The Weekly''s Food & Wine Special

Question-what living thing possesses the following characteristics: veins, pores, hair, flesh, gills, scales, warts, nipples, teeth and spines?

Stumped? You''re not alone. For millennia, mushrooms have elicited every possible human response-from curiosity and delight to fear and disgust-everything except indifference. They may be deadly or delicious.

What are they?

They are plants yet they have no roots, stems or leaves. Their appearance and use in cooking suggests something meaty, yet mushroom fungi actually live underground until the right conditions send their fruit-the part we collect-sprouting upward. They exist in intricate relations of ecological interdependence with other living things in our forests and pastures, yet they are a breed apart, a kind of Third Kingdom.

American attitudes toward wild mushrooms have changed considerably in the past decade or so, and the Monterey Peninsula is a great place to experience those changes, for our home turf is prime mushroom habitat.

A generation ago supermarkets typically stocked only one kind of fresh mushroom, the cultivated white or brown button mushrooms. Today, a wide variety of both fresh and dried, wild and cultivated mushrooms is available not only at farmers'' markets, health food depots and Asian grocery stores, but at several of the larger supermarket chains as well. This is due in part to a growing sophistication of the American palate, an increased willingness to try richer, bolder flavors. It''s not surprising that names like shiitake and chanterelle should be popping up on menus and grocery lists.

An expanding interest in wild mushrooms also reflects a more knowledgeable sensitivity toward the natural environment. As noted author and local mushroom guru David Arora has observed, Anglo-American culture has long been a fungiphobic or fungus-fearing one. It''s not hard to see why.

A society historically bent on dominating and reshaping wilderness-through destruction, extraction or cultivation-could only be frustrated by the grubby mushroom that refuses to submit to human hands. Plus, there''s something undeniably sensual about many mushrooms-all those fleshy, earthy shapes and colors and smells and tastes-that might seem scary or even sinful to a society based upon the Puritan ethic. And, of course, there was (and still is) the danger of eating the wrong kind of mushroom.

Safety and convenience have become hallmarks of American food-we don''t want to have to think about where our food came from or whether or not it''s safe. We just want to eat it.

Mushrooms seem to be exuberant representatives of the mysterious process of life itself. We certainly could not live without the microfungi, the yeasts and molds that give us our daily bread and antibiotics.

Another, perhaps more subconscious, factor explaining a certain cultural standoffishness is that mushrooms, and fungi in general, can carry with them the suggestion of decomposition and decay. Wild forest or mycorrhizal mushrooms lack autonomous life and exist only in fungus-root partnerships. Other mushrooms such as portabellas thrive on dead organic matter. All mushrooms seem to bring us closer to the complex interplay of life and death that touches every corner of our planet.

For medieval alchemists, mushrooms were magic embodiments of their dream to coax life out of death. Today, those who prefer to keep death at arm''s length are more likely to feel nervous than pleased when confronted by something that thrives in rotting logs or cow piles. The fact that cemeteries are great spots for mushroom gathering is not entirely comforting to some people.

Indeed, many of our culture''s mushroom metaphors have lent the fungi an acutely ominous dimension. In the 19th century, the boom-to-bust Western towns that disappeared almost as quickly as they had appeared often were called mushroom towns or cities. "Those mushroom towns in a short time will produce their own death," one observer wrote in 1819.

In Overland Journey (1860), Horace Greeley described the "men of broken fortunes from the dead mushroom cities of Nebraska and Kansas" who would take their equal measures of hope and despair west, scattering across the land like so many spores. And in the middle of the last century, the mushroom cloud-born of a new and terrible weapon-seemed to sum up an era of technological warfare run wild, out of control, a culture of death and destruction raised to unimaginable levels of horror.

Is it any wonder mushrooms have gotten a bad rap?

Food and Medicine

The alchemists were on to something: In truth, mushrooms seem to be exuberant representatives of the mysterious process of life itself. We certainly could not live without the microfungi, the yeasts and molds that give us our daily bread and antibiotics. And, more and more, mushrooms are being sought after, studied, consumed, cultivated, photographed and celebrated. It''s about time.

Other cultures have used and studied mushrooms for centuries. Until recently guidebooks and cookbooks dealing with mushrooms were likely to be translated from Italian, German or French (the first books on mushrooms were published in Italy during the 1500s). The ancients thought that mushrooms marked the traces of lightning bolts from heaven and called them broma theon, or food of the gods. Julius Caesar picked up on this theme and declared that mushrooms were too good for commonfolk and should be eaten only by the well-born and the wealthy.

That proclamation proved lethal to the Emperor Claudius, who was murdered by wife Agrippina with the deadly Fly or Royal Agaric mushroom, prompting the poet Horace to remark that you should only eat mushrooms you''ve picked from your own meadow. Indeed, anthropologists have argued that mushrooms may have been used for homicidal purposes as early as the Paleolithic or the Neolithic period.

It wasn''t until the reign of Louis XIV in 17-century France, however, that mushrooms came to be cultivated in the West, when it was discovered that Agaricus campestris, those tiny white mushrooms often called champignons de Paris, could be grown in caves and abandoned quarries. For a king who saw fine dining as yet another means to express power, the belief that one more of nature''s mysteries had been solved only added to the atmosphere of superiority that enveloped his regime.

Of course, many traditional Asian cultures have their own history of mushrooms, ones that focused less on trying to figure out where they came from and more on learning how they might be useful as food or medicine-or rather food and medicine. In A Spoonful of Ginger (Knopf, 1999), cookbook author Nina Simonds discusses in detail the health benefits associated with many kinds of mushrooms. Simonds describes how many Asian cooking traditions see both foods and people as either warm or cool, and how illness may be the result of an imbalance between the two extremes. Mushrooms, along with many other foods, may then be prescribed to restore body harmony and health.

Another Westerner interested in investigating the medicinal qualities of mushrooms is local doctor Christopher Hobbes, who spoke at the 27th annual Fungus Fair last month in Santa Cruz. During his slideshow presentation, he took questions from dozens of people curious to learn how to cure their various ailments with mushrooms.

While much research still needs to be done, there are encouraging signs that reishi and shiitake mushrooms can strengthen the immune system and that oyster mushrooms may lower one''s cholesterol. Hobbes focused especially on the health-giving polypore mushrooms-the hard, woody mushrooms lacking gills that grow on fallen trees-which function as primary recyclers of the forest. Hobbes recounted that when he is out hiking, he may break off a piece of such a mushroom, like Turkey Tail, and chew on it, as an immune system-boosting kind of "mushroom gum."

The ancients thought that mushrooms marked the traces of lightning bolts from heaven and called them ''broma theon,'' or food of the gods. Julius Caesar picked up on this theme and declared that mushrooms were too good for commonfolk and should be eaten only by the well-born and the wealthy.

Names like Turkey Tail are especially intriguing to a fungus novice, and at the fair, organized every year by the Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz, there were several names that provoked the question: How did they get that name? There were Fried Chicken mushrooms, Blushing Bride amanitas, Men on Horseback, and Lungworts. There were Witches Butter mushrooms and Death Caps, which sounds like something Harry Potter might be forced to wear, and also mushrooms called Dead Man''s Foot. This latter mushroom is not meant to be eaten (with that name, who would want to?) but in a lecture entitled "Introduction to Wild Mushrooms," federation member Bill Maxfield explained how this lowly fungus is being used to restore areas devastated by strip mining. Strip mining leaves behind soil that is too acidic to support almost any life (nearly all the pine trees optimistically planted by the US Department of the Interior after various mining operations had moved on died within a year). But it turns out that the Dead Man''s Foot fungus, after a period of two years, is able to raise the pH level in the soil to an acidity that will sustain other plant life.

Skills and Schooling

People interested in mushrooms may approach the subject from various perspectives-culinary, scientific or artistic-but in all cases the most important thing is to get educated. This can be done with field guides, by going on ranger-led nature walks or by joining the Fungus Federation (see the resource list at the end of this story), but whatever you do, don''t pick-let alone eat-any mushroom unless you are certain that it is legal to do so where you are, and that it is safe for consumption. While the dangers of many mushrooms have no doubt been exaggerated by a culture prone to distrust them, adverse reactions should not be underestimated.

Once you are out in the woods looking for mushrooms, the main factors governing what you will find are the time of year and the habitat, says Chuck Bancroft, a Point Lobos ranger and avid mycologist. Different seasons will yield different mushrooms. In the fall and early winter, the pine forests-such as those at Point Lobos-may feature boletes and Slippery Jacks. Late winter is a good time to find chanterelles under oak and bay laurel trees. Pasture mushrooms may appear in the spring, depending on the weather of the previous winter.

Basket Case History: Wild mushroom hunters Cheryl and Chuck Bancroft display their edible bounty gathered at Rancho San Carlos during last year''s Masters of Food and Wine field trip.

There is an ethic to mushroom hunting that at times can lead to cultural conflict. Bancroft notes that Jacks Peak has historically been frequented by Monterey''s various populations of Italian origin looking for the delicious Boletus edulis, where it may grow in abundance. Yet these mushrooms, like all animate and inanimate objects at the park, are protected, and removing them is unlawful.

Different parks may have different rules regarding their mushrooms, so people should phone ahead to find out about a specific park''s policy. Mushrooms growing at West Molera in Big Sur are off-limits, for example, while those found at East Molera may be harvested, one pound per person per day.

There are other ways to appreciate mushrooms. At the fair, I was impressed by some beautiful art on display, which turned out to have been actually made out of mushrooms. The pieces I admired were by area artist M. Loren Washburn, who has long been interested in mushrooms-some years ago she painted a mural at a Hollywood café that earned her the nickname "Mushroom"-and she has combined that curiosity with an interest in paper-making and pigment-extraction.

Washburn''s silkscreen prints of mushrooms on mushroom paper, using various mushroom inks, are gently evocative of the forest. A series of shadowbox collages made from mushroom paper display curling, fantastical shapes, suggesting an art that is more nature than culture, more about respecting the contours of her materials than imposing a specific design. There''s a feeling of ancient wisdom in these works, in their rough textures and range of tans and browns. Washburn says that by working with natural materials she wants to draw attention to the truly precious resources of the world, not only in nature but in the human community as well.

Women such as Myriam Rice and Dorothy Miller, both in their 80s, are traditional artists from whom Washburn learned about creating unique papers and dyes. Washburn sees continuing the legacy of their art as "saving and exploring a kind of knowledge."

Recipes for Success

To most people, however, mushrooms mean one thing: food. You can spend the next few months reading David Arora''s masterful Mushrooms Demystified in preparation for next fall''s mushroom season, but in the meantime you can try a few recipes and sample some mushroom dishes at local restaurants. Here are some of my favorites.

The wild mushroom risotto at Cielo in Big Sur (667-2331) is both earthy and delicate and sensuously creamy. Near the top of my comfort food list is the mushroom garden burger at Tillie Gort''s in Pacific Grove (373-0335), a warm, chewy, nutty delight. The mushrooms sautéed in sake at Robata Grill and Sake Bar (624-2643) at the Carmel Barnyard shopping center boast rich, mellow flavors and a meltingly smooth texture. They go well with beer or sake and are an ideal appetizer before you dig into your tray of sushi.

If you''re cooking at home, remember that most mushrooms shouldn''t be washed-simply wiping them with a damp paper towel should do the trick. Fresh mushrooms absorb moisture quickly, so if you wash them too long it will be hard to prevent your dish from being watery and flavorless.

And speaking of flavor: Some of the best mushroom dishes are those in which the cook builds around the flavor of the mushroom themselves, rather than indiscriminately dumping them into any old recipe. Yet this is precisely what the US Mushroom Council seems to suggest on its Web site. We are urged to "Just add mushrooms!"-which makes about as much sense as other monosyllabic governmental pronouncements of late. While I am partial to a good mushroom meatloaf, truly fresh, wild mushrooms deserve a dish of their own.

In a recent article published in California Wild, Arora speaks of a growing "mushroom consciousness," unimaginable even a decade ago. And there is something about mushroom gathering that seems to offer a deeper, more authentic connection to the world than that provided by our fast-forward lives, as if, in some small way, we could re-enter a pre-industrial time when knowledge meant survival.

Even today''s hallowed philosophy of "Take only memories, leave only footprints" effectively turns nature into a kind of museum. With wild mushrooms, there is a taste of dirt, of risk, of mystery, of death, of all the components that made up human life for so long and that today we try to exile to safe zones of recreation or entertainment. In the aforementioned article, an in-depth look at the makeshift society of wandering mushroom pickers, Arora speaks of a community of men, women and children who through years of expert and often arduous mushroom hunting become proficient at reading "every nook and nuance of the landscape." The more we know, the better off we are. Mushrooms, of course, will proliferate whatever we do-we need them considerably more than they need us. As the crafty mushrooms themselves whisper at the end of Sylvia Plath''s poem bearing their name:

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot''s in the door.

For more info on the Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz, call 684-2275 or click on www.cloudforest.com/ffsc. For the scientifically minded, an excellent Web site is /www.mycoinfo.com. Two guidebooks by David Arora are highly recommended, the authoritative Mushrooms Demystified and the more portable All That the Rain Promises and More. Arora''s article on mushroom-gatherers, "The Way of the Wild Mushroom," can be read by clicking on alacademy.org/calwild/fall99/mushroom.htm.

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.