Alfred Kreymborg felt the lowly mushroom perfectly exemplified his poetic genius. In his 1916 Mushrooms: A Book of Free Forms he wrote, “Mushrooms spring up overnight in my heart […] myriads and myriads I have found down there, but only a handful have I plucked so far.”
Perhaps Kreymborg should have plucked more of his heart’s lyrical fungi: His book garnered mixed reviews. But its subject continues to fascinate. Coming in all shapes and sizes, mushrooms begin to peek from the loamy soil once the weather turns cool and moist. The tall, proud Panther Cap juts from piles of decaying leaves, and Giant Puffballs swell their waxen bellies under the forest floor. Shaggy Coprinus grows a cap of yellowed scales beneath which peek the frill of purple gills; deadly Amanita glares from hollowed trees.
Prized for their tasty flesh mushrooms were a favorite food among the rural poor, who looked to the forests for a free supply. In the nineteenth century reformers urged English cottagers to start growing mushroom crops systematically to supplement their meager diets. In 1884 John Wright, assistant editor of the Journal of Horticulture and Home Farmer, called the mushroom “the most profitable outdoor crop known.” He urged all cottagers to undertake mushroom farming as “a well-conducted method of growing Mushrooms will pay better” than all other food crops.
In France pallid workers grew mushrooms in caves and abandoned mines. The Seine region alone had almost 3,000 mushroom caves, in which about 300 people worked and lived, rarely seeing the light of day. These subterranean farmers carefully tended beds of seeded manure until their delicate crop peeped forth. Then at exactly one in the morning, when the air was sufficiently clammy and chill, they harvested the mushrooms and, no more than two hours later, rushed them off to the bustling markets of France.
Here is a recipe for fried mushrooms, a dish that was popular among the peasantry throughout Europe. If you can, try to use the ample Steinpilz, otherwise known as the King Bolete–it is an exceptionally tasty variety of mushroom. Look for its tell-tale “hump” under piles of fir needles in coniferous forests.
Serve this dish with pasta or as substitute for meat in a sandwich.
Peel large, firm mushrooms, taking care not to break them, and cut off the stalks. Roll mushrooms in cracker meal [or breadcrumbs], dip them in beaten egg, then in cracker meal again. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and fry in butter. Garnish with slices of lemon.