An ex-girlfriend of mine described my compulsive need to find an answer to any random question that occurs to me as “Research OCD.” And it seems to me an apt enough description. It’s what made me a mediocre research student—my doctoral thesis was a painfully drawn-out affair because I got too easily distracted by other interests—but what I hope will make me a tolerably decent librarian once I’m through with my most recent reckless foray into postgraduate education.
So when I discovered today that the grocery store had acquired a stock of strange and wondrous new mushrooms, including the white beech mushrooms I ultimately bought, I began to wonder about the history of fungiculture. I assumed that eating edible wild fungus dated well back into prehistory, but when did humans start cultivating ‘shrooms for themselves?
I was surprised to find that with all the food-related microhistories written in recent years on everything from cod to coffee to corn (just to name the C’s), I couldn’t find a comprehensive history of fungiculture. Hallucinogenic mushrooms, yes, and a book about truffles, but not the plain old edible ones. I did put my research skills to work, though, and found a few interesting historical tidbits.
Turns out I had assumed correctly that the consumption of mushrooms goes back quite a way: traces of puffball mushrooms have been found in Stone Age settlements. In ancient Egypt, only pharaohs were allowed to consume mushrooms, which the Egyptians regarded as “sons of the gods” sent down to earth on lighting bolts. Apparently, this wasn’t an isolated notion: Roman folklore also perpetuated the strange association of mushrooms and lightning, claiming that mushrooms sprung from the earth in places where lightning had struck.
Actual cultivation of mushrooms, however, turns out to have been a much later development, in the West at least. The technique to cultivate the common button mushroom was discovered in France by mid-seventeenth-century melon farmers. By the mid-eighteenth century, mushroom cultivators had discovered that mushrooms could be more easily grown in subterranean caverns, where the factors of temperature and humidity were less variable. The US didn’t catch on until the latter half of the nineteenth century when fungiculture was introduced to the US from England and small-scale efforts at cultivating mushrooms began in New York’s Long Island.
So anyway, today’s mushroom purchase was destined for the wok, where I stir-fried them up with some carrots and snowpeas and my own spicy miso stir-fry sauce. Here’s the formula I used, after the fold:
3 cloves garlic, minced
1” piece ginger, grated
¼ tsp crushed red pepper
1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
½ cup soy sauce (or less if you don’t share my love for extreme saltiness)
2 tbsp mirin
½ tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp apple cider vinegar
½ tbsp red miso paste
Mix it all up in a bowl and use it with your vegetables when you’re stir-frying. I usually fry the vegetables just barely to the point of starting to char and then pour in the sauce and let it simmer until it’s thick.
Also, great hint for fresh ginger that I picked up from Isa on the Post Punk Kitchen forums: when you bring home fresh ginger, peel the root, slice it into 1” lengths, and freeze it in an airtight container. It’ll save you some pennies if, like me, most of the ginger you buy ends up shriveled up and moldy. And not only do the frozen pieces grate like magic, but the ginger seems to leave fewer of those annoying fibrous threads I’m forever picking out of my microplane.