Apparently, you either love them or you hate them. I ate them willingly as a child and still do, but my younger brother detested them and they had to be isolated from his food in order to get him to eat it. My kids were pretty ambivalent, as well, although I think they both eat them now as adults. Mushrooms are definitely unlike any other food product. They are earthy tasting and have a texture that some find challenging on the palate.
Mushrooms are also unique in their life form. Not plant, not animal, they belong to a large group known as fungi. While they seem to “grow” in similar fashion to plants, they do not possess chlorophyll, so they cannot make their own energy supplies from sunlight. They instead are reliant on the carbohydrates produced by other organisms. Sometimes they thrive on living plants, but those fungi that we eat in our pasta sauce or smother over steaks all derive nutrition from dead plant material. Call it conversion of energy.
Common knowledge has it that mushrooms don’t contribute much to human nutrition, but mushrooms actually contain many of the nutrients that their host plant material was composed of. In particular, they can provide a modicum of protein (about 20 percent of their dried mass on average), are high in fiber, have almost no fat, and contain essential amino acids and vitamins. In particular, they can be a source of thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, biotin, and vitamins C and D.
I bring up all of this because it is mushroom-hunting time, now that the rains have arrived. I’ve been on the lookout for chanterelles and blewits, which I’ve harvested in my neighborhood before. Both are so distinctive that, once you’ve seen them, you will never mistake them for anything else. We have many kinds of edible mushrooms, but we also have a few that will make you ill and a few more that will send you to meet your maker. So, if you don’t go ‘shroom hunting with an experienced harvester, please do your homework and don’t eat anything you are at all apprehensive about. If you find them before the snails and slugs, though, melt some butter and gently stir in winter’s delicate harvest.
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Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.