Jaunty cap rakishly off center, pungent otherworldly odor, single minded stalk rising from the depths of Hades- mushrooms captivate. Whether conjuring up childhood fantasies tucked within the bewitching illustrations of Arthur Rackham’s dreamscape, stumbling upon a few sleeping beauties cozy against the forest floor, or dining on buttery Beef Wellington swaddled in a Duxelles blanket of luxury, mushrooms offer winsome charm as well as dark humor*, elegant rusticity, and knowing wisdom gained through mutuality.
My appreciation for fleshy spore-producing fungi stemmed from my yonder years combing through a thin stand of trees which ribboned past my backyard demarcating home and allegiance, propriety and things feral, suburbia saddled against the great unknown. This forested strip provided nutritive fodder for another education and wandering imagination. Polypores, puff balls, and clustered honey hued specimens proliferated from shadowy dank corners, proof of a well maintained ecosystem, invisible handshakes deep into the night.
Yet like pictures of partially unraveled mummies in Britannica or the unexpected discovery of a writhing silk bag of tent worms, fungi both fascinated and repelled me. No small part due to the company they kept: pill bug infested logs, rotting leaves, nefarious trolls and poison tongued frogs. Hesitantly I poked at live spongy flesh which exuded the natural damp glow of perspiration. They looked rather like disembodied parts, cherubic cheeks and bottoms or perhaps cartilaginous ears dead and partially buried. Earthy, rank, feeding off the dead, mushrooms-of-the-forest looked nothing like the pristine white buttons slivered upon my Gino & Joe’s pizza and at the end of the day I was divided.
But this strip was a liminal space where the natural world amplified and sang its marvelous tune. In the end, that which was remarkable, extraordinary and beautiful began to show itself in every face, angle and turn. The concentric rings of shelf fungus mimicked the strong interiority of a slow growing tree. Razor thin gills, soft as down feathers radiated its graceful symmetry, under carriage to an umbrella perfect for tiny woodland characters. Perhaps most importantly, fungus helped me to look more unflinchingly at death, as another phase in the cycle of life to be transformed and ritualistically fed to the next in line.
The forest was my first playground and the fungi world reigned supreme with its diminutive but powerful stature. All that was hinted at only became more evident as an adult ready to appreciate its many uses. Otzi the Iceman (circa 3300 B.C.) was discovered with two species of polypores on his body presumably to use medicinally and to make fire. Scientists are now confirming what ancient cultures knew about the health benefits of mushrooms like Reishi, Cordycep, and Maitake. Certain mushrooms have also been used in religious and ecstatic rites because of their abilities to induce a hallucinogenic state. Think of the potently cheery Amanita muscaria which has been burned into our consciousness through fairy tales and legends. Yet again we can also turn to the transformative magic of yeast and mold mixed in with foods to create breads, brews, cheeses and pickles. Not to mention the sensuous enjoyment of truffles, chantrelles, shitakes and even the common button mushroom. More recently with the help of visionaries like mycologist Paul Stamets we can learn from our fungi friends about their impact upon our ecosystems in the relatively new fields of mycofiltration or mycoforestry.
These handsome fellows are symbiotic creatures whose survival skills depend upon exchange and communication with the environment. Like good boy scouts they leave the place better than they came- which is something that is becoming more urgent for us to learn. Not just fun or exquisite to look at, these guys have depth and diversity (mycelium spread far and wide) and embody an earthy sensuality. For me eating mushrooms is a bit like a sacrament, food for the gods but one still bound to the ground. Like the persimmon which Persephone ate upon entering the underworld which kept her tethered for all of eternity, fungi keep us intimately wedded to all of the cycles and spheres of life. And that is good enough reason to appreciate a fungi in the kitchen from time to time.
Seven Generation Salad: This is my submission to Lis and Kelly's Salad-Stravaganza. I heartily stand behind anyone’s desire to improve their health, win back vitality and gain some killer legs to boot. Good foods are both healing and soulful at the same time. Appropriately this salad includes shitake mushrooms which are anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and help to improve cholesterol, blood sugar, and stress levels. On the macrocosm, fungi can assist in creating good health in the body and blood of our planet.
Baby watercress, butter lettuce, torn radicchio cleaned and dried
Paul & Dusty’s Killer Shitake Recipe (below)
Roasted Poblano Chili, cut into strips
Crumbles of goat cheese
Virginia's Dressing (below)
Directions: Place a full pile of greens in a pretty bowl. Lightly toss a few tablespoons of Virginia's Dressing onto the greens to dress. Use a delicate hand; do not over saturate the lettuce as there are plenty of flavors in the salad. Assemble the remaining ingredients on top and enjoy.
Paul & Dusty’s Killer Shiitake Recipe:This is an adaptation of a recipe off of Paul Stamet’s website. I have fussed and played around with this recipe and have determined it is unbelievably good with almost any variation in proportion. Just make sure to use shitakes.
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. toasted sesame oil
4 Tbsp. tamari/ Braggs Liquid Aminos
2 Tbsp apple cider or 1 tsp. mirin
1 clove of crushed garlic
Pinch of fresh black pepper
Big handful of shitake, cleaned and de-stemmed
Directions: Shake all ingredients in a jar and pour over whole Shitake mushroom caps, gill side up. Mushrooms should look well oiled. Mix around and put on a baking sheet to bake at 350 degrees for about 30-45 minutes or until roasted with lightly charred edges. Alternately you can grill these. Set aside a few to throw into the Seven Generations Salad above.
Virginia’s Dressing: This is a light basic dressing, as lovely as the lady who shared it with me.
½ C neutral oil like grapeseed
¼ C rice vinegar
Tablespoon of maple syrup (or more to taste)
1-3 clove crushed garlic (to taste)
Directions: Shake all ingredients in a jar. Use a few tablespoons for the salad above. Refrigerate the rest for another time.
*Please be careful if foraging for wild mushrooms, be sure to go with someone knowledgable!