushrooms are praised by health experts because they are fat-free, cholesterol-free, and low in calories. They are rich in B-vitamins, potassium, phosphorus, and iron. Chefs use them in dishes ranging from soups to gourmet sauces, and some mushrooms even have medicinal benefits. The silver-ear mushroom, for example, can be used to lower blood pressure.

Over the years, edible mushrooms have proven to be extremely popular in the marketplace. Today the USA is the world leader in supplying mushrooms, and other major contributors include France, China, Canada, Great Britain, and Italy. In 1986, 470 million pounds of mushrooms were produced throughout the world, and by 1999 this figure had almost doubled. Production was up to 860 million pounds and the market value was $867 million. At this rate, it appears safe to say mushrooms are here to stay!

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