Retrogrouch and I went to the Mt. Pisgah Mushroom Festival yesterday. I like this festival more than others, since it mingles the usual Eugenian tchotchkes, Peruvian handknitted sweater-wearing tots, and environmentally-aware folkish guitar music with poison. And the whole place smells kind of musty and funky, and I don’t mean play-that-funky-music-environmentally-aware-white-boy funky. It’s all about mushrooms, the edible kind and those that will wipe you off the face of the planet.
We bought four bags of various kinds, including giant white puffball-shaped lion’s mane, yellow oysters, maitake, and elongated buttons called butter caps. Then we spent a great deal of time shuffling along the tables of all the specimens one can find in our area. It’s amazing how many mushrooms are out there. The Cascade Mycological Society provides the specimens of mushrooms and their ilk, including a lichen table, a section on slime molds, and another on truffles. There’s also a table, staffed by an expert, for look-alikes and poison mushrooms. I listened to her patiently explain to a couple that a certain perfectly respectable mushroom could be bad-tasting when grown on a certain tree and sickening when grown on another.
There’s a certain element of fear — and for good reason — in eating wild mushrooms. It’s not surprising that mushrooms aren’t used much in American cuisine, and that we rely on the standard European varieties like chanterelles and porcini, or giant portobellos, when we use mushrooms. I like that idea, flavoring your soup with the scent of fear, something wolves can sense but your husband…yes, YOUR husband, the one that announced to all present in the crowded room that “SURE, EUGENIA, YOU CAN TAKE UP MUSHROOMING, AS LONG AS YOU BRING A DOCTOR TO GIVE YOU A LIVER TRANSPLANT AFTERWARD!”…can’t taste from umami. Something to consider. Yes.
But embracing the edible wild mushroom is a duty for all PNW residents, I feel, and there are many American native mushrooms that can be incorporated into cooking. We’re fortunate in Eugene to have fresh wild mushrooms of several varieties available to us in season, and they can really transform stocks, rice, pasta, burgers, stirfries, etc., etc. Embrace the fungus among us. The musty, earthy, meaty flavor is probably the best example there is of American Gothic cuisine.
The festival also features a scarecrow contest, and this year there were not one but two Joe the Plumber scarecrows, and several others that were actually quite lovely. The cider press was set up, too, with proceeds going to a charity whose name completely escapes me. I thought we were particularly fortunate that the weather has been so fabulous, we usually have to trudge through the festival in the rain.