The Urban Mushroom labors to bring fungus back to your diet

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When I was in grade school, our science teacher once told us that mushrooms had no nutritional value. They lacked protein, carbs (sugars) and were essentially a non-vital source, if anything, of fiber. So, we could march home and tell mom we were not going to eat our mushrooms for dinner. As if this was a real problem.

Growing up in West Michigan in the 1980s, I doubt many of us encountered mushrooms in our weekly meals, except perhaps the occasional mushroom burger. There was a reason for this. Mushroom farmers were large scale, and their interest was in providing a steady supply of button mushrooms (even Portobellos were considered exotic at the time) to folks that canned them or to fast food franchises like Little Caesars.

By Wes Eaton

By Wes Eaton

But mushrooms and fungi (mushrooms are merely the fruiting body of fungus) remained, if only under the radar of the “main stream,” salient for traditional cultures as medicine, social tokens and rituals, and indeed as important sources of food. The morel mushroom is a key example that resonates with West Michiganders. Our mothers and fathers and their parents, if they were farmers, hunters or fished, almost certainly traipsed through abandoned orchards or along old lilac beds in the spring of the year, searching for edible glory. My point is that while mushrooms had a low popular profile, they remained culturally relevant, if only latent for a time.

Enter the “civic agricultural” movement that began in recent decades by the likes of Wendell Berry and Alice Waters, and brought to the public spotlight by Michael Pollan. This is the cultural terrain that chief “schroomologist” Trever Clark and partners are entering, having brought forth their own contribution to the “mushroom movement” in the form of The Urban Mushroom, simultaneously a culinary and political act in defiance of large scale agriculture and in solidarity with foodies and food activists.

Clark and his team are building on the knowledge they learned about growing mushrooms at home, and scaling this up a bit, taking it to the people. They have recently relocated to a larger space on Grand Rapids’ southeast side, and supply several varieties of mushrooms to not only area restaurants, but to the public largely through their CSA program with pickups available through the Fulton Street Farmers Market.

Varieties range, but include Golden and Grey Dove Oyster, King and Polar White Oyster, Hen of the Woods and also multiple varieties of Shiitake. On suggestion, I popped a handful of Shiitake raw into my mouth. I was hooked. Customers can purchase these for $20 a pound — not too much money, considering a pound of mushrooms is a lot — or, one can invest in their rotating, eight-week CSA program. This means you pay ahead, and then pick up mushrooms for about half the regular price on Saturdays at the Fulton Farm Market.

When you see these folks, ask for a taste. Take a close look at their mushrooms. Ask about their “spent logs” program, a great and cheap way to get into growing mushrooms in your own home. These “logs” are inoculated with spores and have been harvested twice by Clark’s team already, but there is plenty of fruiting yet to go, perfect for the beginner. Also, ask about their future intentions — using fungus and mushrooms to clean contaminated soil, which there is a lot of in Michigan, and as an alternative to Styrofoam. Most importantly, take something home and work to introduce mushrooms back into your diet.

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