Many Americans are what All The Rain Promises And More author David Arora calls fungophobic. I started this thin volume on a red-eye flight from San Francisco to New York City several years ago. I'd intended to become an overnight edible mushroom expert. Unfortunately, pills and $6 Heinekens clouded my concentration around the time I thumbed past the introduction, and I soon folded up the book and bopped off into a restless, heaving slumber. As a result, I know little about mushrooms -- their identification and classification. The introduction, however, I do remember, particularly a section in which Arora briefly outlines fungophobia. Now, every fall, when wild mushroom season booms, associations resurface. I think about what mushrooms represent -- to me, a life-long seeker of tasty edible fungi, as well how they've been conceived by others over time.
Arora claims our fungophobia came -- like bowl cuts and breakfast links -- from the British, who believed mushrooms were nutritionally worthless and perhaps hostile by design.
The Roman Stoic Seneca may have rather poetically dubbed them a "voluptuous poison," but for thousands of years, in less fearful cultures, mushrooms have been used in the crafting of folk medicines. Lest that fact be relegated to the territory of bubbling cauldrons, pockmarked witches, and spooky incantations, more recent research has linked some of the same mushrooms with cancer-fighting properties, anti-pathogenic activity, and immune system enhancement. Penicillin, along with many other famous pharmaceuticals, comes from the fungi kingdom. Nutritionally, mushrooms are no sweet potatoes, yet many are still high in fiber and provide vitamins like thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and ascorbic acid -- as well as minerals such as potassium and phosphorus. Exempting those that kill you or make you crazy for six hours, wild mushrooms can, as most readers are very aware, be extremely delicious. Chanterelles are buttery and subtle; fresh porcini are robust and nutty, excellent roasted, or in salads with Parmigiano-Reggiano shavings and pine nuts; lion's mane mushrooms are furry and high-strung, delicate, with a mild, almost seafood-like taste -- especially nice folded into an omelette. The possibilities are nearly limitless, and most dedicated eaters and chefs prize their special qualities and bountiful culinary applications.
But lore is stacked against mushrooms -- and not just because a few of them are quite dangerous. Historically, mystery and sheer perceived strangeness have had as much to do with the stigmas surrounding their consumption as the bloating, vomiting, and painful death certain varieties tend to cause. In medieval Ireland, people thought leprechauns used them as umbrellas. The ancient Egyptians believed mushrooms were the sons of gods, zapped to earth on tremendous bolts of lightning. The English imagined they had to be gathered under a full moon in order to be eaten safely. Mushrooms are weird: fragile, oddly luminous products of darkness and moisture that spring up unannounced -- like magic -- in woodsy crevices. That may have been why people were once so alarmed by them. They don't grow like wild and cultivated plants. Centuries ago, in Western Europe, mushrooms were sketchy pagan symbols, ominous harbingers of supernatural forces -- particularly when they were discovered suddenly sprouting in circular "fairy ring" colonies. Today, from Victorian paintings and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to Fantasia and the distinctive cap-and-stem-like cloud that forms in the wake of a massive explosion, mushrooms are iconic, but not a food with universal appeal.
Last week, when my pre-kindergarten class was making its weekly foray through the Ferry Building, we stopped at the Far West Fungi store. We'd been there on other occasions, to scope the spore logs and posters, but I was freshly inspired. I'd made very good use of the season's offerings the night before -- skillet-browned porcini, king trumpet, chanterelle, and oyster mushrooms on a crispy pizza with thyme and Bellwether Farms Crescenza -- and was wondering how their bizarre shapes, fetching names, and earthy flavors would go over with the kids. I arranged a few raw ones on the art table for them to draw -- lion's mane, chanterelle, trumpet, and oyster -- and sliced and sauteed the rest in butter with a pinch of salt while the children napped. An hour later, for snack, in addition to cheese and crackers, I passed a plate with four glistening beige-and-brown mounds for them to sample.
Of fifteen children, only a third dared to taste. My expectations had been modest following another teacher's mortifying zucchini muffin fiasco, so I was not saddened, but pleased, almost amazed that those five, in the end, managed to vaporize most of what I set before them. "I like the black one and the yellow one," said one boy, gesturing loosely at the trumpets and chanterelles. "I'm going to tell my mom I like them." "They're pretty and taste good," a girl cooed. The other three fared very well, with a slight edge going to the oyster, but no one cared much for the lion's mane mushroom. It didn't hold up, disintegrating into soft, unappetizing strands -- the fault of a chef in a hurry flailing around a crummy electric stove with cheap cookware. On the art table, however, all were popular. One girl thought the chanterelle looked like a flower, and soon they were all calling it the "flower one," most likely because "chanterelle" was hard for them to say. The lion's mane, a 'shroom non grata at snack, was a big hit here -- especially once the kids learned its name. They kept petting it.
As part of this little tutorial, I did mention that some mushrooms are dangerous, that only ones from reputable suppliers should be eaten, and that sometimes yucky mushrooms can look like yummy ones. Here and there, a chorus of shrill "eeewwwwwws" erupted, but largely, the children were not grossed out, merely fascinated. They explored the mushrooms, passing them back and forth, pulling off the caps, examining the gills, trying to figure them out in that serious contemplative way four-year olds have.
If only the exploratory nibble of a truffle in some French field pre-civilization had initially sparked our ongoing cultural fascination, not the photogenic fly agaric toadstool with its deep-red cap and white spots. Perhaps then aversions would be less common. Thanks to Nintendo, of course, even this wicked-looking specimen has shed some of its evil. In the famous Super Mario Brothers video game, Mario, an Italian-American plumber, winds his way through various worlds within the Mushroom Kingdom. Predictably, when he hops on mushrooms, he either gets bigger and powers up, or rarely but not infrequently, gets zapped with a debilitating dose of poison. Mushrooms giveth and mushrooms taketh away. One of Mario's sidekicks in later additions to the franchise is a grinning little fly agaric named Toad. A kid who used to be in my current class was obsessed with mushrooms because his older sister played a Mario game at home. He would make mushrooms out of Legos and have them hop around, squeaking, growing bigger (as he added more Legos) and then smaller again (as he removed Legos). Once, I built him a mushroom-shaped Lego house big enough for a whole family of Lego mushrooms, and he was ecstatic.
My favorite bar in the world epitomizes the slightly uncomfortable degree of cuteness Nintendo has bestowed upon the toadstool. It's called Pretty Space & Bar Mushroom, and it occupies a minuscule suite in a nondescript office building on a busy bar-lined street in downtown Kyoto, Japan. The Phone Booth -- and maybe an actual phone booth -- feels roomy by comparison. There's a mushroom on the door, and when you open it, a bizarre little world appears -- not unlike one of the treasure-filled huts in Super Mario Brothers -- which at three in the morning, can be simultaneously exciting and disconcerting. Glitchy video game music sputters on the stereo. A red glow saturates all you see. There are mushrooms everywhere. Even the jolly bartender's hair is carved in the shape of a cap.
Back in San Francisco, watching the kids crowd around the mushrooms, I remembered something I once read -- perhaps in Arora's book -- about morels. Never successfully cultivated commercially, wild morels are especially abundant in areas ravaged by forest fires, their spores somehow spurred into action by the destruction. After flames, and then ash, and then rains, they emerge, phoenix-like, a delicious sign of life ready to be plucked and savored. It's an image I like to keep in mind -- even when mushrooms aren't for dinner.