Mushrooms as Muse for 19th-Century Women and for a Modern Historian

November 17, 2022

A History Ph.D. candidate finds much to take seriously in a nearly 150-year-old mushroom fad.

Madeline DeDe-Panken
Ph.D. candidate Madeline DeDe-Panken, pictured here in The Mushroom Shop in Somerville, Massachusetts, says spending time in modern mushroom culture has informed her research on 19th-century women fungi foragers. (Photo courtesy of DeDe-Panken)

 A few years ago, when Ph.D. candidate Madeline DeDe-Panken (History) first presented her research on 19th-century women mushroom foragers at conferences, she elicited laughs from fellow historians. 

“There was a real sense that this was so unusual that it was funny,” she said. 

DeDe-Panken started incorporating pauses for laughter into her presentations, but she was confident that her study wasn’t frivolous. Fin de siècle women foraging for fungi provides a lens, she says, to examine larger issues about who gets to formulate and legitimize knowledge.

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She has garnered several grants to support her study, including the 2021 B. Altman Foundation Dissertation Fellowship from the Graduate Center and, this year, The Caroline Brown CUNY Educational Award from the National Society of Colonial Dames in the State of New York, an organization of women descendants of colonial Americans committed to preserving U.S. heritage.

Recently, DeDe-Panken spoke to the Graduate Center about her unusual dissertation, her plunge into mushroom gastronomy and foraging, and, in a true test of marital bliss, attending the Graduate Center at the same time as her partner, whom she wed last year.

The Graduate Center: What is the larger question you’re trying to answer through your study?

DeDe-Panken: My big question regarding this mushroom fad that I'm looking at is how did women, and particularly middle-class, affluent, white women, use the fad and capitalize on food concerns to gain a foothold in scientific conversations and legitimize their knowledge. It’s about recovering the narratives of women who were involved in scientific efforts and rethinking the boundaries of what science is and whom it might include. 

It also discusses the limits of that on the other side. As foraging became a popular middle-class hobby — one that was driven by science and correct foraging that was meant to prevent poisoning — whose knowledge did that then delegitimize? And my answer to that has a lot to do with race and ethnicity and class.

GC: What is it about mushrooms that made these late 19th-century women foragers so passionate about them? 

DeDe-Panken: Mushrooms are a really interesting organism, or, really, many organisms. Until the 1960s, they weren't categorized as their own kingdom. In the period that I look at, they were considered plants, but very peculiar plants, and plants that hadn't been studied very much because they were difficult to get a hold of. 

In the era that I look at, when people begin to think about food sourcing in the face of urbanization and population explosion, there's this idea that there is this free food that is outside for the taking. It's a delicacy item because of French restaurants and restaurant culture becoming popular in the United States. But, also, it could kill you. So that's why you need the science, and that's why the people that I look at argue you need the kind of correct sources instructing people, and why you need a woman at home to have that knowledge and to be able to work with these potentially free delicacies that will prevent waste and elevate your food ways and keep your budget in check. But you need science to do it. 

GC: I understand you’re spending time in modern mushroom culture in addition to your research. What are those pursuits? 

DeDe-Panken: Because mushrooms are having this amazing moment, I wanted to see what I could learn and what I could glean from the people who are so passionate about them today. I'm part of the Boston Mycological Club, which is a great organization — one of the first mycological clubs to be founded — and one of the organizations that I'll be doing a case study on in my dissertation. 

Also, the part-time job I have right now is working in a specialty produce store called The Mushroom Shop, which is run by somebody who has been a forager for a long time. 

Engaging with modern mycological culture has provided unparalleled insight into my work — giving me a deeper way of engaging with my historical subjects and a fully sensory way to parallel their experiences. I've now foraged in several of the same spots mentioned in their work. Going over the same ground more than a century later looking for the same organisms has created a (mycelial, if you will) thread between us. Historians talk a lot about avoiding presentism — recognizing the past as the foreign land it was. That is something I am always trying to keep in mind. But being able to forge connection through lived experience has helped sustain my passion and reinvigorated me in challenging moments.

GC: You also recently passed the one-year anniversary of your marriage to your longtime partner, Graduate Center alumnus Michael Epstein (Ph.D. ’20, Psychology). Congratulations! What was it like for you to go through your Ph.D.s together? 

DeDe-Panken: I think there was something really great about being Ph.D. students in different fields at the same time, both being able to relate to the general stresses and navigating CUNY and teaching at CUNY. We talked a lot about teaching all the time. If anyone is curious as to whether you can navigate two Ph.D. students successfully through at the same time, we're a success story.

GC: Looking back to the start of your Ph.D., what advice would you give yourself or do you wish you had been given? 

DeDe-Panken: I try to remind myself, which sounds clichéd, but it's challenging because it's challenging, and it's complicated because it's complicated. We who embark on this path are endeavoring into something that very few people are able to accomplish. It is a challenging road, but it's also an incredibly rewarding road. And when it comes to doing the work, keep your eyes open to all of the complicated possibilities and all the potential paths that you can go down.

I did not think that I was going to end up studying a 19th-century mushroom fad. I did not think I was going to do science history. I did not think I was going to do food history. But I was able to keep my mind open and when I started finding things in archives, I was very lucky to have professors and peers that encouraged me. And that led me to something that I find really fascinating and have enjoyed studying both in my professional capacity as a historian and also as a personal pastime.

The other advice that I would give is find good peers and keep them close. The people that I've met through the Graduate Center, who are part of my cohort and my social circle, have just been the most important, most supportive people in my life for the past several years. And finding that cohort and that community was really something that the History program did a great job of encouraging and sustaining, and the students in the History program really care about cultivating. That has been so wonderful and so important. Find your people.

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