Friday, May 27, 2011

Shrooming, part 1

It's morel hunting season in northern Michigan, and I would wager this annual foray to find fungi gold draws more humans to the woods than the deer hunt. Unlike France, where trained dogs and pigs sniff out treasured truffles, we must use human ingenuity to find our version of mycelium heaven. The morels at least emerge from the ground, which makes them visible to the human eye, but they are often obscured by fallen leaves.

When we first moved to northern Michigan, nearly 20 years ago, we lived in a suburban house bordering a large patch of forest. The hunting in those woods was good enough that we could treat ourselves to a few breakfasts of scrambled eggs with morels, or a side dish of sautéed morels. Since moving downtown 12 years ago, we haven't found a single morel during our hikes in various public forests. I've given up.

No matter. I have something equally good, and I'm raising them in my backyard. I'm now a shiitake farmer. I won't get my first crop until next spring, but when these morsels puff out of their logs, I'm certain they will taste better to me than any elusive morel.

I've long been a fan of shiitakes from a culinary perspective. My first experience were with dried shiitakes packaged in plastic bags with Japanese lettering. I bought these in natural foods stores and typically used them in soups. I had never purchased fresh shiitakes until I moved to Traverse City, where mushroom farmers extraordinaire Jim Moses and Linda Grigg sell their harvest all summer at the downtown farmer's market. These plump, meaty and tender shiitakes are getting to be almost as difficult to procure as morels. I'm not an early riser on Saturday mornings, which often leaves me disappointed when I arrive at their stand on the west end of the market; "they've cleaned me out already!" Jim tells me.

(Fortunately, Jim and Linda also supply shiitakes to Oryana, so I'm not out of luck forever, and I'll be cooking a batch tonight for a fine dinner. Check back tomorrow for a great recipe!)

I interviewed Jim for a story I wrote for the Oryana newsletter last month about the interaction between the local foods movement and organics. Jim called yesterday to tell me he was pleased with the way I quoted him in the story (whew!) but he wished he had made a few additional points.

In the story, Jim said he believes some large foundations that have been traditionally allied with industrial agriculture are supporting the local foods movement as a diversionary tactic, to "get people asking the wrong questions." Jim said he wishes he had made clear that the questions people should be asking about their food begin with "why" and "how", not "where". As he said, no human activity is more fundamental than the growing of food; intent and methods matter more than food-miles.

With his long, white hair and often fiery rhetoric, Jim can call to mind a biblical prophet shouting at the gates of the city. Anyone who preaches stern, unpopular messages must be prepared to make a few enemies, and Jim has his share. His devil is Monsanto, a corporation he calls "pure evil" for, among other things, its production and aggressive promotion of genetically engineered "Roundup Ready" seeds designed to survive a dousing of the Monsanto glyphosate herbicide that kills every other green thing it touches.

Because Jim's devotion to the integrity of soil and water extends beyond his garden, he has recently been trying to get people and organizations here to reconsider efforts to control the spread of phragmites, a common wetlands reed regarded as invasive. Jim said he's gotten nothing but hostility for his complaints that using chemicals to eradicate the plant will do more harm to the ecosystem than would the spread of the phragmites. (If any phragmites eradicators happen to read this, please comment below; I was too timid to seek out alternative interviews for such an obscure blog).

Jim is equally uncompromising on chemicals in the garden. Prior to the adoption of the national organics certification program, Jim was a certification inspector for one of the regional organics agencies. He's aware that his relationship with other growers was strained by his unwillingness to give applicants a pass on practices that others might have merely frowned upon or overlooked entirely. His advocacy for the national standards has often been seen by other local growers as a "get certified or you're not really organic" stance, causing additional friction.

Yet Jim has softened a bit on that subject. He has compliments for some in the community who are producing good food despite lack of organic certification, and he told me yesterday that he wishes the organics movement had built a larger tent. He likes the European designation of biological farming.

Now I wish to stop writing about gardening and go work in mine. If you enjoyed reading about this mushroom man, come back tomorrow-ish and I will introduce you to two others, plus give you what I believe to be the most delicious of all recipes for shiitakes.

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