In her poem “Mushrooms,” Sylvia Plath evokes the early appearance of forest fungi, calling them “soft fists” that insist their way up through needles and leafy bedding. Soft fists. I love it. Especially because my lesson learned through a bit of mycological exploration was something of a gentle punch.
Mushrooms were on my mind after a royal risotto extravaganza served up with immense grace by my friend Cecile. Fifteen people from around the world dove into the meal around a long table in Manhattan as the conversation veered from drones shaped like bees to torched castles to psychedelic ecstasies, then back around to the historical Buddha’s toxic last supper, known as the sukara-maddava.
It’s generally agreed that Shakyamuni Buddha’s death at the age of 80 was caused by some kind of food poisoning. Often sukara-maddava is translated as “pork,” but sometimes it’s rendered as “mushroom.” I supplicated Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, the preeminent scholar and translator of Pali texts, to translate a key passage from the Digha Nikaya, in theMahaparanibbana Sutta, in which the story of the Buddha’s death is told. “Sukara means ‘pig,’” he wrote, “and maddava can mean either ‘softness,’ ‘tenderness,’ or ‘trampled.’ So the identification with mushrooms may have been derived from the idea that these were mushrooms that pigs trampled on, or mushrooms that wild pigs were fond of.”
Cecile explained that near her home in the Dordogne, France, not far from the sanctum of the late Dudjom Rinpoche, she gets down pig-style and sniffs for truffles. The trick is to watch for transparent flies who also have a taste for delicacy. She lies in the grass under hazelnut trees, tapping the ground until she identifies the favored spot of the flies. She scratches the earth there, sniffs, and digs. “Truffles are like treasures hidden in the earth,” she said.
I’d love to be foraging for truffles in France right this minute, but as I write this, I am housebound in upstate New York; the earth is frozen and mushrooms are sleeping. No mycologist in the tristate area is willing to take me out for a mushroom hunt in the middle of the polar vortex.
And foraging is not something amateurs should take up without a guide. They say that there are old mushroomers and there are bold mushroomers, but there are no old, bold mushroomers. Learn from the now famous story of the English author Nicholas Evans (The Horse Whisperer), who went mushrooming at his wife’s family estate in Scotland. He came back with a basket full of fungi, sautéed them with parsley and butter, and unwittingly poisoned everyone who ate them. Two kidney transplants and thousands of hours of dialysis later, everyone managed to recover. Evans still writes about the guilt. How could he have mistaken the deadly Cortinarius speciosissimus for an edible Boletus edulis?
Hold on to your kidneys, I’m getting to the soft punch.
I recently went to the local mycological association’s monthly meeting in a nearby town, looking for a mushroom guru. Also, I admit now, looking for something to help me feel rooted in my community. This year I returned to the United States after many years of travel, and I’m still trying to find the earth beneath my feet. It’s an experiment in staying in one place. A big part of feeling happy is finding your people, but it was easier when I lived out of a suitcase. Expatriates easily spot each other and find commonalities and communities in a short time. Out here in the woods of upstate New York, I no longer stand out.
Anyway, the town hall meeting was a study in group dynamics. What drove these individuals out from their warm homes on a cold winter night? And what connected them? Bound by a love of fungi, they came to talk of gills and webs, to commune and to watch a film about the dangers of foraging—this was a sangha of mycologists. A mushroom sangha.
And here is where I felt that punch of a soft fist hit me: I do not belong. Not here. It sank deeper into my gut. For so long I’ve been looking forward to settling down, but now there is a knot where that hope once resided. Could I ever belong anywhere except in the transient world of wanderers?
I bought a raffle ticket for a dollar and scanned the room one last time for a kindred spirit. There was a lot of excitement about inoculation, talk of committees, fiddling with the projector. They called out my number and I had won—the prize was something I did not want at all. I crept out as soon as the film started (Taylor Lockwood’s The Good, the Bad, and the Deadly) with my hat pulled down low and my boots making too much noise on the creaky old floors. The door slammed behind me.
Vegan risotto with shiitake mushrooms
4 cups vegetable stock
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/4 cup finely chopped shiitake mushrooms
1/4 cup finely chopped zucchini
1/4 cup trimmed and sliced fresh asparagus
3 tablespoons finely chopped shallots
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup Arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine
Risotto likes attention. It also likes to be cooked in a heavy-bottomed pot. But it’s worth it.
Bring the stock to a boil, then lower the flame all the way for a slow simmer.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a separate pan over medium heat. Add garlic, mushrooms, zucchini, and asparagus, and sauté until tender (3 to 5 minutes). Remove from the stove and set aside.
Heat the remaining olive oil in a large saucepan or soup pot over medium flame. Cook the shallots with some salt for 1 minute. Add the rice and stir for a couple of minutes, until it’s completely coated in oil. Add the wine and keep stirring for 5 minutes.
Add 1/2 cup of the simmering stock to the rice mixture, and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat and simmer gently, stirring frequently. (Cecile stands at the stove nonstop, babying the rice.) Once most of the liquid is absorbed, add more stock in half-cup increments. Keep doing this for 25 to 30 minutes.
Add the sautéed vegetables and stir together. The rice should be tender, not mushy. Give it a taste, adjust seasonings, then serve hot. Serves 4.
Garnish with Italian parsley or dry roasted shiitake. Non-vegans like their Parmigiano.
This recipe is adapted from www.veganmiam.com.
CORRECTION: The vegan risotto with shittake mushrooms recipe (p. 25) printed in the Summer 2014 issue incorrectly advised to add more rice in half-cup increments once the stock has been absorbed. It should advise to add more stock in half-cup increments. Tricycle regrets the error.
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