From the Almanac: The Mighty, Mighty Mushroom
Wildsam Almanac is our new regular dispatch of cultural curiosities, odd corners of history and miscellanea of all sorts. Madison Trapkin, author of this Almanac, is an editor, writer, and stylist specializing in all things food and beverage.
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1 In Praise of Fungus
Before we start: why mushrooms? It's a perfectly appropriate inquiry. Our answer is simply this: We're seeing mushrooms everywhere. It's like there was a light rain last night over the cultural landscape, and abracadabra!, all we see are toadstools and their earthy brethren. Fashion. Coffee. Microdosing. TV dystopia. It all seems more than a trend. And truth be told, it’s really never not mushroom season, somewhere. Even so, early spring makes for a special blend of environmental circumstances. So in our mycophilic curiosity, shall we begin by hunting perhaps the most prized of fungi of them all? Sounds about right. Meet our fancy friend, the black truffle.
Tennessee is known for many things. Music icons like Elvis and Dolly. Nashville hot chicken and MoonPies and some damn fine whiskey. The Volunteer State looks out at the Great Smoky Mountains to the east, and the mighty Mississippi on its western hem.
Dig deeper [pun intended?] and there’s the black truffle. Also known as Tuber melanosporum, or the Périgord truffle, this highly flavorful variety of French fungi is coveted by foragers and top chefs alike, including Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller. This time of year, fungi hunters troop into the Tennessee hills, especially around a place–it’s not an incorporated town–known as Chuckey. It is maybe an unlikely culinary mecca, due to one man’s determination.
In the early 2000s, a plant pathologist named Tom Michaels ignited today’s Tennessee truffle quests in the yard behind his three-bedroom home. Farmers in the U.S. had tried to grow the elusive French mushroom since the ‘70s, to no avail. After millions of dollars and many, many failed attempts, those farmers gave up. Like some strange magic, Michaels inoculated the hazelnut trees on his property with Tuber melanosporum, and several years later, he stumbled upon a cache of the black gold that figures on upscale menus today.
Of course, Michaels was not alone in his truffle endeavors. From a mycologist-backed startup in North Carolina to a high-end restaurant in Bentonville, Arkansas, it’s clear that outside of Italy, France and the Pacific Northwest, the American South is where truffle foragers really thrive.
Truffles grow in the roots of trees–oak, hazel, poplar and the like–and their distinct smell helps dogs (and humans) sniff them out amongst the roots and underbrush. Their rare and difficult-to-source nature means they fetch top dollar. [Specially trained hounds are on the case at Blackberry Farm and elsewhere.] So this time of year, train your senses if you’re wandering the woods. There is black gold in those hills.
2 Field Notes on the Mighty Mushroom
The Morel of the Story [sorry, couldn't help it]
In the heart of Wisconsin’s Driftless region, you’ll find the small town of Muscoda, home to the Muscoda Morel Mushroom Festival every May. This three-day festival is a convergence of countless local foragers, combing the woods for all the morels they can find. The earthy, nutty mushroom is no stranger to fine dining and farmers’ markets, but the people of Muscoda take it to another level in this event. Forager prizes, cooking demos and a tasting room filled with morel products (beer, brats and more) are best enjoyed with a MIller Lite in one hand and a basket of butter-fried morels in the other.
Mushroom and Magic
You’ve heard of starter homes, but what about microdosing starter packs? Psychedelics like psilocybin–commonly found in so-called “magic” mushrooms–have been all the talk in some quarters lately. “Microdosing” involves about one tenth of the so-called “trip” dose. In addition to general good vibes, users report positive side effects including menstrual pain relief and decreased coffee consumption–if that’s really something we’re after in life?
Fields of Fungi
If you watched The Last of Us–don’t read this part. Oregon’s Blue Mountains are home to 2,384 acres–or 1,665 football fields–of Armillaria ostoyae, a.k.a. the world’s largest known organism [and maybe one of the oldest: around 8,650 years old]. This pathogenic fungus was discovered by a team of forestry scientists investigating the tree-killer known as Armillaria root disease. After matching samples from two different trees, the scientists determined the Armillaria was bridging gaps between food sources in tree roots via shoestring-like structures known as rhizomorphs…making the possibilities for its growth endless.
The Last of Us, HBO
Wildsam’s upcoming field guide to Northern Michigan will include an original essay by chef, author and forager Iliana Regan [Burn the Place, Fieldwork, The Milkweed Inn].
Discover other singular crafts, traditions and callings in our Pursuits series.
3 From the Archives
Julia Child on “The Mushroom Show” episode in Season 3 of The French Chef, originally broadcasted by PBS on September 28, 1964:
“I think the best way to buy mushrooms in a market is to buy them loose so that you can look at them. If they’re all covered in plastic in a little bag, sometimes the underneath ones aren’t very fresh, and you really want to get a good look at them. I’ll tell you how you can see if it’s a good mushroom or not. Now this is an excellent, fresh mushroom–you see, where the cap joins the stem, there’s no separation at all. These are all cultivated mushrooms, and that’s the kind you buy. Here is another one, which is a little less good, you can see there’s a line of separation between the cap and the stem. And then, here’s one, that’s still a good one but it’s not as fresh as the first one because you’ll see there’s an enormous line of separation where the gills show. This is still a good mushroom, but if the cap had flattened out and there wasn’t any nice curl in it, you would then see that it was fairly stale. Also, you can tell by feeling them. They should feel nice and firm and sort of velvety.”
4 ‘Shroom Stats
$3.3 BILLION... Amount contributed to the U.S. economy annually by mushroom farms.
14,000... Number of approximate known mushroom species.
$3,000... The going rate for a kilogram of Tuber magnatum pico, or Italian white truffle.
36... Average number of hours it takes for severe illness to set in if a death cap mushroom is accidentally ingested.
2 GALLONS... The quantity of mushrooms you can harvest in Deschutes National Forest per day (with a maximum allotment of 10 days per calendar year).
5 For further edification:
Glorious vintage scientific drawings of fungi and other living things.