So there are many of you out there who are big fans of Harry Potter and the J.K.Rowling series. And I'm sure there are a few hobbit fans out there as well. But let me ask you, are there any "mushroom elf" fans? Long before Ms. Rowling sat on a train from Manchester to London and had a vision of a young boy attending wizardry school, a couple of young brothers named Knaust from upstate New York were cultivating a variety of edible "table" mushrooms from their own magical brews and earthly soil concoctions. And along with the help of some elves, they were able to not only establish a good business, but a true kingdom of mushrooms: the largest producer in the world, in fact, for a score and some of years. The brothers had started their business around 1919, learning their trade and skill from French mushroom farmers working in New York city (so one story goes), and then put their skills into action in the Hudson Valley during the 1920s. At one point, a local artist was hired to come up with some characters to adorn the cans, for marketing and selling the product. And the "mushroom elf" was born!
You might wonder what this story has to do with anything, especially books, or why I've even chosen it today. Well, this is actually a family story. Herman K. Knaust was my great-grandfather and Henry his brother. On a recent trip to visit my family, I came across some wares of the old mushroom kingdom, including the two large mushroom cans above and this lovely little "Cavern Mushroom Recipes" book ("Cavern" because many were grown in our family caverns!), compiled by the family (I believe my great-grandmother may have had a hand in this at one point). Again, look at the elf on the cover, in black and white. Though, this elf appears to be a bit more sly looking, and even a tad more hirsute than the younger looking elves on the tin cans above. In our many adventures to find books in various places, I think this may be the first experience with a cookbook, and certainly our first "mushroom book!" I'd be curious to see what sort of market response a mushroom cultivator would get nowadays with trying to sell his or her products with elves?
In the 21st century, we're always concerned with immediate access to materials and information. Things have certainly changed a great deal from the 1930s, -40s, and 50s. I do own some cookbooks, but when I want to make a recipe, I often "google" the recipe and try to find the best version online, then cook. Buying cookbooks doesn't seem completely out of date, but if you are not a person who is devoted entirely to cooking or are not one who simply loves the craft of food beautifcation and "tastification," then having lots of cookbooks may not be the way to go; and let's not forget that purchasing cookbooks can be a costly venture. This little mushroom recipes book not only appears to have been inexpensive, but may have been provided free to customers. But I'll have to check on that for you. And as for mushroom growers today? According to the American Mushroom Institute, well, if I've done my math right, there are only just over 100 mushroom producers in the United States today, producing anywhere from 1/2 million pounds to over 20 million pounds of mushrooms annually. In this last photo is a vintage pose of my great-grandfather inspecting mushrooms at one of his many mushroom growing facilities. This was taken, probably around the time he was working on his atomic-storage project: the purchase of an old ore mine in upstate New York and conversion into an information and archival preservation center. This venture was the start of what today is known as Iron Mountain corporation, the world leader in information preservation and management. And all from mushrooms! So, if you are ever at a loss for ideas, especially for a big meal like Thanksgiving, and you can't come up with a way to cook that darn table variety mushroom, don't look online for "mushroom recipes," or anything like that. Call an elf. You never know what secrets they may hold.