Me, Mycelium & Maitake
📷 A colorful array of mushroom options awaits farmers’ market shoppers at New York’s
Dag Hammarskjold Plaza market. The Madura Farms booth is staffed by the delightful Jennifer, pictured below. (Market photos by B. Lorraine Smith)
When I was growing up, I was not aware of the outsized role that mushrooms played in my life. To me, they were rubbery little grey things that generally came out of a can or sat atop delivery pizza. As I recall there was just one exception to this early nonchalance about things fungi: the time we found an abundance of puffballs (a fairly common, edible wild fungus) while visiting a family friend’s farm and we fried them up for a most delicious breakfast. Other than that, the connection between me and the diverse world of spore-based life forms was, well, disconnected.
Boy, was I clueless.
It took a sequence of events for me to realize that not only can mushrooms be off the charts of deliciousness when prepared well, but they and their spore-based ilk are fundamental to our survival. Fungi play a critical role in almost all ecosystems (terrestrial and aquatic), enabling biodiversity and long-term system health.
I began to suspect something was afoot when I struck up casual conversation with the woman tending the mushroom stall at New York’s Dag Hammarskjold Plaza Green Market.
What started as an innocent effort to purchase a half pound of shiitake mushrooms—a type I recognized and enjoyed in stir fries—quickly descended into madness when she handed me a taste of raw maitake mushrooms (or “hen-of-the-woods”) in response to my finger-pointing query: What’s that?
Next thing I knew, I found myself rearranging my work schedule around the farmers’ market on Wednesdays, emptying my wallet onto Madura Farms’ little table and then scurrying home to make a dish that is usually undeniably simple (say, fried mushrooms with wilted fresh greens and sliced cherry tomatoes) but is pure delight. Throughout the week I carefully mete out the mushrooms to make sure they last.
The realization that I should set aside at least 1% of my disposable income for mushrooms came about in tandem with reading The Forest Unseen, by
David George Haskell. There are lots of reasons to love this book but to cherry (or mushroom) pick just one, he takes us deep into the soil for some extraordinary adventures. Of our dependence on fungus, he notes:
“Many plants cannot live without their fungal partners. Others can grow alone but are stunted and weak if they cannot meld their roots with a fungus. In most plants, fungi are the main absorbing surface in the soil; roots are just the connections to the network.”
He takes us other places too, all among the little patch of forest he examines for a year—aka “the mandala”, the subject of his book. Yet even though many of us have spent time in a forest, rarely have we been able to investigate—up close and in detail—what lies beneath the visible forest floor. At least I hadn’t.
Haskell’s explanation of what’s going on deep within the soil—why it matters and how it relates to our wider existence within a complex web of life—is like mental maitake. And I don’t say that lightly.
Just as I was finishing that book, a friend pressed another into my hand, The Third Plate by Dan Barber. I thought I already knew a lot about food and how it’s sourced, but I came away surprised and inspired (and obsessed with buying freshly milled wheat to make biscuits, with and without mushrooms). The stories he tells—about farmers, fisheries and foodies—are entertaining and informative.
And, more fundamentally, Barber reminds us of the importance of healthy soils and the complex web of organisms on which soil health depends. While it may seem obvious that we need healthy soils to grow healthy food, somewhat incredibly we are only just coming to understand what healthy soils really are and how we buyers and eaters of food can have an influence on soil health.
Next thing I knew, I was packing my bag for a conference in Alberta to talk about reframing the conversation on climate so we can reverse global warming. I was looking for good airplane reading material, when a book called out from my book shelf: Pick me, pick me!
It was Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, by Paul Stamets. Now, at this moment you are immediately veering into one of two camps. The first, which I was in but was promptly redirected thanks to the sequence of events described thus far, includes people who are quietly bemused by the seemingly never-ending stream of quirky books on obscure topics.
People in the second camp nod at the title approvingly, having already realized that we are literally done for if we lose the mycelium that run beneath the forests and fields upon which we depend. They—we—realize too, the absurdity of our tendency to cause them great harm, and that indeed if we are to solve the global societal puzzles that lie before us (see also: global warming, and eating), it is a 100% certainty that fungi will play a major role.
So nowadays, when I think of mushrooms, that mental maitake prompts ideas about ways for all life on earth, including humans, to thrive. I picture mycelium mats used in the remediation of oil spills. I imagine all agriculture being reinvented as a form of carbon farming while feeding, fueling and clothing us.
And I also get more than a little bit hungry.
Above: Maitake mushrooms cooking. (Photo by Christopher Foss)