|The Story Book of Science|
|by Jean Henri Fabre|
|The wonders of plant and animal life told with rare literary charm by Uncle Paul in conversations with three children. Besides such stories as the ants' subterranean city, the spider's suspension bridge, and the caterpillars' processing, he unlocks the mystery behind thunder and lightning, clouds and rain, the year and its seasons, and volcanoes and earthquakes. Ages 9-12 |
HILE they were talking about insects and flowers, time had
slipped by until the Sunday arrived when Uncle Paul was to
tell about mushrooms. The gathering was larger than the
first time. The story of poisonous plants had been repeated
in the village. Some people in a rut, content with their
stupid ignorance, had said: "What is the use of it?" "The
use!" replied the others; "it teaches one to beware of
poisonous plants, so as not to die miserably like poor
Joseph." But those in the rut had tossed their heads with a
satisfied air. Nothing is so sufficient unto itself as
folly. So only willing listeners came to Uncle Paul.
"Of all poisonous plants, my friends," he began, "mushrooms
are the most formidable; and yet some furnish a delightful
food capable of tempting the soberest."
"For my part," observed Simon, "I acknowledge, nothing is
equal to a dish of mushrooms."
"Nobody will accuse you of gluttony, for, as I have just
said, mushrooms can tempt the soberest. I do not wish to
discourage their use. I know too well what a resource they
are in the country; I simply propose to put you on your
guard against the poisonous kinds."
"You are going to teach us to distinguish the good from the
bad?" asked Mathieu.
 "No; that is impossible for us."
"How impossible? Everybody knows that you can eat without
fear mushrooms that grow at the foot of such and such a
"Before answering that remark, I will address myself to you
all and ask: Have you confidence in my word? Do you think
that passing one's life in studying such things is more
instructive than the hear-say of those who do not concern
themselves with these matters?"
"You may speak, Maître Paul: we all have full
confidence in your learning," Simon made answer for the
"Well, then, I repeat it in all conviction: it is impossible
for us who are not specialists to distinguish an edible
mushroom from a poisonous one, for none has a mark to say:
This is eatable and this is not. Neither the nature of the
ground, nor the trees at the foot of which they grow, nor
their form, color, taste, smell, can teach us anything or
enable us to distinguish at sight the harmless from the
poisonous. I admit that a person who had passed long years
studying mushrooms with the minute attention of a scientist
would succeed in distinguishing pretty well the poisonous
from the harmless, just as one acquires a knowledge of any
other plant; but can we undertake such studies? Have we the
time? We scarcely know a dozen weeds, and yet we would
presume to pass judgment on the properties of mushrooms, so
many in kind and resembling one another so closely?
"I hasten to add that, in every locality, actual use
long since taught the people some kinds that they can eat
It is a good thing to conform to this usage,
which makes us profit by other people's experience—on
condition, be it understood, that we acquaint ourselves with
the kinds used. But that is not enough to keep us safe from
all peril. It is so easy to make a mistake! And then, go to
another place and you will come across other mushrooms
which, while apparently of the same family as those you have
known as eatable, will be dangerous. My rule of conduct is,
you see, absolute: you must beware of all mushrooms; excess
of prudence is necessary here."
"I admit with you," said Simon, "that it is impossible for
us to distinguish at sight the eatable from the poisonous
kinds; but there are ways of deciding the question."
"Tell us how."
"In the autumn we cut mushrooms in slices and dry them in
the sun. They are excellent food for winter. The poisonous
mushrooms rot without drying. The good ones keep."
"Wrong. All mushrooms, good or bad indifferently, keep or
spoil according to their more or less advanced state and
according to the weather at the time of preparation. This
characteristic is of no value whatever."
 "Worms attack good mushrooms," Antoine here interposed;
"they do not attack bad ones, because they poison them."
"That characteristic is no better than the other one. Worms
attack all old mushrooms, bad as well as good; for what
would be death to us is harmless to them. Their stomach is
made so that they can eat poison with impunity. Certain
insects eat aconite, digitalis, belladonna; they feast on
what would kill us."
"They say," remarked Jean, "that a piece of silver put in
the pot when the mushrooms are cooking turns black if they
are poisonous, and remains white if they are good."
"The saying is a foolish one, and to put it in practice a
folly. Silver does not change color any more from bad than
from good mushrooms."
"There is nothing to do, then, but give up mushrooms. That
would be hard on me," said Simon.
"No, no; I promise you, on the contrary, that you will be
able to use them more than you have done. The only thing is
to proceed advisedly.
"What is poisonous in mushrooms is not the flesh, but the
juice with which it is impregnated. Get rid of that juice,
and the injurious properties will disappear immediately.
This is accomplished by slicing and cooking the mushrooms,
either dried or fresh, in boiling water with a handful of
salt. They are then drained in a colander and washed two or
three times in cold water. That done, they are prepared in
any way one chooses.
 "If, on the contrary, mushrooms are prepared without having
first been cooked in boiling water, we expose ourselves to
the danger of a poisonous juice.
"The cooking in boiling water to which salt has been added
is so efficacious that, in order to solve this serious
problem, certain persons have had the courage to eat for
whole months the most poisonous mushrooms, prepared,
however, in the way I have just told you."
"And what happened to them?" asked Simon.
"Nothing at all. It is true that these persons prepared
their poisonous mushrooms with the most scrupulous care."
"There was reason for it. According to you, then, one could
use all mushrooms without distinction?"
"Strictly speaking, yes. But that would be going too far,
much too far. There would be the fear of incomplete
preparation, insufficient cooking.
I only affirm that you
must submit mushrooms of good repute in the neighborhood to
the preliminary cooking in boiling water. If, by chance,
some poisonous ones were included, the poison would in this
way be eliminated and no accident would happen; I would bet
my hand on that."
"What you have just taught us, Maître Paul, will be
profited by, you may be sure. Are we ever quite certain that
there is nothing poisonous in what we gather?"
 Before saying good-by Simon approached Mother Ambroisine and
entered with her into more circumstantial details of the
cooking. He is so fond of mushrooms, the worthy man!
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