There was nothing global about mushrooms when I was a kid. Back then, the boundaries of my world stretched from River Road to Urbana and Concord School with few destinations between or beyond. And the spongy morels my dad gathered during early spring grew wild across River Road in our pasture field, between the waters of Muddy Creek and Mad River.
Although it was my father’s tradition to gather the beige-colored mushrooms with honeycombed caps and deposit them on the kitchen table for Mother to clean and cook, he mostly hunted alone. Occasionally, we kids were allowed to participate, piling into a trailer hitched to the tractor for a ride through the woodsy part of the pasture where the cows sometimes grazed.
The whole family joined in only during years of morel abundance. Four little girls could be easily distracted by mud and rotting logs and carpets of sweet Williams and spring beauties, especially if the mushrooms were few and far between. But in springs of plenty, finding a whole bunch of the delicacies sure was lots of fun! Eventually we remembered where we might find entire patches of them, especially near stands of bright green mayapples. And, of course, our dad had his own secret corner where the yield was annually prolific.
Aside from morels, described in Wikipedia as a “fleeting springtime treat in the Midwest,” the Scott Family rarely ate mushrooms at any other time of year. There might have been the occasional can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup – alone or in a casserole – but I never really developed much of a taste for mushrooms of any other kind. In fact, to this day, I am not overly fond of their color, texture, or taste.
When I began my travels to other regions of the globe, however, I enlarged my vocabulary to include two German words for mushrooms. The very German-sounding “Pilz” refers generally to mushrooms, while the French-sounding “Champignon” is the white button type. And Ingrid always performed culinary magic with “Pilze” and/or “Champignons” in scrumptious sauces and soups.
But it was Ingrid’s husband Hubert – a fine biology teacher – who urged me to become more globally aware of mushrooms. He politely overcame his shock that a former farm girl with a college education possessed such a limited knowledge of the fungi of the world. I did my best to relate my morel experiences and added at least passing references to toadstools and puffballs, but I sensed his disappointment at my distinct lack of mushroom mastery: I was absolutely unable to come up with even one Latin name for any of them.
The huge mushroom gap between us became obvious during the summer of 1977. Frustrated by my inability to describe or explain mushrooms in Ohio, Hubert handed me one of his German-language reference books: a thick volume filled with color pictures of at least 500 mushrooms of the world. He requested that I find the kind of mushrooms that we enjoyed at home each spring.
What an overwhelming task that turned out to be! After dozens of pages and hundreds of photos, I finally came upon a picture of an Ohio morel mushroom. I am not quite sure how to describe the expression on Hubert’s face as he tried to comprehend the incomprehensible: I had pointed out a dangerous species of poisonous mushrooms growing deep in the jungles of Africa. It was at that point that Hubert realized I was a lost cause, a biological dolt of sorts…
Meals in a few of the many pizzerias located all over Germany helped me to further expand my global view of all things mushroom. Those pizza restaurants supplied diners with menus written in Italian; thus, I learned that “Pizza Funghi” was indeed a mushroom pizza. Suffice it to say, I never ever ordered a fungus pizza anywhere in the world!
In the mid 90’s when food and eating exploded into trendy cuisine, I began to read about several mushrooms “new” to the American scene. Shiitakes and portobellos and porcinis showed up on cooking shows and fine dining menus. There is not much hunting to these exotically-named mushrooms from Europe and Asia: nowadays they are cultivated on mushroom farms, including the 61 establishments in Chester County, Pennsylvania, responsible for almost half of all mushroom production in the United States.
Back in the classroom as my students found “Pilz” and “Champignon” listed on their vocabulary sheets, they routinely categorized mushrooms as vegetables. I could never dissuade them, but this week I finally confirmed my correctness. Of the six kingdoms in the world of biology, there is one for plants and a separate one for fungi. I probably learned that a long time ago in my GHS biology class, but I am quite certain Hubert never had the courage or desire to discuss biological kingdoms with me.
In the end, my mushroom global experiences pale in comparison to those right here Champaign County. The UDC photograph last week of 730 morels laid out in all their springtime glory reminded me of my father’s yearly mushroom harvest – sometimes scarce, sometimes abundant – and our family traipsing through the pasture in search of them. And the Facebook photograph of a “mess” of mushrooms, dredged in flour and frying in butter, made my mouth water in memory of the crispy deliciousness of that “fleeting springtime treat.” Yum!
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.