In the same way the simple pleasure of Proust’s madeleine led him down the road of memory, I can trace my relationship with mushrooms, and my refusal to eat them, as a road map through my childhood.
My father, an animal psychologist and amateur mycologist was my first and best travel companion. He was often described as eccentric with his Albert Einstein hair, clothes that always looked as though he had just rolled out of bed and his plaid shirt pocket always with a Mont Blanc pen sticking out. When I was nine years old we rode the train across Canada to British Columbia where we stayed in a log cabin and he taught me how to fish. Before I went to University we explored the Cabot Trail and Peggy’s Cove and before my move to Mexico we went to Germany where we retraced memories of his childhood, eating in upscale restaurants and fancy hotels. “Always spend your money on good food” he liked to remind me when I was a struggling student.
Augusts were reserved for the cottage, cottage being a too quaint word for the large house that we rented each summer. The furniture was from the 1940s, there was a record player and black and white photos of the original owners decorated the walls. My older brother and sister would come and go, but I would spend the whole month lying on the dock with the friends I met up with each year. My father spent his cottage days foraging for mushrooms. He left early in the morning with his wicker baskets and his walking stick, limping his way through the village and into the forest. He had his spots. My sister and I accompanied him but it was soon clear that my sister’s interest and knowledge about mushrooms far exceeded my own and I soon drifted away from these expeditions. Mushrooming wasn’t as exciting as fishing or swimming across the lake or losing myself in the pages of a book. Opting out, I became the frivolous daughter, the one who preferred hanging out on the dock or going to parties with the summer kids.
My father and my sister would return in the afternoon, their baskets full with chanterelles and boletuses. There were stories of poisonous mushrooms that looked just like edible ones and of course there was Alice from Wonderland who found a mushroom that would make her grow bigger or smaller depending on which side she chose. I decided mushrooms were a very risky business and I refused to eat them. This presented a dilemma for my father who managed to incorporate mushrooms into every dinner. So for the month of August I lived on peanut butter toast, Bull’s Head ginger ale and the occasional all-dressed hot dog from Larry’s Snack Bar. My mushroom boycott was only second to my teenage vegetarianism as food protest, which ended our smoked pork excursions to Chinatown and devouring my father’s veal birds. Food was my teenage rebellion – that, and rolling my eyes at his repertoire of ‘fun guy- funghi’ jokes.
I have become less rigid in my eating habits; being in the food business, I will try just about anything, but mushrooms still have a special place of mystery for me. I am not alluding here to any psychedelic varieties, I mean regular old portobellos, shiitakes and chanterelles – whose earthiness transports me back to those summer days.
A few years ago when I first heard of the Wild Mushroom Festival in Cuajimoloyas, I immediately wanted to go. Each year, however, I found a reason that making the trip to Oaxaca for this two-day event, which includes mycologists, foraging and meals entirely prepared with mushrooms, was not possible.
This year I went. I kept my mushroom reticence a secret, which was fine, as I have always liked a good secret. I would eat everything and smile.
It was foggy and cold when we arrived in the town square of Cuajimoloyas that first day. I had travelled overnight and had been looking forward to ‘checking in’ to my cabin, but after a watery coffee we were asked to choose between the 3-hour or 5-hour walk and we were led into the woods. My inner voice was thirteen again but on the outside I smiled and walked along. The woods were like a movie set for a Grimms’ fairy tale, blanketed with pine needles, moss, lichens, succulents…. everything so moist and alive you could practically hear the mushrooms growing. Everyone in my group was collecting mushrooms with great enthusiasm. Within an hour our baskets were brimming. After five hours we gathered with the rest of the teams in a field for a picnic lunch. Each team’s mushrooms were laid out, examined and counted by the festival organizers and mycologists. My team collected over 223 different mushrooms – I didn’t even know such a thing was possible. Lunch was mushrooms in a red adobo sauce, which I ate with a smile, but was not enough to convince me that I could be a mushroom lover.
After a good night’s sleep in a cocoon of blankets, I awoke refreshed and ready for day two, which was a series of workshops, discussions with mycologists and cooking. Vendors had set up stalls in the town square and the products ranged from woolen hats (I bought one the first day and even slept in it) to organic chocolate, mushroom teas that held the promise of healing … well, just about anything.
The cooking demonstration was given by Martha Contreras, a local from Cuajimoloyas. We prepared Amanita caesarea, commonly known in English as Caesar’s mushroom, a la Mexicana, by sautéing the mushrooms with tomato, onion and jalapenos in a large clay pot on an anafre (small tin charcoal brazier). A handful of epazote added a lovely top note and the mixture was rolled up in a potato tortilla. It was my ‘aha’ mushrooms moment. The flavors were so delicate and the mushroom still raw and fresh enough to not be chewy.
I came away from the festival with a healthy supply of dried mushrooms, ideas and an excitement for learning more. I met so many interesting people, as the festival attracts biologists, naturalist, birders and mycologists.
My father passed away just as I was making Mexico my permanent home, and while he was supportive, he was paternal in his concern. At his funeral, the rich chanterelle stews he was known for were served. A good measure for me is to wonder what he would think if he could see me now. As I trudged through the woods at the Cuajimoloyas festival, suppressing a craving for peanut butter and ginger ale, I think he would have loved it.
For information about next year’s festival or events in the area of Cuajimoloyas contact Expediciones Sierra Norte Oaxaca at www.sierranorte.org.mx