Grow Them, Hunt Them, Eat Them!
By Nina Furstenau
To the ancient Egyptians, mushrooms were the spawn of gods. They came to earth on thunderbolts and turned up after rainstorms. Greeks and Aztecs believed they were engendered by lightning and sent down as food. To gnomes, fairies, and elves, they made great perches. They give indigenous people’s shamans and religious leaders power in rituals. For Missourians, they are simply good eatin’.
Because mushrooms work best in the dark, wild-mushroom hunters in Missouri have become adept at waiting until right after just a few good, rainy days between late March and early November to go search. Once mushrooms get the cover of shade (or a ride on a lightning bolt, as the Greeks would have it) and the right amount of moisture, they fruit and fruit again.
Michael and Denise Gebhardt, of Glasgow, are wild-mushroom hunters at heart. For Michael, who manages timber when not hunting for fungi, being in the woods is an appeal. Plus, his memories of doing this kind of hunt every spring since he was five years old, following his father with a paper bag, are strong. For Denise, too, mushrooming has been a part of spring since childhood.
Once, Michael and Denise came across an unexpected single cache of more than 16 gallons of morels. “I’d never seen so many mushrooms in my life,” Denise says. “We felt so fortunate, so special.”
“It was an elm tree that had died five or six years earlier,” Michael says. But the mushrooms were fickle and never returned in such abundance there again.
Cottonwood is also good for morels, Michael says. He contends the starches and sugar in decaying cottonwood disperse more quickly than in oak, which may take four or five years to create ideal conditions for mushrooms. The Missouri River bottomland is a good place to hunt, and the fungi come earlier there than in bluff areas.
There are more hunters now than when Denise and Michael went hunting as children.
“Obviously, they’re delicious,” Michael says. Prices are amazingly high for some species in groceries; several types of oyster mushrooms cost about $20 per pound. But the real appeal, he says, is the thrill of the hunt.
“It’s like Easter-egg hunting for adults. I’ll go out and can’t find a mushroom to save my soul; then I’ll bend over and find three.”
Mushroom hunting is also aesthetic. Gatherers tread through astonishingly beautiful places. A lush meadow or woody copse waits not only luminescent but with bounty. The uncertainty of it all makes the endeavor more tantalizing.
“There’s a certain look and certain smell to the woods when it’s time,” Michael says. “A little rain, a little sun,” and conditions are ripe. Generally, in the Glasgow area, the right time seems to be near April 9, the Gebhardts say. “Ground temperature has everything to do with it. We get them about one week after Boonville,” Michael says.
Michael douses the morels he finds in salt and pepper, then dips the pieces in flour and fries them in olive oil. He has friends that salt and bread them and proceed to freeze them in single layers on wax paper so they have some for later. The Gebhardts typically get 20 to 30 pounds of morels each spring, but their large extended families snap them up; none get frozen.
The Gebhardts have also cultivated shiitake mushrooms north of Glasgow. They plugged 100 oak logs with mushroom spores and by the second year had 50,000 mushrooms. “Shiitakes grew very well there,” Michael says. But despite loving the smoky flavor of their crop, they did not find a ready market so stopped cultivation.
Fred Fry, of Bugtussel, found a way to make shiitakes pay. The Mushroom Farm produces 500 pounds of shiitakes and 50 to 100 pounds of oyster mushrooms a year. Fred, who operates an excavation business, uses his wine cellar and about one half-acre of his 40-acre farm for mushrooms. His indoor logs produce mushrooms year-round. When harvested, Fred says, they’ll bring about $8 a pound, based on last year’s lo- cal sales. He offers tours and workshops for those who call ahead and sometimes gives demonstrations during an annual music festival he hosts. Mushrooms are a lot of manual work, he says, which he does for the love of fungi.
“You don’t have to have a reason to eat mushrooms,” Fred says. “What are you having for dinner? Meatloaf? Add a half-cup of minced mushrooms.”
Fred puts oyster mushrooms in creamy soups. In potato soup and chowder, the oysters add delicate flavors. Fred cautions that when shiitakes dry, their flavor intensifies, and recipes should be adjusted so the dish is not overpowered. Besides taste, the chemicals of fungi intrigue Fred. They have long been used for medicinal properties.
“I have gout and haven’t had a symptom for five or six years,” he says.
He warns new growers, though, to “forget everything you ever learned about gardening. Mushrooms live in a different world. Fungi can even break granite.”
In Missouri, most growers use mushrooms for supplemental income or personal consumption. They use forested land without damaging trees. This form of agroforestry, a buzzword in sustainable agriculture, is compatible with Missouri woodlands. Ozark Forest Mushrooms in the town of Timber manages its forested land with mushrooms in mind. The commercial, 18,000-log mushroom farm, owned by Nicola McPherson and Dan Hellmuth, was established in 1990 in the Big Springs region. They produce 15,000 pounds of mushrooms annually and market them to chefs, catering companies, and organic food stores. The five-acre mushroom side of the farm works in tandem with its 2,500 acres of forests. Twenty-acre sections of the land are rotationally thinned on a 30-year cycle, never clear-cut. Some of the thinned wood is used for shiitake logs, and afterward, the logs are used to heat a greenhouse that houses mushrooms through the winter.
Retailers know the power of the mushroom. According to the Mushroom Council, fresh mushrooms are ranked third (46%) in overall consumer popularity of produce, after only tomatoes (56%) and broccoli (47%). What’s more, they have a huge impact on the success of a produce department. According to the council’s January 2009 study, “Best Practices for Retailers,” a consumer whose basket contained fresh mushrooms spent an average of $58. A consumer with a basket lacking mushrooms spent about $29.
People pay more for food from the gods.