Monthly Archives: March 2014

Mushroom Fever

millmanSome of you in warmer climes are already out there, scouring the woods for the favorite fungi of spring. Morel fever is back, exacting its toll once again. No doubt legions of mushroom hunters are walking around right now at this very moment with stiff necks and eyeballs ready to pop out of their heads. But for the rest of us, we can only wait in anticipation for such symptoms.

Or settle back into the armchair for a vicarious thrill.

I’ve been traipsing through Larry Millman’s new collection of fungal vignettes, Giant Polypores & Stoned Reindeer, to keep the fever at bay. It’s the sort of off-season reading we all need on occasion: a reminder that somewhere, someone is enjoying our favorite pursuit, and soon—soon!—we will be that someone.

Millman brings a visceral appreciation and a traveler’s erudition to the mushroom hunt. He forages among the headhunters of Borneo; takes a trip to northern Siberia in search of Santa’s favorite shroom; and journeys to the opposite pole in his imagination, where the mushrooms of the mind take on epic proportions. One of his well known articles, “Notes on the Ingestion of Amanita muscaria,” is included here, with the memorable line: “Larry is drinking a beer, and he says he can relate to the bottle, that the bottle can relate to him, and that the two of them are actually enjoying each other’s company.”

In “The Thrill of the Hunt,” Millman diagnoses the fever as much larger than a quest for mere edibles, illustrating that it may not even require a walk in the woods. His beat-up Chevy Nova’s back seat carries a variety of mold and rust passengers. A friend’s brassiere is filled with inky caps. Should you find an owl pellet, he advises, “look at it closely: there might be an Onygena species growing on it.” The essay concludes with a visit to a touristy spot in Death Valley, California, where, against the odds, he stumbles upon “a group of stalked puffballs lifting their heads proudly to the bright desert sky.”

In other words, we are surrounded by the kingdom of fungi. Open your eyes—and your mind—and you might cure that fungal fever in the most unlikely of places. Millman’s new book is an entertaining and informative panacea for all that ails us mushroom hunters.

For those of you in the Seattle area, Larry Millman will be speaking at the Puget Sound Mycological Society on May 13, 7:30 p.m.

Better Life Thru Fungi

bilet1Last night I had dinner at a very cool space in Seattle called Art for Food, the creation of Maxime Bilet. Bilet is the indefatigable chef, artist, and co-author of Modernist Cuisine (with Nathan Myhrvold), the massive, multi-volume paean to innovative kitchen alchemy. Art for Food is his new 5,600-square-foot storefront on Western Avenue combining test kitchen, art gallery, performance space, retail shop, and a generally groovy hangout spot. Clearly Bilet has a lot of ideas about food and art and education, and his demeanor is laid back and approachable.

Back to the meal. On this night, Bilet was teaming up with New York (by way of India) chef Jehangir Mehta of Graffiti and Mehtaphor restaurants. Their theme: The Magic of Mycology. So you see why I was intrigued.

Bilet and Mehta both talked about their commitment to food policy issues and child nutrition education. When Mehta introduced himself, he said that one of his goals as a restaurateur was to not waste anything, whether making stocks from peelings or finding creative uses for leftovers, explaining that in India this is standard practice. I find it sad that here in the U.S. we’re still trying to grasp this concept. The idea for the mushroom dinner was to showcase how fungi can be both artfully incorporated into a meal and also used as a meat substitute, or at least partial substitute.

One of the courses was a little hamburger slider that was 30 percent fungi. Like all the food, it was delicious. There was a phở appetizer that relied on a savory mushroom broth rather than the typical beef broth. Another dish paired what some might consider a miserly portion of sea scallop singleton with king oyster mushroom medallions; the cultivated fungi bulked up the dish and perfectly accented the wild seafood. A butter-smooth poached Chinook salmon was bathed in enoki butter, peavines, and green garbanzo beans, with tiny pickled mushrooms adding a burst of earthy flavor.

I happened to be seated next to my friend John Sundstrom of Lark restaurant, one of Seattle’s early fungal adopters and an all-around fan of wild foods, and we both agreed the use of a variety of wild and cultivated mushrooms added depth and complexity to the meal while also demonstrating the possibilities for fungi to take the pressure off less sustainable foods.

Bilet and Mehta strike me as intensely curious by temperament. Let’s hope their curiosity continues to lead them in creative new directions to bring fungi to the people.