Thursday, April 10, 2008

Incorrectly Identifying a Wild Mushroom Can Be Costly

"Nature alone is antique and the oldest art a mushroom."
Thomas Carlyle

With the arrival of each new spring comes the opportunity for me to morph into a woman who actually enjoys spring cleaning.
Such is never the case, but it’s nice to know that the opportunity will present itself again next year.

Instead however, my ambitions are directed toward lighter palettes for home and fashion, and lighter fare for the dinner table.
As is often the case, although my spirit is willing, my checkbook balance is weak, and so I table the plans for redecorating and wardrobe makeover until a time when money-trees might sprout from the earth in my backyard.
A moment of self-pity lasts long enough for me to fashion winter’s jeans into spring’s cropped denims, allowing me time enough to forage for last year’s flip-flops and be on my merry way in search of local, seasonal produce. The very thought of turning orbs and oblongs freshly dug from the earth, into healthy, savory fare brings me back to those rare, but joyful days of my childhood when seed-packet gardening was the next best thing to actually living on a farm.
Our meager square of carefully planted rows in a suburban
backyard garden produced countless squash and beans, and a few small, but no less magical, watermelons.
As I matured, so did my taste for produce and these days I pay careful attention to both heirloom and international varieties, hoping someday to hob-nob with the higher echelon of early birds who catch the coveted organic worm (in the seemingly unattainable form of a local CSA membership). Until I'm bumped from wait-list to official member, I continue to forage for affordable organics at my local supermarkets and await the spring opening of local produce stands.

At present, the promise of a New York spring seems suspect.
As the sun teases us with mid-day cameo appearances, unseasonably cool temperatures follow its departure in hot-pursuit. I fear it will be one of those years when winter turns directly to summer with little consideration for spring’s healthy rains and early blooms. I wait impatiently for jacket-less days and pass the time by daydreaming about tender, fresh vegetables and al-fresco dining.

On a dreary day not so long ago, I spent some time thinking about living room throw pillows and the intricacies of artichokes.
One thought led to another and I decided that I needed to prepare a dish of sautéed baby artichokes with garlic and lemon-- but not until I found the perfect artichoke specimen from which I would fashion a paper model to serve as a pattern for a giant artichoke pillow.
A stuffed artichoke, if you will.
It might not surprise you to discover that much of my home décor is dedicated to food. Recently however, I realized that my living room unfairly idolizes fruit while overlooking the simple elegance of vegetables. My first thought was to create a standard, square throw pillow from lovely vegetable-themed cotton chintz.
But why have a pillow depicting vegetables when you can have a pillow that is a complete vegetable-- stem, choke, and all?

A not-so-short trip to the fabric store yielded enough fabric and fluff for a bigger-than-a-basketball artichoke with a few extras for project number two.
A lovely sales clerk was so impressed by my appreciation for orphaned cuts of fabric unfairly sentenced to clearance-table shame, that she donated large corrugated tubes to serve as center-structure for my soon-to-be, larger than life, standing asparagus (seriously, when a fabric screams out “asparagus” to you, don’t you just have to buy it?).
As I exited the store, negotiating bags of fabric and fluff, awkwardly balancing the tubes under my left arm, I wondered just what I had gotten myself into. My ambition seemed to be writing a Veggie Tale of its own, but I dare suggest this one might be lacking moral values and suitability for an audience of minors.

I spent the better part of a Saturday afternoon dusting off and tuning my trusty Singer Slant Needle 404 sewing machine. The 1958 Singer manual which depicted a Stepford-esque woman wearing gabardine slacks and a flip hairdo, suggested I adjust the tension until the "tension feels right." Surely this woman was a better one than I;
a product of a generation who vacuumed in heels, willingly laundered husband's soiled, cloth handkerchiefs, and apparently, even embraced tension.
Too much to ask of a twenty-first century woman if you ask me,
so I found a stitch length that looked familiar and called it a day.

For the next two weeks, I stole time when I could and traced, cut and stitched artichoke leaves to white cotton batting. When I got to the step requiring insertion of pliable wire into stuffed leaves, all production came to a screeching halt as the wire tangled itself in the batting and made for a leaf completely unfamiliar to any artichoke I have ever met (and I have met more than a few). With each failed solution, I resorted to public polling (never a good idea). One piece of advice however, seemed logical and worthy of my attempt, so I sewed a separate channel into which the wire would be threaded to provide stability and pliability for each leaf. A reasonable solution, albeit one requiring a bit of extra time and patience. Now halfway through my project and totally burnt out, I decided to step away from the sewing table to regroup, re-energize and rehabilitate my cramped right hand, now riddled with pin-pricks from late night sewing, sans eyeglasses.

One night, as I drifted off to sleep, I could hear my left brain telling me there had to be an easier way for one to acquire a giant stuffed artichoke.
My right brain however, always louder and more optimistic, suggested a day off and some retail therapy.
I went with the right brain; often fallible but never dull.

The following morning I awoke early and gathered coupons, shopping lists, dry-cleaner drop-offs and a bag of returns which sat on my dining room chair for weeks in complacent denial of the fact that the boy-sized clothing I purchased for my son needed to be replaced with items from the young men’s department.
I expected that my shopping trip would be a short one
(my first mistake), since my funds were limited and a recent promise to my significantly-stressed other wouldn’t allow for frivolous spending.
I completed the more pedestrian tasks first and then enthusiastically, headed to my favorite haunt, TJ Maxx. As I stood on line with my returns bag in hand, I heard two women talking about the new
Home Goods store across the street. Apparently, it was grand opening week for the store and crowds were flocking to this haven of home décor, for a chance to win prizes and troll for bargains to bedeck their boudoirs. I had in my possession, one Home Goods entry form tucked neatly away in my purse. I took the time to fill it out one Sunday while I perused the weekend paper, never anticipating I would actually drop it into the entry box (as my purse-bottom is so often the burial ground for well-intended coupons, rebates and to-do lists).
Today however, the temptation was too great. I made quick work of my returns and took a quick spin around the gourmet aisles at
TJ Maxx in search of my favorite jam (Maury Island Farm’s Blackberry-Raspberry Jam—to die for) and hubby’s favorite steak sauce (Smith & Wollensky—a tasty little bargain at $3.99 a bottle). Although my search came up empty-handed, I was hopeful that Home Goods (owned by the same geniuses as TJ Maxx and Marshall’s) might allow me to obtain one or both of these delicacies.

With a spring in my step, I exited the store and made the quick trek across the highway to the new store obscurely nestled between a Staples and an auto supply store. Parking presented a small challenge and was my first indication that shopping cart procurement would be reduced to wishful thinking.
As I entered the bustling emporium of home interiors, the scene was almost surreal. Colorfully-clad women pushed shopping carts piled high with all manners of bedding coordinates, Moroccan-esque
nick-nackery, bejeweled lampshades, and plate-ware in every
polka-dotted color scheme imaginable.
It all seemed so Seussical--until I too, got sucked into the vacuum
we so foolishly refer to as retail.

I navigated my way around shopping carts and warehouse-weary toddlers in search of the entry box in which to place my completed form. I made my way to the gourmet department and happily snatched the last bottle of steak sauce from a shelf filled with
dry-rubs and cook-books created with the man-griller in mind.
These are likely the same masterminds behind a twenty-year long campaign against charcoal and in support of monster gas grills and useless grill gadgetry—who now manufacture “retro” versions of the charcoal hibachis of our childhood, promoting what most of us already knew—that its flavor is unmatched—not to mention that a bag of charcoal briquettes is much easier on the wallet and the biceps than its gas counterpart (and let’s not forget the amusement it provided neighborhood pyromaniacs who delighted in that
not-so-fool-proof combination of lighter fluid, newspaper and charcoal).

A friendly sales clerk directed me to the back of the store where a giant, festively wrapped box stood, bulging at the seams, stuffed with what seemed to be thousands of entry forms. I forced my arm through the opening and halfway into the box and wedged my own form between countless others, painfully aware that mine was likely a dull needle left to drown in a haystack of improbability.
I weaved my way between frenzied shoppers and thought it best to make a quick exit and return weeks later when the store would be yesterday’s news and much less crowded.
As I neared the exit, I passed through a department which contained all sorts of folk-art inspired Americana. A primitive, patriotic rooster caught my eye, but its tall, wooden form was ill-balanced, causing passers-by to prop the cock-eyed gent against a giant pewter pig for stability (I’m no farmer but somehow, I just know this is wrong).

As I turned a corner piled high with art-deco boxes, I spied a shelf with a quirky assortment of wall décor including a giant pair of black, wooden scissors. I was amused by their size and realism but my temptation gave way to the fact that I could not rationalize spending so much for utilitarian form with no function (at least when it had nothing at all to do with food).

I had almost made my escape when I spotted an oddly shaped form lying sideways wedged between two broad, low-hung shelves.
I ducked to get a better view and there, before my very eyes was a giant mushroom of handsome heft and honest hue, petitioning me for rescue. I set down the bottle of steak sauce and lifted the mushroom to the light and gasped aloud when I read its price tag. I promptly returned the fungi to its rightful place and headed towards the door. This was a true test of my constitution. In my frivolous past I would have purchased this specimen in a heartbeat.
I paused at a table set with clip-boards to lure credit-worthy shoppers to their financial demise, and as I fished for my keys, I remembered the bottle of steak sauce I left on the shelf above the mushroom. I hurried back to the same location and thankfully, the bottle was still there. A thought occurred to me in a split second of indecisiveness; it isn’t every day that one encounters a giant mushroom for sale. What about “Carpe diem?” Shouldn’t one seize a mushroom opportunity of such proportions, when and if it actually arises?
My right brain encouraged me to buy it, while my left brain reminded me that I had an unfinished artichoke at home and two giant asparagus on deck, and zero funds to justify purchasing a sixty dollar resin mushroom. Besides, my left brain couldn’t even identify the mushroom—and quite honestly, my left brain is pretty good with gastronomical recognition and terminology.
The fact remained however, that although it was no Shiitake, Porcini or Chanterelle, it was a mushroom nonetheless. And who wouldn’t welcome a giant mushroom into their home?
But this time, practicality took over and I sided with my left brain.
I decided to purchase only the steak sauce, yet not until I had one last chance to touch and hold the fabulous fungi. I lifted the mushroom into my arms and ran my hand around its smooth surface. The oddly textured bumps on its cap teased my memory but I became quickly distracted by an attractive, tall woman with silver hair who seemed to be approaching me. She had a Burberry scarf tied loosely around her neck and she had a Coach leather satchel slung over her winter-white cashmered shoulder.
Her eyes quickly darted between me and the mushroom and
as she got closer, I felt ill at ease.
She pointed to the mushroom and politely asked where I found it.
I motioned to the large, empty shelf below me and furtively grasped the bottle of steak sauce from the shelf above it.
And then the sixty-dollar question dropped like a penny from a
high-rise window; “Are you buying it?”
"Well, yes.”
(Now) "I am."

With obvious disapproval, she shuffled her persnickety frown and her crimson suede loafers over to a shelf filled with cloisonné letter openers (a useless gift intended I suppose, for her few (Bridge club) friends who likely had already discovered the conveniences of email while she was out trying to rob seasoned shoppers of their fortuitous fungi).

I made a beeline for the registers, checked out, and with steak sauce and giant mushroom safely installed in my trunk, I headed for home. For the entire ride my right brain negotiated with my left brain suggesting that the acquisition of rare fungus might only enhance the introduction of vegetables into a fruit-dominated domicile. My left brain wasn’t buying it and suggested that my frivolous friend (right brain) and I figure out what we would tell hubby as he tripped over our sixty dollar specimen. Seconds shy of a full-on panic attack, I pulled into my driveway. I took only my returns and the steak sauce from the car and left the mushroom until I could properly introduce it to my husband who I feared wouldn’t be so fungi-friendly.

As I approached my doorstep, I was greeted by my husband to whom I immediately presented the steak sauce followed by
rapid-fire hyperbole and detailed explanation for frivolous spending. I offered that I was in a weakened state of retail competition driven by an appreciation for rare fungus and a genuine dislike for
silver-haired snakes in goat’s clothing.
Apparently, I had him at the steak sauce, and all was forgiven.

After dinner and the evening’s activities, I retrieved my sizable purchase from the trunk. Once I brought the mushroom in however, hubby and I had a small dispute over its location and position. We finally agreed on a location but did not see eye to eye on aesthetics.
I wanted to place the mushroom on its side for the sake of art and quirky-ness. He wanted it upright for the sake of stubborn man-ness.
Upright, it looked like a stupid lamp. That was my elementary argument and after exhausting his litany of left-brain logics for vertical display (and the desire to get back to a televised ball game), he gave in.

For a long while, I stared at the specimen admiring its form as it sat propped on its side next to a long wooden bench in our living room. A feeling that something was missing, gnawed at the back of my brain, but I foolishly chose to ignore it.
I headed to bed with visions of my completed artichoke and asparagus making the acquaintance of our newest addition. As I drifted off to sleep, my subconscious tried to wake me from my mushroom-induced stupor. Again, I sensed a nagging thought attempting to permeate my consciousness but fatigue won out
and it waited impatiently until morning—when, at precisely
five-fifty-two A.M., it rattled me from my slumber to rear its ugly head and declare that I identify what variety, if any, my new mushroom represented.

At first, I thought it didn’t really matter. But when I paused to consider its contribution to conversations of gastronomy, I thought it might be in my best interest to know exactly what variety of mushroom found itself lying prostrate on my living room carpet.
I believe now that my subconscious actually knew the truth all along, but wanted the gratification of seeing my reaction to such a discovery.

Still half-asleep, I poured my first cup of coffee, grabbed my checkbook from the counter and hoisted the mushroom under one arm and headed to my computer desk. No stranger to multi-tasking, I figured I’d do some online bill paying while I googled my fungi. I fished a bunch of receipts from my checkbook pocket and placed them aside. As I waited for my account information to magically appear on the monitor, I was immediately struck by something printed on my Home Goods receipt. To the left of the boldly printed price of $59.99 and just below the line detailing my bargain steak sauce was the word “Garden.”
At that moment, it all became painfully clear. I could almost hear my subconscious laughing. I knew for certain that I had not found my fungi in the garden department of Home Goods. Perhaps it was placed on the only shelf large enough to accommodate its heft—which happened to be with wall décor. But it was in fact, a garden element after all. I stared at its spotted cap with complete disdain. I turned it upside down and finally realized that it was missing the obvious; dark, threadlike gills, a common characteristic of any kitchen-worthy mushroom.
Obviously, this mushroom and I had both become victims of mistaken identity. It was time I faced the cold, hard truth.
I could barely make out the Google icon through the tears welling up in my eyes, but I needed to call upon my eSage of word wisdom, just to be sure.

First, I Googled mushrooms; hundreds of varieties were listed in rich detail accompanied by photos, but none looked enough like mine for me to rationalize its origin. So, I did the unthinkable, I scrolled to the end of the page where the word “toadstool,” appeared and clicked on it, and in an instant, there before my very eyes was a photo of my falsified fungi followed by this definition:

A toadstool is an inedible or poisonous fungus with an umbrella shaped fruiting body, often with no gills appearing underneath its cap.”

Be still my aching heart.
For sixty dollars, I had become the not-so-proud owner of a poisonous, inedible mushroom (which in fact, isn't really even a mushroom after all).
Obviously, there was no way I could expose my vulnerable vegetables to such faux fungi. The very thought of subjecting my tender edibles to such poisonous spores turned my stomach.
The toadstool would have to go back.
I carried it over to the dining room chair (my favorite place to exile returnables) and I taped the receipt to the top of its cap. I was tempted to spit on it but I thought of the innocent plastic gnomes it might someday accompany, so I resisted.
Even I wouldn’t stoop that low.

And so, my dejected toadstool awaits its introduction to greener pastures while I wait hopefully for the motivation to see my
produce project through to its completion. While the artichoke quietly anticipates its assembly and those corrugated tubes stand erect awaiting the fervent embrace of green vinyl, I daydream about constructing a pillowy-soft Shiitake, perhaps of white velour, with carefully stitched gills of chocolate thread.

If nothing else, my fortuitous encounter with faux fungi has sparked a creative flame that hasn’t burned for years.
My husband was pleased at the thought of recovering the funds from my frivolous expense but admittedly, I have mixed feelings about its departure.

Because incorrectly identifying a wild mushroom can be costly,
in more ways than one.

Parting is such sweet sorrow.

Until Next Time,

Make Life Delicious
Share Your Food


Some mushroom quotes for you to consider:

Falling in love is like eating mushrooms, you never know if it’s the real thing until it’s too late.”
~Bill Balance

If only one could tell true love from false love as one can tell mushrooms from toadstools.”
~Katherine Mansfield

It's best to buy your mushrooms from a reputable grower or grocer instead of hunting them yourself, as there are many poisonous mushrooms. Incorrectly identifying them can lead to symptoms of sweating, cramps, diarrhea, confusion, convulsions, and potentially result in liver damage, or even death.
~Online resource, author unknown

"I confess, that nothing frightens me more than the appearance of mushrooms on the table, especially in a small provincial town."
~Alexandre Dumas, early 19th century

Life is too short to stuff a mushroom.”
~From Brainy Quotes, author unknown

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