Thursday, October 21, 2010
Year of the Mushroom: It Never Really Ended
Today, I'm picking up on the subject of my last entry, where I described how Sue and I used to have an annual theme. It started with my unofficial "Year of the Star," after I finished grad school and discovered I really missed "learning things."
When we lived in Columbia, our apartment was in a low area, next to a field and a creek, and we had lots and lots of spiders. I combated my instinctive arachnophobia by reading and learning about spiders. I shared what I'd learned with Sue. That year, which we later called "Year of the Spider," we even had a big lovely argiope on our tomatoes.
Somehow, learning their different names, and preceding each with "Mrs." (because, again, nearly all the ones you see are females), removed their anonymity and made them less scary. Mrs. Cyclosa. Mrs. Araneus. Mrs. Agelenopsis. And audacious Mrs. Phidippus with her groovy tetrachromatic color-vision goggles.
Yes, over the course of a whole year, we stopped to look at just about every single spider we saw, and tried to identify it. And we often fed them, too!
The first time we decided to designate a "Year of the" beforehand was in 1999. Neither of us had much of a clue about mushrooms and other fungi, so we set out consciously to spend a year with the shrooms.
We read mushroom books (and there are a lot of incredibly fun, popular science books about them!)--we started noticing them, "seeing" them.
And, amazingly enough, in August 1999, the annual conference of the North American Mycological Association was held right here in Missouri! We didn't join, but we did make it down to Cape Girardeau to witness some of the events.
But 1999 was a dry year, and overall it was kind of a bust for mushrooms. So we gave it another go--and 2000 became "Year of the Mushroom," too. It turned out to be a good thing--1999 gave us the preparation, the study, the exposure. In 2000, we got out in the woods!
Yep. It was great. We had our first-ever morel hunt, and I learned how to cook morels, too. That spring we found enough to make several dishes, from a delicious Asian stir-fry, to the good ol' "sauté in butter and garlic and add to chicken" stand-by (you can never go wrong with that), to Ozarkian Classique (cut 'em, soak 'em in salted water, rinse, drain, dip in egg, dredge in cornmeal, deep-fry in Crisco or canola, and salt).
We attended a great class--"Mushroom Mystique"--led by Ken Gilberg, held at Shaw's Arboretum. It was a lecture followed by a foray, after which all the shrooms we collected were ID'd by the master!
And we had a great time that year at the international grocery stores! The Italians, Germans, and Russians love mushrooms--and so do the Asians. We found all types--canned, dried, fresh. And they all have great names. Even the Mexicans have a favorite culinary fungus: corn smut (huitlacoche) is a delicacy to them!
We got a "grow-your-own shiitakes" kit. My mom bought me a special "mushroom cleaning brush." I made sushi rolls featuring mushrooms. At Christmas, I suddenly noticed how many ornaments (especially Old World ones) depict mushrooms (often those poisonous/hallucinogenic red-capped Agaricus species).
We never got very good at identifying mushrooms--mainly out of lack of interest. It's not like I'm starving and need to determine which mushrooms are edible. We had plenty to learn about them, culturally, biologically, ecologically.
Did you know that we'd probably be drowning in a sea of fallen branches, sticks, twigs, and leaves, if it weren't for fungi's amazing decomposition powers?
And did you know that some researchers think that the witch trials of old Europe resulted from "flying" hallucinations, excruciating burning sensations, and tissue damage caused by widespread ergot poisoning? (Ergot's a fungus that attacks grain crops.) The folks, being as superstitious as all get-out, attributed their maladies to witchcraft.
And did you know that tall people aren't very good at mushroom hunting? Short people--children especially!--are much better! Some folks think that "Easter egg hunting" evolved from annual springtime morel hunts.
There is so much to appreciate. Indeed, I think there are more absolutely fascinating "gee-whiz" stories about fungi than there are about plants and animals combined.
No, we didn't need to get into mycology so far that we would have to analyze spores microscopically. And the spore prints we made were mainly just for fun.
I made a spore print of a big gilled mushroom that was about five inches across--then I realized I could photocopy the spore print and make, well, "art" out of it. Very cool.
In August of that year there was a big news story out of Oregon, where biologists had determined they'd found the "largest living thing." It was the vast, subterranean mycelium of a "tree-killing mushroom," Armillaria ostoyae, often called the honey mushroom. They're supposed to be edible, but I'm not eager to try them.
I'm pretty sure those are the same doggone things that killed one of our young maples, and the serviceberry we'd planted. We get big clumps of them in our yard, wherever a tree used to be. Doggone it!
I'm kind of mad at them, and I worry that they're going to attack more trees in our yard . . . but I still find their exuberant masses of golden caps a source of wonder. I can't help but enjoy them.
So here it is, 2010, a decade after we had our second "Year of the Mushroom," and when we see a shroom, or a turkeytail, or a yellow blob of witch's butter, we still stop to appreciate the structure, the color, the texture. We still look 'em up in the books. We still have "mushroom consciousness." Hooray!
Throughout this post, I've included pictures of mushrooms that I've taken this fall. Just as spring is the best time to appreciate wildflowers, fall is an excellent time to look for mushrooms. I hope you've enjoyed the pictures as much as I enjoyed taking them!
Note: Just to make it perfectly clear--none of the mushrooms pictured on this blog post are being identified, and I am absolutely not telling you what you can or cannot eat. Consult a real expert for that--I'm just an enthusiastic enthusiast! With a camera!