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Despite words like fungus and spore and biomass we love to eat mushrooms. And from the looks of it, as recorded in books such as Missouri’s Wild Mushrooms by Maxine Stone, Missouri is a great place to find all kinds of wild mushrooms—102 varieties—and even to cultivate crops .
Mushrooms are secretive, doing their best work in the dark. Once mushrooms get the cover of shade, along with the right amount of moisture, they fruit and fruit again. Wild mushrooms in Missouri emerge after a few good rainy days between late March and early November when there’s a certain look and smell to the woods. Mushroom hunters get to tread through those astonishingly beautiful places, and the uncertainty of it all makes the endeavor more tantalizing. Just last week a friend helped my husband gather enough morels for happy frying.
I like to douse morels in salt and pepper, then dip the pieces in flour and fry them in olive oil. I like oyster mushrooms in creamy soups for added delicate flavor. Shiitakes when dried can add intense flavor to recipes so I adjust so my stew or other recipe so it’s not overpowered.
Many stories try to explain the enigmatic life of mushrooms, neither plant nor animal but yeast-like, that have been around as long as man has recorded his world. So, when exactly did wild mushrooms rule the earth?
Science points to approximately 600,000 million years before man was using a sauté pan. A few million years later, they towered over the landscape, according to Smithsonian, at 28 feet, the tallest land based organism for 70 million years. Their supporting plant structure is in fact masses of living threads called mycelia, just a few cells thick (and hence they do not need a circulatory or digestive system) that live below our regard, in the soil, through leaf litter, on decaying wood.
These underground nets of cells can live a long time, even thousands of years, and can be big, among the largest biological entities on the planet with some individual mats covering more than 20,000 acres. They spend their time digesting the dead biomass of forest life. They recycle the planet in stealth.
In addition to all this undercover work, fungi have long been associated with power. May I mention gnomes, fairies and elves? Toadstools and mushrooms are, in fact, the same, but differ in edibility and in their role in fairy tales. A circle of tall, dark grass within a ring of toadstools, within a ring of dark earth was called a fairy ring or circle, or a dancing fairie-elf ring. Stepping into a fairy ring could bring good or bad luck, cause or cure illness, or enchant the person who stepped into the ring during a full moon.
But the story I like best might be that mushrooms make great perches. I’m a believer in good seating and I like to think creatures such as gnomes, fairies and elves have a place to get comfortable. You never know, wild mushroom hunters in Missouri might come across some interesting folk while poking around in the underbrush.
Nina Furstenau teaches food writing at the MU Science and Agricultural Journalism Program. Find more of her writing at www.ninafurstenau.com, A Spiced Life at the Columbia Tribune, and in books: Savor Missouri: River Hill Country Food and Wine and Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland.