Three is Company and A Short Cut to Mushrooms
To dislike mushrooms is akin to an aversion to freedom. To deny their scrumptious taste and potent possibilities defines one as either a communist or a heretic, likely both. Supposedly, according to expert researchers, mushrooms have the power to save the world.
All jests aside, a hobbit’s love for mushrooms should come as little surprise. There is something romantic in mushrooms: the quest to seek them out and discover them, the sense of treasure in digging them up from under rock and within tree, the rush of danger in determining whether a mushroom be edible or poisonous. Whether gathered from the wild or cultivated at home, the mushroom’s earthy and natural taste complements a wide assortment of dishes: inside omelets, amongst bacon, over chicken and steak, within salads and sides, over even stuffed themselves. In a letter to Deborah Webster dated 25 October 1958, Tolkien noted his own fondness for mushrooms, describing it as key reason why he himself was a hobbit.
Mycologists (disciples of the arts of mushrooms) have found evidence of mushroom consumption dating all the way back to ancient China, Greece, Rome, and Chile. The bounty of fungiculture ranges across the spectrum. There’s the common agaricus bisporus that in its immature state we call crimini while in its mature form we describe as portobello. There’s the umami-rich shiitake, a staple both fresh and dried of Asian cooking. There’s the fungo porcino, a staple of modern cuisine known throughout the world-wide. And then there’s the infamous truffle, which has defied all domesticating techniques of trufficulture and still needs to be sniffed out by dog or hog. Mycophagists (disciplines of the arts of eating mushrooms) have many samples at their disposal with which to experiment.
Yet, mushrooms are more than just a delight: for Frodo, Sam, and Pippin, they are an embodiment of home. Farmer Maggot’s mushrooms put into material terms the Shire that, in an earlier chapter, Frodo envisioned fortifying his steps: “I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again.” The mushrooms add layers to the vision of what Frodo has to give up to take up the Ring, and what he is setting out to save. Hence why (to the chagrin of a first-time reader) Tolkien intentionally takes 110 pages to leave the Shire. The meandering through the hills and forests of the hobbits, the long descriptions of nature, the interactions with simple farmers and travelers: this lingering at home impresses upon us the love our hobbits have for their native lands and its beauty. With this slow passage of time, the Shire becomes something real, some worth it all in the end.
And so, with Lent only a week away, let us take the time to linger, and to savor the mushrooms of our lives. For while they may be both a delight to our senses and a temptation to crime, they are also a reminder of home that we shall want to carry on our journey to come.