Walk down any city street, and you’ll likely see an opportunistic mushroom growing somewhere. They pepper the lawns of suburban America and turn out in droves on millions of woodland acres all over the globe. They’re tenacious yet fragile—and often misunderstood. As plentiful as they are, the study of mushrooms is a relatively young science.
Master herbalist Nathan Searles, who harvests, dries, and sells mushrooms through his company, Forgotten Traditions in Tilton, New Hampshire, says about 1.4 million different types of mushroom species exist. Mycologists, scientists who study fungi, have identified about 80,000 of them, with only 2,000 deemed to be edible.
Ethnobotanists believe mushrooms have been part of the human diet since early humans. The Greek playwright, Euripides, made the first known reference to eating fungi around 450 BC. In the early 1700s, mushroom studies erroneously grouped fungi with plant life, and it wasn’t until nearly 100 years later that the term “mycology” was coined. Mushrooms have been studied in-depth for only about 70 years.
Mushrooms are curious organisms. They differ widely in size, shape, color, texture, nutritional value, and toxicity. Up to 60 percent of their genetics are similar to humans, and it takes two genetically similar spores, or eggs, to create a new organism.
Patterns of Consciousness and a Will to Be Harvested
Before you forage for mushrooms in the wild, learn from a professional how to determine what’s safe to consume. Searles warns that hunting in New England has its own set of risks. “There are look-alikes that can be very dangerous,” he cautions. Many mushroom species are similar in appearance but vary greatly in their compounds, depending on the type, season, region, substrate, and climate. The prized morel, for example, has a look-alike called a “false morel.” The difference is obvious to experts, but enthusiastic foragers can make dangerous mistakes.
All mushrooms are not edible. Mushrooms fall into four basic categories: edible, nonedible, toxic, and poisonous. Not all toxic mushrooms are poisonous, but all poisonous ones are toxic. “Some of the world’s most deadly mushrooms are in Massachusetts,” says Doug Sparks, editor-in-chief of Merrimack Valley Magazine and an amateur forager.
New England is home to some interesting species. “Hen of the woods, chaga, reishi, and turkey tail are powerful medicinal mushrooms,” says Sparks, who hunts for 25 species and can identify between 60 and 70. “Then there’s the black trumpet, absolutely delicious, and chanterelles, one of the tastiest out there.” (Searles, the herbalist, keeps the savory, rich, slightly smoky black trumpet—difficult to spot on the forest floor—exclusively for his family.)
Mushrooms “want to be harvested,” Sparks says. “It’s like they line the pathways for people to find them. It’s how they reproduce. When you pick them, thousands of spores are released. They want to be disturbed. They seem to show patterns of consciousness. Mycelium is part of a network, like trees that communicate underground.”
Mycologist Paul Stamets, the go-to guy in fungi, insists that mushrooms call to him and communicate with him through intuition and imagination. Sparks agrees. “Sometimes you just feel it, and you have an impulse, and it guides you,” he says.
Nutritious and Flavorful
Mushrooms are perceived very differently around the world. Cultures are mycophilic or mycophobic depending on how plentiful wild mushrooms are to the region. Italians, Asians, and Eastern Europeans grow up around mushrooms and use them in traditional dishes, while the Irish and English approach them with more caution.
In Asian cultures, matsutake mushrooms sell for up to $5,000 per pound, Searles says, because they cannot be cultivated and must be foraged in the wild near pine trees. Shiitake mushrooms are also considered a delicacy and are as widely cultivated as white button mushrooms in the US. Oyster mushrooms, the new darlings in the Western world, broadened the playing field because they’re easy to cultivate and grow on almost any substrate, as long as it’s sufficiently inoculated with spores.
Most mushrooms contain an impressive but varying amount of protein, vitamins, and minerals and are 20 to 30 percent water. The nutritional makeup of any mushroom depends largely on the substrate—the more nutrient dense it is, the more nutritional value contained in the mushroom, Searles explains. Some species are notably high in vitamin B-12, which is difficult to maintain in the body. Searles and Sparks agree, however, you cannot survive on mushrooms alone. Their dense fiber content makes them difficult to digest, and too many mushrooms will make you sick.
When it comes to flavor, mushrooms are a core food for achieving “umami,” a word that means savoriness in Japanese and has joined the ranks of the familiar tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Unusually rich and satisfying, umami is equated with the intense flavor of aged, dried, and fermented foods. Dried shiitake mushrooms are umami, offering a dense base and a hearty broth when rehydrated. Umami stems from the presence of glutamate—the same glutamate you’ll find in popular flavor enhancer MSG.
As veganism grows in popularity, mushrooms have become a go-to meat alternative, delicious in soups and sauces and now graduating to become the main dish at the dinner table. Keith Pooler, head chef and owner of Bergamot in Somerville, creates some remarkable flavor combinations with fungi, including Madeira Mushroom Cream, which combines earthy morels with a rich cream sauce and full-bodied Portuguese wine.
No matter how you slice them, mushrooms are becoming a staple food in the American diet. As our understanding of these remarkable fungi expands, so will our discovery of new uses in the kitchen and in medicine.