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9 april 2014

Imagine my delight a few years ago when I found tree ear fungus growing on a dead limb of the old pecan tree that shades our house. Or rather, if you can imagine delight at such an event, you are what Cynthia Bertelsen, in her global history of the mushroom, calls "mycophilic." Many people aren't mycophilic. Mycophobes think that every fungus must be by definition inedible – possibly intolerable, certainly disgusting.

And indeed enough mushrooms are toxic to make the whole culture of mushroom-eating uncomfortable even for a mycophile.

When it comes to foraging for edible wild mushrooms, there is still a slight frisson of anxiety which cannot easily be shrugged off like a slippery fur stole. (37)
Elsewhere, Bertelsen cites an adage that mushroom hunters can be old or bold but not both. Few other foods have a profile balanced between poison and pleasure. Especially upsetting is the similarity between delicious fungi and those that will kill you, a similarity extending even to taste, so that you might have sealed your doom while still savoring your meal.

Common cultivated mushrooms, though, are harmless to the point of insipidity. White button mushrooms can taste like what I imagine packing peanuts must taste like. Tree ears, the earliest mushrooms to be cultivated (99) and still among the most common in Chinese cuisine, have no particular taste at all, resembling a vegan version of cooked octopus. But they do add umami to a dish, the meaty profile that deepens as you move into more exotic mycographic territory.

When I was a kid, most of this landscape was unknown to me. Even fresh button mushrooms were a rare occurrence, and my family tended to treat them like death caps. Mushrooms of my youth came in cans. Preferably soup cans:

Campbell's cream of mushroom soup would deserve credit for keeping the mushroom at the forefront of the American culinary scene during its "Dark Ages," the period spanning from 1930 to around 1970. (61)
Campbell's cream of mushroom theoretically contained mushroom bits, but they could have been slivers of licorice or lengths of black rubberband for all their resemblance to actual gilled-and-stalked fungi. Yet there as well, the comforting umami of the soupstuff permeated whatever dish was made from it. My mother made something called London Chicken, which IIRC was defrosted chicken breast slow-cooked in cream of mushroom soup with a splash of cooking sherry. That's me, child of the dark ages.

Since the Renaissance began in 1970, however, I've been expanding my horizons at the rate of about a mushroom every six months. Dried Chinese brown mushrooms and tree ears, reconstituted; shiitake, oysters, portobellos (which I have only lately come to appreciate fried on a black pan and slapped on a bun instead of a hamburger). The mushroom offers a microcosm of expanding American foodways in general.

I first ate mushrooms in anything like intact form, though, on pizza, in the 1970s. The same slices certainly still infest contemporary pizzas: greyed by brine and cooking, but identifiable enough, and a nice complement to ham or green pepper once I got past my early aversions to anything on a pizza except cheese or pepperoni. For a while I was adventurous enough to get a can or jar of mushrooms, and then in the early 1980s to soak Chinese fungus in hot water – and then the floodgates opened, and everybody ate everything, fresh, 12 months of the year.

But fungus still come up in springtime in our organic garden, and I wonder about the foraging opportunities that lie outside my front door. Problem is, you really don't know what'll kill you, and rife as information is on the Internet these days, there's no online substitute for the old guidebooks and their algorithms. And even those guidebooks led to more than one sickness or death. Better to keep your foraging to the grocery aisle.

UPDATE 4.13.14: Like all the Reaktion Edible "global histories," Mushroom includes several recipes, historical and contemporary. I recently made one of them, Magdalena Pospieszna's recipe for "Bigos," a Polish "Hunter's Stew." This one included a constellation of ingredients I'd seen before, but expanded to include mushrooms as a centerpiece: it calls for "Borowik wild mushrooms" but I made the executive decision to substitute shiitake. Anything that starts out by frying stewing pork in rendered bacon fat promises comfort, and this recipe goes on to mix in apples, prunes (I substituted dates), rutabagas, sausage, tomato, garlic, sauerkraut, and allspice. Half a cup of red wine seemed too little liquid at this point, so I threw another half cup into the stew and a cup into myself. It was a happy conjunction of ingredients and techniques.

Bertelsen, Cynthia D. Mushroom: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2013.