On Mushrooms

and why they have such fierce evangelists.

The one place I knew I had to go in Buenos Aires was Donnet. It hadn’t been arranged by the people who were in charge of my gastronomic tour of the city, and so I had to make my way there alone and eat two dinners in one night. I’m used to this, of course. Or, I was used to it when I traveled. Vegan and vegetarian restaurants, especially the cool ones, are often tucked away outside well-trafficked zones that require a slight sense of adventure in new cities, especially new cities that are most famous globally for their steaks. I’m also used to—or, I was used to—eating two dinners or lunches or breakfasts or having five cocktails on short trips in order to see and taste as much as possible. Reminiscing on this one has made me cry quite a bit, but anyway...

I knew I had to go to Donnet because I had googled the vegan scene in the city and saw that the focus at this particular restaurant was one of my favorites foods, mushrooms, and that the whole place had an agroecological punk bent.

The menu itself was precisely what I like to find at a vegan restaurant, printed on plain white paper and with the phrase “vegetales agroecologicos” right up top giving me exactly what I came for. Reggaeton played and I took mental note of the many kitschy tchotchkes. This will be good, I thought, because the fewer frills a vegan restaurant has, generally the better the food is (though the very next day, Sacro—a very fancy restaurant serving absolutely exquisite food—proved an exception). I had some shiitake and sprouts in a rich, herbal broth. I have pictures of a thali-like dish, one with a mound of rice and the others filled with pickles and ferments.

But the dream entree was a plate of browned oyster mushrooms, which I ate with a knife and fork, as one would with a large hunk of meat. How happy I was in that moment! Not because it tasted anything like meat (I wouldn’t care for that), but because these mushrooms had been served to me without any obscuring of their mushroom-ness. On this plate, in this restaurant, their glory was clear and known. 

As Manuela Donnet, the chef-owner, told Kevin Vaughn in his first issue of the brilliant bilingual food magazine MATAMBRE, she didn’t intend to become so deeply associated with mushrooms, but people really responded to what she did with them, so much so that she was invited to forage and cook with them in a town called Bariloche, in the Patagonia region. Of the experience, she said: 

The forest is full of mushrooms and no one eats them. Everyone wants trout and deer that were brought in from somewhere else. Whatever. Society. The mushrooms are native and the people who live there don’t care. They found me and started calling and hooked me up with some scientists that taught me about each variety in exchange for recipes. The mushrooms in Bariloche are incredible. They are the same mushrooms found in Oceania. When the continents separated, on one side was Argentina and Chile and the other was Oceania. The mushrooms are the same strains. They share the same lineage. The mushroom universe gives me goosebumps. They are like aliens. They have animal and vegetable characteristics. 

The Argentine forager Facu Chiara, who lives in the Tierra del Fuego and documents its wild food, came to his interest in mushrooms when he first moved to the area from Rosario, a more central city, and began going on hikes in its forests. As a cook, he was interested in finding and cooking with more quote-unquote rare ingredients. From there, the interest became stronger and he started to expand his knowledge, and found that his region has a diverse abundance of wild mushrooms, though the local gastronomy, as Donnet notes, doesn’t focus too much on them.

“It is a bit of a long learning path that I am still traveling,” Chiara tells me, over many WhatsApp voice notes. “It's not that I'm a specialist or anything like that. Yes, I am an enthusiast and I like to investigate and I have learned over time. It is hard for me to read and research, because Argentina doesn’t have great knowledge in terms of gastronomy and mushrooms and harvesting. In other words, perhaps the knowledge is from another side, perhaps more academic.”

He notes that locally, 90 percent of the mushrooms people are cooking are the cultivated basic portobello and champiñones, or white buttons. “Now there are many people that have begun to cultivate other kinds, other varieties, other species like shiitake, and other classics,” he says. This mirrors the mushroom situation in the hemisphere more broadly: a heightened interest in foraging increasing in tandem with focused cultivation efforts of more esoteric varieties.

As I’ve discovered, everyone you talk to who is in the mushroom business is wildly enthusiastic about their work, and while doing my initial dive into the world of foraging in Latin America, I was linked to almost every nation’s dedicated Facebook group (Puerto Rico has one too). Hongos are revered, and every follower of the mushroom gospel is an evangelical.

It’s not hard to understand why: Mushrooms use waste; without them, forest floors would be endlessly layered with branches and leaves. They are perhaps the most sustainable food you can eat. They are fucking delicious and incredibly versatile, incredibly diverse. Why isn’t everyone obsessed with mushrooms? Why don’t most people realize their potential, ecologically and gastronomically? Even if you don’t like one variety of mushroom, you must like another! Though I’m sorry if this is presumptuous.

In her book The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins about the life of the matsutake mushroom on various continents, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing writes, “Future sustainability is best modeled with the help of nostalgia.” (Perhaps my book’s epigraph.) This is what mushrooms represent: the significance of nature and of ancestral knowledge in how we survive climate change. Call me a Luddite, but this is another reason why I am so wary of food-tech—we know what we need to do to survive, food-wise, it’s just that it isn’t aligned with capitalism’s appetite for endless growth and needless invention. Mushrooms thrive in opposition to tech and capital.

Perhaps I’m utopian about mushrooms, but when I see things like the Philadelphia restaurant Moto Foto preparing for a pop-up at (my beloved) Superiority Burger by using a meat slicer on grilled and smoked mushrooms cultivated by their local purveyor, Mycopolitan, my heart beats with longing and I am simply happy to see the persistence of a belief in what is naturally sustainable in vegan cuisine when the call of tech meat is so loud. We don’t need to heed it. 

Broadly speaking, though, the reputation of the mushroom isn’t great. Many people don’t like the idea of eating what is really a fungus, and some worry that they’ll be poisoned if they were to forage for them. There’s the idea that mushrooms are difficult to cook and too perishable, that they’re pricey and unnecessary. But they’re packed with nutrients, have meaty flavor, and are wildly forgiving in cooking. 

“This is an American problem,” says Andrew Carter of Smallhold, which both cultivates varieties for supermarkets and sells kits for folks to sprout mushrooms at home. Before the pandemic, they’d also built out mushroom setups for restaurants and at hotels like The Standard.

“Mushrooms kind of freak people out. Either people are obsessed with them, and they love them, or they had a slimy mushroom pizza at one point in their life, or they think it's going to poison them, when it's not going to do either of those things. But there's an education that's required to get people out of that mind-set, and how we look at it is [to] make it as fun and as ridiculous as possible, because mushrooms are weird and you might as well have a really fun experience with them, because they're just a little organism that you can bring into your life.”

Are they always the most sustainable thing to eat? Carter tells me that the issues in mushrooms come in packaging and shipping. At the grocery store, most of the time, your portobellos and white button mushrooms are in styrofoam wrapped in plastic. (Smallhold packages in cardboard.) Overcoming that obstacle with fresher, more locally sourced ’shrooms is key. Some big growers will also use pesticides. Even so, those are still going to have far less of an impact than, say, industrial beef and dairy. Responsible cultivators will be taking waste—often from the timber industry; waste that would have otherwise ended up in a landfill—in order to sprout mushrooms.

Here in Puerto Rico at Huerto Rico, based in Bayamón, Sebastían Sagardia cultivates oyster mushrooms using local wood waste. They’re not focused on the mass market but on chefs and enthusiasts (like me); Setas de Puerto Rico has, he says, done a lot of the leg work by making their product (“setas” is the local word for “mushrooms”) available at supermarkets and even Costco. Those are what I’m usually cooking in my house, slicing them up and adding them to tomato sauce or beans or marinating whole portobello caps for a sandwich. But I text Sagardia when I want to do something special.

“I do think that cultural change doesn't start from the masses,” Sagardia tells me. “It starts with certain groups and then everybody kind of appropriates the idea in their own way and translates it into what their little groups like.” This echoes Carter’s point about mind-sets, which will change when people have more delicious mushrooms served to them by people who know what they’re doing or see the process up close.

Kurt Miller, a fungal para-taxonomist originally from the Pacific Northwest, has been working with Sagardia as well as running identification classes and creating an illustrated guide to native mushrooms in Puerto Rico. He notes that the Taíno knowledge has been lost thanks to half a millennium of colonization and the near-total annihilation of the indigenous people, but that the region’s mushrooms have much in common with those of the Amazon, where native knowledge has been documented.  

“The problem is, most people that are getting into foraging will buy a book, for example, a mushroom book from the United States,” Miller says. “And unless you're talking about the southern tip of Florida, there's almost zero overlap with the diversity that you find in the United States versus Puerto Rico.” 

That Western perspective and stranglehold on local cuisine and its food system has also contributed to the role, or lack thereof, of mushrooms in traditional meals. “I grew up being taught that they were disgusting,” says the chef (and my friend) César Pérez Médero, a native of the historically Puerto Rican South Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “I believe the reason being that the only times my family ever had them they were canned.” Those are probably still the most accessible, the most well known.

He started to enjoy them in his twenties while learning to cook with fresh varieties, and at a pop-up in 2019 served Huerto Rico’s mushrooms in a vegetarian take on traditional pinchos—charred, on a skewer, with fresh sourdough as its accompaniment rather than pan de agua. 

That dish and Donnet’s stand out in my mind as the moments when people showed me the true extent of what mushrooms can do when they’re simply being themselves. I’ve never been as moved by people turning King Trumpets into scallops. At home, the best times I’ve cooked mushrooms have involved simply searing frilly maitake and sprinkling them with salt. The mistake that many people make with mushrooms is doing too much. They’re best when we let them be, when we let them show off a little as a star.

Mushrooms—whether buying locally, foraging for native varieties, or sprouting one’s own at home—help us to remember the role of our food in the life cycle of the planet. When I see beach chanterelles on Miller’s Instagram feed, I am in awe: Here is food, freely available, fruiting as an expression of waste and decay. The earth gives even in death. There should be nothing more beautiful to us. I know that, to me, there is nothing more delicious.

This Friday’s paid subscriber interview will feature the chef and organizer Reem Assil. We talk about the role of food in occupation, the fetishizing of Palestinian ingredients without political backup, and moving her restaurant to a worker-owned model.

Annual subscriptions are $30.

An appearance on the podcast “Our Struggle” to talk about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s strange relationship with food. I gently wade into literature sometimes, my true love.

I should have a 5,000-word feature coming out soon that’s been in the works for two years and just went through fact-checking. God bless fact-checkers.

Going through The Mushroom at the End of the World and various cookbooks for the aforementioned fact-checking. I’m also digging more into mushrooms and other hyper-sustainable foods for a chapter in my book. This has been the very tip of the iceberg.

Also started Be Creative: Making a Living in the New Culture Industries, which is obviously of interest to me, a person making a living in the new culture industry.

Not that many mushrooms, ironically, but two—TWO!—birthday cakes for a couple of Pisces, including my fiancé, whose birthday is today. Happy birthday, Israel!