Sol Gruner

«Let me tell you about mushrooms…»

Published in Issue #01 — Globalized Nature

Food and mushrooms. HIAS chef Leoni is having one of her «kitchen talks» with Sol Gruner

Hi Sol, I’m very happy to have you here! You’re basically just about to leave Hamburg again—can you tell me a little bit about yourself, where you’re from and what you’re doing?

Well, I’m here to talk about high pressure biology and x-ray detector technology. But maybe more relevant to food is where I come from: I was raised on a farm in the United States. My parents came from Europe and they quickly managed to find a farm that was available, a small farm.

From which part of Europe did your parents emigrate?

Where they were from is today in Western Ukraine; at the time that they were there it was Eastern Poland.

Are you a foodie at all?

Oh yes! I like to cook. One of the things I’ve missed most being in Hamburg is my own kitchen.

Coming to Germany was a chance to experience things that I really hadn’t had for a long, long time.

I can relate to that very much. Did you miss anything, foodwise?

Oh, many things, but at the same time I’ve enjoyed being here. Let me explain why: As I pointed out, my parents were from Eastern Europe and I was raised on Eastern European food. My tastes diverged from that when I was in college; they got much broader. Coming to Germany was a chance to experience things that I really hadn’t had for a long, long time.

Oh, that’s wonderful! Do you have a favorite dish your mom used to make?

Pierogies! She used to make pierogies with a filling of potatoes, with pepper and onions. Just spectacular … I never was able to get the recipe out of her, which is one of my greatest regrets. I mean, it’s not that we didn’t try and it’s not that she wasn’t cooperative. It’s just that like with many parents: «A little bit of this and a little bit of that» and trying to get all the little bits right didn’t work. It didn’t taste right. I asked my mother, «What happened?» And then she said «What did you do?» and I would go through the recipe just as she told it to me and she said, «Well, you forgot the ——,» and I said, «You didn’t tell me about ——!» And she would reply «Everybody knows, you put —— into the recipe!» After two or three rounds of this, I gave up.

I can relate to that. What comes to your mind when it comes to your stay in Hamburg: Which food was extraordinary or special?

Well, one thing that we almost never get in the United States is the mixture of fish that is common here. And as someone who likes herring, likes smoked fish, you know, this is delightful!

What was the most extreme food you’ve ever eaten?

Most extreme …. Well, let me tell you about mushrooms: The way that I learned about mushrooms from my mother is to fry them up with sour cream and onions. But that’s not my extreme encounter with mushrooms. My extreme encounter with mushrooms was when I was in college, this was at MIT in Boston. I would frequently visit the bookstores and I spotted a book by Louis C.C. Krieger called The Mushroom Handbook. It is a reprint of a classic mushroom book from, I believe, the mid-1930s. And being the kind of person that I am, I bought the book and started looking through it. It identified edible versus non-edible mushrooms. And I said to myself: «I’m going to try to find some wild mushrooms.» I found a place where there was a hillside covered with mushrooms. I worked hard and keyed them down to identify them. I fried them up and tried them and they were very, very good. That same day, I went to my mailbox and there was an envelope without a return address. It was a handwritten little cartoon booklet of about ten pages. It told the story of a young man who goes out and tries wild mushrooms which were poisonous, and he dies. This was about an hour and a half after I consumed my first wild mushrooms!

It told the story of a young man who goes out and tries wild mushrooms which were poisonous, and he dies. This was about an hour and a half after I consumed my first wild mushrooms!

Oh nooo, what a nightmare!

It turned out afterwards that it was a girlfriend; I had been telling her what I was going to do and she wrote the booklet not because she thought I would eat mushrooms at that time; that was pure coincidence. She was just writing this little story so that we could talk about. I loved it.

Which was your most memorable meal you’ve ever had?

It was in Rome, and it involved—mushrooms! My spouse and I were visiting Rome, and we had this fantastic meal—we both said it’s the best meal we’d ever had—the night before we were to depart Rome, having been there for a week. The best part of the meal was a dish of wild mushrooms. It was excellent. And that night, we got food poisoning. It was the exactly the worst result of the best meal of our lives! We felt like we wouldn’t survive. I was very worried, in fact, that we might have to go to the hospital. By morning we felt a bit better, good enough to practically crawl on our hands and knees onto the airplane to go home.

My God! That was the most memorable and best meal?! Is there anything you would like to take from Hamburg back to the States?

No, most of the things I have really enjoyed here are prepared in a way that you would not be able to take back with you. For example, there’s one place down the street—it’s actually a bar—which has the best Caesar salad I’ve ever had. I would love to have that bar somewhere nearby at home, but obviously, I’m not going to take a Caesar salad with me.

But a good reason to come back …

That’s right!

Listen to the entire conversation here:

Sol Gruner

Sol M. Gruner is a biological and condensed matter physicist. He is presently the John L. Wetherill Emeritus Professor of Physics at Cornell University. And he is a fellow of both the American Physical Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as a Member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. His HIAS Fellowship 2022/2023 was funded by the Joachim Herz Foundation.

Leoni Schmitz

Leoni Schmitz—a studied designer is known throughout Europe as a «multitool» with experience in journalism, PR, graphics, community management and street music. For almost 20 years, she has been cooking in other people’s kitchens for—and often with—people who are strangers at first, but who have become friends by the end of the day!

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Sina Schwarz, Novamondo