Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Fun Family Fungus: Growing Shitakes with the Kids

It was my six-year-old daughter’s idea to grow mushrooms. We were sitting on the living room floor, surrounded by seed catalogs and gardening books, dreaming of spring. It was early March, and the weather outside was dreadfully grey and gloomy.

Her dream was to grow all of her favorite foods. She envisioned a warm summer day of harvest. I’m a gardener who wants my kids to eat right, and I wanted to indulge her fruit and veggie whims. I want to share my love of gardening, but growing things also seems to get my kids interested in eating them. The same child that eschews salad on a plate will sneak into the garden to pick lettuce leaves fresh from the dirt and munch out decadently, and brag about it to friends.

Plums? Can we grow plums? she asked.

No, I answered.

Kiwi? she asked.

No, I answered.

Apples? she asked. Olives? Grapes? Almonds?

No, no and no, I answered.

* sigh *

Despite the fact that we live on a tiny urban lot, we squeeze a lot of growing out of this place. There are raspberries and blueberries, and usually lettuces, tomatoes or peppers. We’ve got herbs and flowers. (We tried melons, but the raccoons got to them before we did.)

Still, my daughter wanted more. Putting down the catalog she stretched out flat on the floor and stared up at the ceiling, imagining feasts in her head. What about mushrooms? she asked, closing her eyes momentarily, dreamily.

YES! HEY YES! I shouted, startling her out of her reverie. WE CAN GROW MUSHROOMS!

I ran upstairs and came down waving the Cook’s Garden catalog around in the air triumphantly. We can grow mushrooms, I shouted. My husband, who had been cooking dinner in the kitchen came out with his hands still wet. Could you do some of the really expensive ones, like shitake? Wow, to have shitakes ready whenever I wanted them, he said with a grin. That would be really something.

Our excitement even spilled into the next room where my eight-year-old son, who never eats mushrooms, was sprawled out reading baseball books. I think he imagined our dank downstairs would turn into a grotto, with mushrooms hanging off the cinder block walls. That alone made the whole thing seem cool.

A flip of pages, a click of fingers on the keyboard, and we were set. Weeks later when the kit arrived, it was all pretty straightforward and easy. The box itself was carefully cut open and with the help of a plastic bag, transformed into a tiny greenhouse. No growing on the walls, as my son had imagined.

Instead, we found a little log inside our package which had been inoculated with the correct fungus for shitakes. It looked completely unappetizing at this stage, like a fake roast beef. Hesitantly, my kids dared each other to touch it.

Then, following the directions, we soaked the log in a bucket of clean water for four hours. Then the log was placed in its little greenhouse and put down in the dark, cool basement, just next to the washing machine.

About three weeks later, my husband surprised us by coming up the stairs with his hands entirely full. We were ready to make something yummy to eat!

The shitakes grow incredibly quickly and get bigger almost overnight. My kids like to go down in the dark to visit them, and sometimes give them a spritz of clean water to refresh the fungus. We find that we stare at the little log a lot and dote on its progress as we dream of future dinners.

The directions that came with the box say that once production slows down we can refresh the log by soaking it with water and a teaspoon of salt. I am wondering how long the log will last, but also well aware that we would pay several times more money for such mushrooms at a market or store.

I was also delighted to see that we are on a kind of gardener’s cutting edge with this project; the New York Times noted that many farmers’ markets are offering mushrooms which have been grown in some very urban environments in a dining article about two weeks after we’d started our effort.

I was also reflecting recently on the fact that – although I sometimes miss the days of wonder which pervaded the toddler years of childhood – I am very much enjoying the ever enlarging intellect of my children. Just a couple of years ago, the fungus project would have been unthinkable. It is very difficult indeed to tell a three year old that it is okay to eat one kind of fungus but not another. Every venture into the woods would have been harrowing, with my kids wanting to pluck mushrooms from random logs to eat.

Now, they look over fungus pictures in books and plan to make a science project out of the effort. They get it, for sure. I know they would never dare to touch a mushroom found out in the wild, much less eat it. Stories of people who have died eating incorrectly identified wild mushrooms fascinate them instead of freaking them out, and at the ages of six and eight they seem more than able to understand the difference between the things we grow intentionally and the things we find in the forest and avoid eating.

Maybe one day we’ll own a huge place and grow grapes and plums and apples. Maybe. But in the meantime, I think we’re pleased with our efforts in the here and now. Our homemade pizzas have never tasted so gourmet, and who knew a log in the basement could provide such wonderful treats?

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