Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Mining for Answers

"A critic is to an author as a fungus to an oak"

It just so happens, that I live in the same state as The Mushroom Capital of the World; Pennsylvania! The difference is, I live right smack in the middle of the state a couple of miles away from the now more infamous, State College and the proclaimed Mushroom Capital of the World is a couple of counties Southeast. Have I ever visited? No. Have I tried once or twice? Twice. As a matter of fact, it was just last year to the day that I "vowed" to report my in depth finding as to why Chester County is referred to as such.

Pennsylvania has a deep unique history when it comes to mushroom cultivation. However, The Story of Mushrooms did not begin here.

"...as ancient as the Egyptian pyramids themselves, Egyptian hieroglyphics recorded that mushrooms were enjoyed by the pharohs. Mushrooms were popular in Greek and Roman diets too...the Greeks calling them "Bromo theo", meaning "Food of the gods". Legends persisted in early civilizations...some believing that mushrooms had magical powers to cure disease, prolong life or aid the soul in entering the realm of the gods. Centuries later, the consults and palaces of Europe served mushrooms, prized for their delicate flavor. King Louis XIV of France encouraged "champions", or mushrooms, to be grown in caves around Paris..."

Why? Why is Pennsylvania "so big" when it comes to mushrooms? "Is it the climate, a tradition, or just a happy fungi feng shui?" That question was asked by T.W., grand host of the blog Culinary Types, when I announced last year that I was taking a few days off to visit Kennett Square for the annual Mushroom Festival. He wasn't the only one who was curious, I was too! And since I never did make it to the mushroom festival, which as I mentioned in my last post, is this coming weekend, I decided to do a bit of foraging on my own to uncover at least some of the answers.

I immediately ruled out climate. Fact is, under the proper conditions, mushrooms will pretty much spawn anywhere.

While mushrooms are usually grown in the absence of light, darkness is not a requirement. Mushrooms have been grown in unused coal and limestone mines, old breweries, basements of apartment houses, natural and man-made caves, rhubarb sheds, and many other unusual structures. Mushrooms were reportedly grown in an old dairy barn, which was so damp that cows living in it had died of pneumonia.

Although many of the mushrooms farms scattered around Pennsylvania are presently located outside of Kennett Square, it does appear The Evolution of the Mushroom Industry in Pennsylvania did indeed begin in Kennett Square.

Mushrooms reached the U.S. in the 1890s when Quaker farmers like Jacob Steyer and William Swayne imported mushroom spawn from Europe to try their hand at growing mushrooms. Swayne, who is generally credited as the father of mushroom growing in the U.S., first grew carnations in his greenhouse in Kennett Square. Carnations, which are grown on elevated benches, failed to utilize all the space available in the greenhouses in which they were grown. In particular the space directly under the elevated beds had always been a dead loss. In an attempt to utilize this wasted space, Swayne began cultivating mushrooms in the space under the beds. By hanging flaps of burlap from the beds above he successfully created an environment of stable temperature and humidity in which his mushrooms could thrive...Swayne achieved such great success with mushroom growing that it wasn’t long before other farmers in the region began to cultivate the fungi. Soon, the farming of mushrooms transformed from a single farmer’s attempt to increase productivity into a lucrative business. Specialized houses constructed from cinderblocks began to replace greenhouses as the primary structures for mushroom cultivation, and these buildings started to pop up all over the county. The mushroom industry had found a new home: Chester County.
Mushroom Production

You may have the sense that there is a lot more to this story. There is. However, it is way beyond the scope of this blog post. I do want to mention one more rather interesting fact that not only provides for the embedded tradition of mushroom growing in Pennsylvania but also the "happy fungi feng shui" feeling that wavered over me when I learned this shroomie tidbit at the Mushroom Council. Yes folks, there is an actual Mushroom Council and it's loaded with cartons of mushroom recipes.

Grilled Philly Cheese Mushroom Sandwich
U.S. Mushroom Cultivation: In 1891, the first book on mushroom growing was published and it shed new light on the theory of cultivation. William Falconer, a mushroom grower and experimenter from Dosoris, Long Island agreed with the recommendations of agricultural journalists and compiled their theories in Mushrooms: How to Grow Them; A Practical Treatise on Mushroom Culture for Profit and Pleasure.

That's right folks. The very first book ever published on the cultivating of mushrooms was published on Long Island in New York!!! And the text is available online for free right here! How do like them apples, T.W? Way cool:)

The book suggested that mushroom growing was perfect for florists. Since they grew flowers on benches, florists could just slide mushroom beds right under their flower benches and gain a profit in growing two crops in the area of one. Falconer also thought that mushroom growing was ideal for farmers who had access to growing their own manure and spawn. At the time skilled labor was not a necessity of mushroom growing. It was recommended to house wives as well as a source of home income. Not only did Falconer's book develop target groups for which growing was suited. It also contained much practical advice on building beds for cultivation, the perfect growing temperature and where mushroom markets were developing.

Falconer's book popularized the production of mushrooms in the United States, it was instrumental in growing the mushroom industry in New York, Central Massachusetts, Michigan, California and yes even in good ol' Southeastern PA. No longer was it the housewive's task in The Taming of the 'Shroom. Mushrooms were going farming and that dear readers was left up to the "men folk." But wait, I'm confused. Growing up on Long Island, I had never heard any mention of mushroom growing no less the publication of any mushroom growing book. I don't even know where Dosoris is/was. Of course, I just have to find out. All I know for sure, as of this writing, is that Dosoris is in the vicinity of Glen Cove which is clear across the island from where I grew up. Any theories T.W?

The Dosoris Mushroom Cellar: This is a subterranean tunnel or cellar that was excavated and arched some ten years ago, expressly for the cultivation of mushrooms. It is situated in an open, sunny part of the garden, and its extreme length from outside of end walls is eighty-three feet; but of this space nine feet at either end are given up to entrance pits and a heating apparatus; and the full length of the mushroom cellar proper inside the inner walls is sixty-three feet. The walls and arch are of brick, and the top of the arch is two and one-half feet below the surface of the soil. This tunnel or arch is seven feet high in the middle and eight feet wide within, but a raised two-feet-wide pathway along the middle lessens the height to six and one-half feet. Between this pathway and the sides of the building there is only an earthen floor, but it is quite dry, as the cellar is perfectly drained. Three ventilators sixteen feet apart had been built in the top of the arch, but this was a mistake, as the condensation in the cellar in winter from these ventilators always keeps the place under them cold and wet and rather unproductive. One tall wooden chimney-like shaft would have been a better ventilator than the three ventilating holes now there, which are covered over with an iron and glass grating. Mushrooms: How to Grow Them; A Practical Treatise on Mushroom Culture for Profit and Pleasure.

Mushrooms may be highly perishable, tedious to harvest and yes even a bit scary sometimes to eat but, since they are cultivated indoors under a controlled environment, they are always in season. Yes, they do have their peak times but you can usually find desirable healthy looking mushrooms any time of year. And the best part, besides their incredible earthy taste, is they are environmentally green to produce. I can't get into that part of the amazing world of mushrooms however, if you should ever find the time in your busy bee of a life, I suggest you delve into Fungi and the Mushroom producing industry. You can begin with a visit to Serious Eats where David Falkowski, a mushroom farmer in Bridgehampton, New York did a wonderful interview about growing mushrooms on the east end of Long Island (he provides mushrooms to everyone's favorite Barefoot Contessa; Ina Garten:) and I've also left a link to the Virtual Mushroom Museum below. Grab a cup of...and have a visit. Really very cool!!!

I can't very well leave you without providing at least one mushroom recipe or two:) Remember when I told you today is the birth date of author, cook and food journalist Craig Claiborne? (another frequent visitor to the east end of Long Island:) Well, do I have a special treat for you: Au Gourmet

I haven't had the opportunity to research where this recipe for Mushrooms Stuffed with Crab Meat came from. I happened upon it at an auction I attended a few years back. The estate auction was held by the family of woman by the name of Ruth Gray Knorr. She had a magnificent collection of cookbooks and cooking related paraphernalia. I'm only sorry I didn't buy it all!!! (there was literally tons:) I did manage to buy quite a few items and this recipe letterhead is one of my finds. I think it has something to do with cooking classes Mr. Claiborne may have given at Bloomingdale's but further research is needed. I happen to be a huge fan of mushrooms especially when they are stuffed with crab meat!!!

These recipes for Chicken Marengo were harvested from The Southern Heritage Plain and Fancy Poultry Cookbook published by Oxmoor House in Birmingham Alabama ©1983. As you can see, The Chicken Marengo Story begins with a classic dish and a history; quite appropriate for National Chicken and Mushroom Month, don't you agree???

This Week in Food Days:
5th-National Cheese Pizza Day!
6th-National Coffee Ice Cream Day
7th-National Acorn Squash Day
7th-Salami Day
8th-Date Nut Bread Day

I'll be back in time for Grandparents' Day on Sunday which also happens to be, National Wiener Schnitzel Day! Enjoy:)

1. The Fungus Among Us: It's a Fungusful World Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History (an amazing virtual museum of all kinds of Fungus including mushrooms. Very Cool:)
2. Agaricus Mushroom Growing (Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences PDF file)
3. Fungus Among Us
4. What is Mushroom Compost?
5. Smothered Chicken with Mushrooms (New York Times)