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Mushrooms: Wild and Tame

by Betty Fussell

Once upon a time all mushrooms were wild, but in America they stayed wild until this century. Even in urban Philadelphia, Eliza Leslie, in her 1837 Directions for Cooking advises the maker of "Mushroom Catchup" to "Take mushrooms that have been freshly gathered, and examine them carefully to ascertain that they are of the right sort." Perhaps too many careless examiners caused Americans to declare Agaricus bisporus the only right sort. Pennsylvanians in the early 1900s began to cultivate this type in limestone caves in Chester County, and today A. bisporus is the white supermarket mushroom that we eat 550 million pounds of each year.

In Europe the French had cultivated this species from the time of Louis XIV. The little white buttons called champignons de Paris appeared on Edwardian tables sous cloche, or under glass bell jars. In the Orient the Japanese had been cultivating shiitake and matsukame mushrooms since the second century A.D. One man's "wild" mushroom is another man's "tame." The advantage of tamed varieties is that they are available without regard to season, weather, or woodland. The disadvantage is that they narrow the mushroom palate to but a handful of the 40,000 edible species available to those who know mushroom right from wrong.

Ironically, we Americans are only now rediscovering our native wildings, often by way of similar types of mushrooms imported expensively from abroad. Of course out local mycologists hve scoured their neighboring woods for years, tracking down morels in the spring, tree oysters in summer, chanterelles in fall. But now untutored mushroom lovers can benefit from the mushroom explosion that has brought us a number of books on mushroom cookery, among which Jack Czarnecki's in our country and Jane Grigson's in England stand out.

But any number of people can tell us how to dry, pickle, freeze, blanch, extract, puree, braise, and stir-fry each mushroom kind according to its unique character---the smoky shiitake, the nutty morel, the briny tree oyster, the earthy cepe or porcini, the apricot-scented chanterelle. If you want to show off whole mushrooms, you might try deep-frying the tree oyster or oyster mushroom because its firm texture makes it a good finger food. If you want mushrooms as an accompaniment, you might try sauteing chanterelles with a little onion and finely chopped dried apricots in a lot of butter to accompany sauteed quail or some other game. Dried apricots intensify the peppery apricot of this beautifully colored mushroom.

To show off mushroom variety, I like to mix whatever wild and tame mushrooms I can afford or find in order to experience variety of texture and taste. Reconstituted dried mushrooms will bind and intensify these tastes in a sauce, and cream will enrich and smooth them. The affinity of mushrooms and cream we learn from a recipe in Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery (1749). If you wish "To Dress a Dish of Mushrumps," you are to stew them with onion, parsley, nutmeg, fresh butter, and sweet, thick cream. The abundance of mushroom varieties now in our markets should send us scurrying into the fall woods with our baskets and an expert in tow to help us examine carefully the wild mushrooms that we will tame in our cooking pots, provided of course that they are of "the right sort."

The right sort for a soup are the shiitake for rich flavor and meaty texture; the stems enrich the broth, while the sliced caps make a meal.

Shiitake Mushroom Soup
serves 4

‡ pound fresh shiitake mushrooms
6 cups beef stock
2 tablespoons butter
4 green onions, slivered
1 clove garlic, minced
4 slices fresh ginger root, minced
1 teaspoon soy sauce
‡ teaspoon sugar
º teaspoon black pepper
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons chopped coriander

Separate caps of mushrooms from stems. Chop stems and add them to the beef stock. Bring stock to a boil, cover, simmer 20 minutes, strain stock, and discard stems. Slice mushroom caps and saute them in the butter over high heat with the onions, garlic, and ginger root. Add them to the beef stock, taste for seasoning, and add soy, sugar, pepper, and salt with care, depending on the taste of the stock. Garnish soup bowls with the coriander.


Betty Fussell is a food historian, home cook, author, English professor and freelance writer. Her book, The Story of Corn, was reprinted by University of New Mexico Press. Betty Fussells' latest work is My Kitchen Wars, which was transformed into a one-woman show performed in New York City and Hollywood. Fussell is currently writing a history of American beefsteak.

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