"I am...a mushroom on whom the dew of heaven drops now and then"
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Thousands of years ago, Egyptian Pharaohs declared mushrooms sacred and reserved them for their own godly use. They were also called "the food of the gods" by Romans--and even today psylocype species of the mushroom are sacred to some Indians in Mexico, South America, and the North America southwest, where they are used to induce religious trances and hallucinations. Carlos Casteneda's The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yacqui Way of Knowledge recounts his experiences with this sacred mushroom, administered to him by the Shaman Don Juan.
As an organism, mushrooms are among the most primitive of man's foodstuffs. They are related to the molds and the yeasts, and are saprophytic--that is, they are unable to photosynthesize sugars and must live on the decaying remains of other organisms.
Many edible mushrooms are found only in symbiosis with the roots of trees; the fungus extracts sugars from the roots and, in exchange, gives them soil minerals.
We eat the product of just one stage in the fungus' life: the fruiting body put forth by the fine, cottony mycelium for the purpose of making and disseminating spores.
Collecting mushrooms in the wild, of course, is a wonderful and sometimes deadly sport. Consider the reminiscences of Vladimir Nabokov, brilliant 20th century novelist who fled Soviet Russia as a young man: "Rainy weather would bring out these beautiful plants in profusion under the firs, birches and aspens in our park, especially in its older part, east of the carriage road that divided the park in two. Its shady recesses would then harbor that special boletic reek which makes a Russian's nostrils dilate--a dark, dank, satisfying blend of damp moss, rich earth, rotting leaves. But one had to poke and peer for a goodish while among the wet underwood before something really nice, such as a family of bonneted baby edulis or the marbled variety of scaber, could be discovered and carefully teased out of the soil."
Or consider the amusing and somehow meaning-fraught story told by Alice B. Toklas about her take-charge lover Gertrude Stein: "We were seduced at once by the little town, the hotel, and the forest. We not only ordered lunch but engaged rooms to spend the night. While waiting for lunch to be cooked, we walked in the forest where Gertrude Stein, who had a good nose for mushrooms, found quantities of them. The cook would be able to tell us if they were edible. Once more a woman was presiding in the kitchen. She smiled when she saw what Gertrude Stein brought for her inspection and pointed to a large basket of them on the kitchen table, but said she would use those Gertrude Stein had found for what she was preparing for our lunch."
The commercial cultivation of mushrooms probably began in France during the reign of Louis IV and boomed during the Napoleonic era. Today we find mostly white mushrooms in the stores--Agaricus campestris>--a descendent of the common field mushroom.
NOTE: Unless you are making a very delicate consomme, look in the market for the older, drier white mushrooms--with browned caps and dark gills. The flavor of the mushroom is concentrated in these dark gills. Often, these mushrooms will be bagged in bulk and sold for a song on the reduced price rack of the produce department. Great for duxelle-based stocks and soups.
More and more, other more flavorful varieties are finding their way to the produce gourmet section--and also to the foreign food section in dried form:
Dried versions are also handy and versatile. They can be softened in hot water, chopped for the soup, and their hydrating water used in the soup stock. They can also be macerated in a good quality oil for a few months to produce a distinctive flavored oil.
In general, mushrooms are fat free and very low in calories (1 cup weighs in at a mere 20 calories). At the same time, they are rich in minerals like potassium, calcium, and selenium and contain some niacin and vitamin C. Recent Japanese studies show that their high glutamic acid contgent may boost a body's immune function--with potential benefits in fighting cancer, infections, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus.
THE MUSHROOMS GO TO WAR