Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Thoughts on mushrooms and mortality.

I have been surrounded by the best food in the world and have indulged heartily in all varieties of things funghible. That is, I've been positively swilling in mushrooms of late. If I could find a funghi-flavored toothpaste, I'd probably have bought it.

All this fun with funghi reminds me, of course, of my grandfather, my father's father and Uncle Slappy's.

Morris Tannenbaum was shtetl born and raised and the youngest of six children and the only boy in his family. The Tannenbaums lived in the poorest village of the Pale of Settlement and were the poorest family therein. As such, it fell upon my grandfather, the poorest of the poor to be, for the whole shtetl, the mushroom taster.

Morris, being the lowest of the lowest of the low was the chosen one. The one whose tasting would confirm if a basket of mushrooms was or was not poisoned.

Each evening as people returned from the woods having picked their funghi, Morris would be called.

"Est," the shtetlites would say to my grandfather, "eat."

And he ate, sampling the mushrooms, tasting them to make sure they were not poison. And if they were, what was the loss? One Morris Tannenbaum--and untermenschen if ever there was one.

For this ignominious task, Morris would earn a quarter of a kopeck, or an egg, or a quarter of an egg if no one had a kopeck. And by these means, Morris, the poorest or the poorest of the poor, collected his small coins, until he walked one day across Europe, finding his way to Hamburg and a steerage fare on the Ptomania, which berthed in Philadelphia of all places, one cold day in November in 1913.

Fare paid for by poisoned mushrooms or not.

And grandfather Morris, whom I never met, I am sorry I am eating the mushrooms you swore you would never again touch. I am not half the man you were. I eat mushrooms without knowing what true courage is.

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