Basements are sites of dank carpets and unrecognizable storage boxes. Once-prized possessions dwell in limbo: damaged too much to fully enjoy, but not enough to warrant the trash. Fungi invade these spaces of urban decay; they grow without invitation and serve as a reminder of poor foresight or finicky landlords. And yet, as menacing as they seem, the colonies that sprout indoors can develop into a captivating—and appetizing—taste of the wild.
Emile Gluck-Thaler sees possibility where others see despair. He works at one of the two mushroom stores in North America. There’s one in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the other, Mycoboutique, is in Montreal. According to Gluck-Thaler, “there might also be one in France.” Both stores are devoted to all things mushroom with only a hint of rivalry—rumor has it that the Knoxville store, Everything Mushrooms, borrowed its name from Mycoboutique’s now defunct catchphrase. There are various dried samples, rare specimens, books, oils and essences, foraging paraphernalia, and grow-your-own kits. Gluck-Thaler stands behind the counter in his hiking boots, jeans, and a second-hand Art Deco patterned shirt. The native Montrealer has a big smile and an expressive face, even from under his oversized clear-rimmed glasses. When not at school studying microbiology, he spends his days helping out customers and—in his downtime—translating recipes from French to English. “Twenty five percent of the people who walk in have no idea what it is, or think that we’re the enchilada place next door,” says Gluck-Thaler. “And five percent want to know how to grow drugs.”
The other seventy percent have a curiosity for the world of fungi. Mushrooms have been enchanting the human spirit for millennia. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs show that commoners were not allowed to eat them; mushrooms were believed to be gifts from the sky delivered to the pharaohs on lighting bolts. Romans heading to battle were fed them because they were believed to imbue the eater with god-like strength. Fungi inspired Timothy Leary’s supernatural experiments and have been associated with fairies and forest nymphs. The magical past of mushrooms is not surprising, but now, their versatility and subtle taste have landed these fantasy foods in unexpected places: the kitchens, bathrooms, and basements of urban foodies.
Customers at Mycoboutique scouring for the freshest eats but lacking the know-how to forage their own fungi soon learn that mushrooms are low-maintenance and easy to grow on a small scale. One of the best places to grow fungi for personal use, says Gluck-Thaler, is right by your bathroom window: the humidity from the shower and the air circulation make for an optimal in-house patch. The mushrooms grow quickly; some produce over a pound in just ten days. If we think of mushrooms as trees, Gluck-Thaler explains, the items we buy in the store are like the fruits. That means that there can sometimes be more than one harvest per crop.
Grow-your-own kits act like decomposing logs in a forest, except that they look more like bags of dirt and smell less like rot. Because mushrooms feed off of decaying organic matter, these kits are essentially compost containers. To control growth, cultivators pasteurize the compost, wiping it clean of any pre-existing fungi before introducing the spawn of the specific crop they wish to produce. The cost of the kit ends up being similar to store-bought mushrooms, claims Gluck-Thaler, and this way, owners get to experience the fungal lifecycle. “It’s the added experience of witnessing it grow in front of your eyes. To watch it form,” he sighs, “is really amazing.”
Gluck-Thaler first found his passion for mushrooms in the teachings of Paul Stamets, a self-proclaimed alternative mycologist. With experience hunting, growing, and tripping on mushrooms, Stamets pushes the boundaries of conventional mushroom use and has become one of the driving forces behind the fungus’s popularization. He argues that mushrooms can solve problems ranging from termite invasions to human bacterial illnesses, from soil erosion to oil spills. Although often framed as the work of an idiot savant by the conventional myco-world, Stamets’ findings have altered the ways in which scientists across disciplines are thinking about fungi.
One of his many nicknames for mushrooms, “the soil magicians,” points to their role as energy recyclers. As Gluck-Thaler explains, mushrooms are able to convert waste into a delicious edible. He has recently developed an interest in growing mushrooms from used coffee grounds. The steam from the infusion process pasteurizes the grounds, so that all that is needed is spawn. After receiving Stamets’ support and an endorsement from Alice Waters, two recent UC Berkeley grads have capitalized on this trend with the Back to the Roots mushroom kits. Their kits—which look more like lunch boxes than a fully productive ecosystem—divert organic waste and close up some of the gaps in our food cycle. All the coffee grounds are recovered from the Peet’s Coffee & Tea chain and repackaged, along with spawn, into portable fungi farms.
The process is magically easy: owners need to mist their patches twice daily. The kits even include the spray bottle. Within two weeks, gourmet oyster mushrooms burst out of the cardboard boxes. Although Mycoboutique and Everything Mushrooms source a variety of other kits, they don’t carry this product. The easiest way to find it is to visit the Back to the Roots website or a Whole Foods store. The Providence stores began sourcing the boxes as a trial only a few months ago and are quickly selling their stock.
Growing mushrooms in urban spaces is not a new practice. Despite being closely associated in our cultural imaginary with the feral spirits of the woods, mushrooms have long been the beneficial companions of city-dwellers. Some of the first mushroom farms were in the abandoned plaster mines of Paris in the late nineteenth century. After discovering that fungi did not need light to survive, scientists began experimenting with transplanting cultures into the city’s ‘caves.’ These underground farms allowed for better control of temperature and humidity. This symbiosis between the idle industrial setting and low-maintenance food production inspired contractor Gregg Wershoven to begin a fungi farm in the basement of an out-of-use brass and copper mill in Connecticut. His farm, Mountaintop Mushrooms, now supplies local restaurants with multicolored oyster mushrooms. Chef Nick Mancini, of Waterbury, CT’s La Tavola restaurant, sources three different kinds of “beautiful blue oysters,” which he selects for their quality, aroma, and taste. Buying from Wershoven, he says, ensures produce that is “as fresh as you can get.” Because his purchases are farmed five minutes away, Mancini gets to play a role in deciding on the size of the mushrooms harvested, which in turn determines taste and texture.
Fresh specialty mushrooms are a rarity—farms like Wershoven’s are the exception. Grocery stores tend to supply only a few varieties, the most common being crimini (the white button ones) and portabella. For the more cultivated palate, specialty stores as well as online suppliers distribute dried varieties. Still, Mancini’s freshness is hard to come by outside of source-conscious restaurants. With mushrooms fresh from the bathroom, amateur fungi farmers need only cut and sauté—with the slightest bit of oil or butter—for an entirely new culinary experience. Cooked mushrooms add a twist to any sandwich, stir-fry, soup, or sauce. They may not hold the mystical qualities of the forest floor, but the magic here is in the damp and fusty detail.
ANNA ROTMAN B’14 eats mushrooms to imbue herself with godlike strength.