John Cage: The Mushroom Man

Words by
Sally Wilson
Images by
Fabian Capomolla
| May 26, 2016

On 26 February 1959, experimental composer John Cage sat sweating in the hot seat of Italy’s famous TV quiz show Lascia o Raddoppia (Double or Nothing). He was about to be asked the 5 million lire question and it was about mushrooms. “This is the third and final question, Mr. Cage,” host Mike Bongiorno told the audience. “Think carefully, Mr. Cage. You must tell us the 24 names of the white spored Agaricus contained in Atkinson’s Studies of American Fungi.” The audience quietened. Cage spoke: “I can enumerate the list alphabetically.” “You can what?” said host Mike, dumbstruck.

True to his claim John Cage rattled off the names of Atkinson’s agarics in correct order. The audience stood to applause. Host Mike declared him “a real mushroom expert” right then and there on Italian TV. “I’d like to thank the mushrooms and all the people of Italy!” Cage said, with his prize in hand. “All the people of Italy!” host Mike echoed to further applause.

Cage’s fascination with mushrooms had been outed.

By the late 1950s Cage’s career as a composer was well-established. His early works followed the conventional rules of music theory, but progressively he scrutinised those rules, challenged and unravelled them. He altered pianos with nails and rubber bands to produce new sounds, played flower pots, cow bells and frequency oscillators, pioneered the electroacoustic movement and, in 1952, composed his famous piece 4’33”, which was musically silent. With this work Cage’s purpose was to focus his audience towards the ambient sounds of their environment. “Whether I make them or not, there are always sounds to be heard and all of them are excellent,” he remarked.

In 1959 Cage taught a Mushroom Identification course at the New School in New York City, alongside his course in Experimental Music. When classes ended Cage, together with author and horticulturalist, Guy Nearing and a loose gang of student enthusiasts, decided to revive the New York Mycological Society. This happened officially in 1962. Their charter was to do exceptional things, like: go on wild mushroom foraging expeditions in the woods, within public transport distance from New York, and then cook collective dinners with the plunder. The hot ticket item on the Society’s social calendar is the Annual Banquet, held in early winter at an NYC restaurant, which often makes the culinary pages of the New York Times.

'John Cage picking mushrooms in the woods', William Gedney Photographs and Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
'John Cage picking mushrooms in the woods', William Gedney Photographs and Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

By October 1965 Cage was being courted by American Vogue for intelligence on mushrooms. In an interview that jumped from high cuisine to horticultural philosophy, he explained to Vogue’s Ninette Lyon the origin of his interest in fungi: “During the Depression, in California, I had no money. I was living in Carmel and around my shack grew mushrooms, I decided they were edible and lived on them.” He gave Vogue recipes for what he called ‘dogsup’ (a thick replacement for ketchup fashioned from mushrooms), wild grape jelly and mushroom salad dressing.

But the masterpiece was ‘Morels à la John Cage’ cooked with sweet butter, a ½ cup of flat champagne, heavy cream, morels, and salt and pepper.

In 1972 Cage’s Mushroom Book was released, a copy of which is held in the collection at MOMA. More of Cage’s recipes, observations and diary entries jostle for room in the book, alongside quotes from Buckminster Fuller and Henri David Thoreau. “Sandwiches of leftover mushrooms,” Cage reports at one point.

“Hunting for hygrophoroides, found
abortivus instead.
Returning to get more abortivus, found
ostreatus in fair condition. South to
see the birds, spotted mellea.
Hunting is starting from
zero…”

“I’m what you would call an amateur mushroom hunter, and so far I haven’t killed myself or killed any other person,” Cage once confessed in an interview with German-American composer and filmmaker, Henning Lohner. Sure enough he never killed a dinner guest, but poison them he did. Cage was a fossicker of all wild things and once ruined half the staff from the Museum of Modern Art with a dish of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), or wrongly identified poisonous hellebore. “I ate more than the others did in an attempt to convey my enthusiasm over edible wild plants. After coffee, poker was proposed. I began winning heavily. M.C. Richards left the table. After a while she came back and whispered in my ear, “Do you feel all right?” I said, “No, I don’t. My throat is burning and I can hardly breathe.”

Cage was taken to hospital, his stomach pumped and was administered adrenalin to keep his heart beating. His doctor said, “Fifteen minutes more and he would have been dead.”

But experiment is what Cage did best. He was the son of an inventor, born on 5 September 1912 in Los Angeles. Growing up, his family moved from California to Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan, then returned to California. He hosted a Boy Scout radio program at the age of twelve featuring live musical performances, including his own, and was class valedictorian upon graduation from Los Angeles High School in 1928. From there he rambled: studying for a few years at a liberal-arts college, working for an architect in Paris, and composing piano pieces as he went. He drove across America. He worked as a cook and a gardener, kept up an interest in modern art and in 1942 moved to Stony Point, New York.

'John Cage picking mushrooms in the woods', William Gedney Photographs and Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
'John Cage picking mushrooms in the woods', William Gedney Photographs and Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
'John Cage sitting at a table looking at mushrooms,' William Gedney Photographs and Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
'John Cage sitting at a table looking at mushrooms,' William Gedney Photographs and Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

“John Cage was like a big sunflower with a thousand seeds. He created his own energy like the sun, very generous, never thinking of himself but always true to himself,” Teeny Duchamp recalled in John Cage Was by James Klosty. Teeny was wife to Henri Matisse’s son, Pierre, and later to artist and chess player, Marcel Duchamp. She knew a sunflower when she saw one. The kind that believed: “Total destruction can be averted and a change for the good of all men may be made, but it will require selfless intelligence and cooperative energetic work.”

Cage had the type of mind that did not shut off. He thrived in the woods and felt at home on the hunt for wild mushrooms. “Clothes I wear for mushroom hunting are rarely sent to the cleaner. They constitute a collection of odors I produce and gather while rambling in the woods. I notice not only dogs (cats, too) are delighted (they love to smell me).”

“We remain greedy: we never find
enough. We keep on
looking for mushrooms
until we’re obliged (an engagement or the fact
the light’s falling) to stop. Only for
some such reason do we leave the woods (unless,
by then, we’re lost).”

'John Cage sitting at table with mushrooms and writing in a book held in his lap,' William Gedney Photographs and Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
'John Cage sitting at table with mushrooms and writing in a book held in his lap,' William Gedney Photographs and Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Cage hunted wild mushrooms throughout America, in Italy, Finland and the Soviet states. The practice offered solitude and also community. Friends often joined Cage on the hunt and in his Mushroom Book he recalls conversations from those times as having the same intimacy as discussions in the living room. There was a simplicity to hunting that he respected: “We only need boots, basket, paper bags, and knife,” he once wrote. With full baskets he and his revolving troupe would return to the two-room cabin in Stony Point and cook. When they visited, Cage even convinced Vogue to gather its own lunch, and eat barefoot.

“Often I go into the woods thinking after all these years I ought finally to be bored with fungi. But coming upon just any mushroom in good condition, I lose my mind all over again.” This is what Cage wrote in his diary, published later as How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) (2015, Siglio Press). It’s hard not to feel likeminded in autumn and winter, as the saffron milk caps and slippery jacks make themselves known and our appetites turn to sources of warmth and satisfaction.

As a composer, writer, artist and person John Cage was non-conformist. He possessed an alarming genius that jumped across fields of study with all the freedom of a willow bending with the breeze. He upset conventions and critics and he put some listeners on edge. But in doing so, he paved the way for the avant-garde and the minimalists and, to himself, was true. ‘If you can’t be yourself, who can you be?’ Cage seemed to suggest with every action. He used flowers pots and rubber bands in his innovative music and even in the culinary arts he caused a stir, with his insistence on renegade, wild mushrooms and liberal use of taco sauce.

“To remove the rubbery
quality of chanterelles slice them
thinly. Cook them
quickly (not long and
slowly as some advise) in butter
and a little olive oil
with some salt
(preferably Kosher salt). Towards the
end, add La Victoria taco sauce
generously. This
sauce brings out the mushroom’s peppery
quality which
otherwise has a tendency to
disappear.”

Featured and front page images by Fabian Capomolla, all other images used with permission from Duke University.

'John Cage walking in the woods, carrying basket,' William Gedney Photographs and Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
'John Cage walking in the woods, carrying basket,' William Gedney Photographs and Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

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