It is not a proud day when a grown woman has to admit defeat to a fungus. But that's where I find myself after a solid month of trying to overcome an aversion to mushrooms. Despite the protestations of friends and family who swear that mushrooms are culinary treasures, the mere thought of spores still makes me shiver with what I believe is clinically termed "the heebie jeebies."
Mushrooms have posed the biggest challenge yet in my quest to expand my palate because the root of my dislike is threefold. Food aversions that are a matter of flavor can often be overcome simply by finding fresher ingredients, trying different varieties of the food, or incorporating it into a favorite dish. Similarly, there are straightforward approaches to dealing with texture. Preparation can be key—peas with bite replace green goo, thinly-sliced beets retain little grittiness.
With mushrooms, flavor and texture are joined by a more complicated problem that I can only identify as conceptual distaste. What does that mean? Consider this: for most of my freshman year of college, I happily—if obliviously—ate mushrooms in the beef stroganoff served weekly in our dining hall. They lent a vaguely savory element to the dish (in fact, many food experts now consider umami, the complex flavor typified by mushrooms, to be the fifth taste, along with sweet, salty, bitter, and sour). And their sliminess was so well masked by the viscous industrial gravy that for six months I mistook the mushroom slices for tiny pieces of beef. It was only when a friend pointed out that the piece of beef on the fork headed toward my mouth was actually a mushroom that I became unable to eat beef stroganoff.
It is the idea of the mushroom that I could not—and cannot—get past. Mushrooms are fungi. They grow on logs, or in what we'll politely call manure. They are the type of organism you might break down and eat if lost in the woods for weeks, but maybe not even then. The Smurfs lived in mushrooms.
There may be evolutionary reasons for my mushroom antipathy. Over the centuries, many cultures have avoided mushrooms because of the difficulty of distinguishing poisonous specimens from more benign varieties. Tales of famous deaths by mushroom poisoning have embedded themselves in our cultural consciousness, with victims including the Buddha, the Roman emperor Claudius, and both parents of the physicist Daniel Fahrenheit, creator of the Fahrenheit scale. As recently as 2008, Nicholas Evans, author of The Horse Whisperer, had to undergo kidney dialysis after eating poisonous wild mushrooms he had picked in the woods.
Not everyone considers mushrooms as primarily inedible or hazardous, of course. The Italians love their porcini, and some Chinese revere mushrooms for rumored medicinal or aphrodisiac qualities. In Russia, mushrooms are beloved—they are the main characters in a popular children's song and are traditionally used to illustrate the letter "g" (for grib) the way American picture books use "A is for Apple."
But many cultures are mycophobic (yes, there is an official fear of mushrooms), including my own Gaelic stock. Every year in Ireland, according to The Oxford Companion to Food, fields of potentially valuable mushrooms go unharvested. And despite their reputation as sophisticated epicureans, the French may be most responsible for cultivating generations of mycophobes. L'Histoire de Babar, known in the States as The Story of Babar the Little Elephant, is familiar to anyone who was once a five-year-old. What you may have forgotten—but what traumatized the more impressionable among us—is that our hero Babar becomes king only after the elderly King of the Elephants dies from eating a poisonous mushroom. The demise is illustrated in gruesome images of the king turning green and croaking. All because of a mushroom.
I tried to set aside the memory of the dying Elephant King as I cleaned mushrooms recently in my kitchen. It was harder to avoid noticing their resemblance to toadstools, which flourished in our backyard when I was growing up and were the subject of repeated warnings. My mom needn't have bothered. Everything about the mushroom—from the gills to the cap to the stem—screams "inedible object" to me.
Which is why the first stage of Project Mushroom was simply to desensitize myself to the flavor of mushrooms. My friend Sarah sent me the trick she had used to get her young children to eat mushroom-flavored foods—surely I couldn't be a tougher case than a finicky preschooler. Following her instructions, I made a modified chicken marsala, sautéing mushrooms with shallots and pancetta for the sauce, but removing them with a slotted spoon prior to serving. Sarah punches up the dish's robust mushroom flavor by adding dried mushrooms that have been crushed into a powder. "In the end," she wrote, "you will have a wonderful sauce filled with mushroom flavor but with no mushrooms." That turns out to be just about what I can handle.
The result was better than just edible—it was delicious, rich, and full of flavor. The recipe may well make it into my dinner rotation. But it is not a mushroom dish; it is simply mushroom-y. I needed to move onto stage two of Project Mushroom to deal with my texture issues and the sliminess of those sautéed spores.
I had my opportunity at a restaurant that offered duck quesadillas as a starter course. I love duck and hesitated only when I re-read the menu description: "duck, spinach, pepper jack ..." and portobello mushrooms. The discovery of unwelcome mushroom ingredients is a familiar experience for me. I usually shrug and make another selection. But this time, I was no mere diner—I was sacrificing my taste buds for science. Duck quesadillas, please.
Like beef stroganoff, duck quesadillas effectively camouflage mushrooms by combining them with equally substantial textures and then hiding the slippery slices—in this case, between tortillas. So long as I pretended all of the chewy items in my mouth were pieces of duck, I was fine. If a mushroom slice escaped its tortilla cover, I poked it back in and tried not to think about it. Denial can be a surprisingly successful eating technique, a lesson I learned at my sixth grade science fair when hunger led me to down half a dozen of a classmate's worm cookies by telling myself that the chewy bits were just raisins.
For stage three of Project Mushroom, however, I would need to confront mushrooms head-on. First I bought a perfect porterhouse steak at the local farmers' market on the theory that it's nearly impossible for anything to spoil a steak dinner for me. I also picked up some shiitake mushrooms to sauté in butter.
Once I was back in my kitchen slicing the mushrooms, however, I knew I had met my match. The sponginess of the ingredients in my hands was not something I normally associate with foods meant for human consumption, and I shuddered while brushing dirt from the gills. And when I sat down to eat the steak, there they were in plain sight. The first bite was ruined not by the earthy mushroom taste or even the slippery item on my tongue, but by the unavoidable knowledge that I was eating a mushroom.
Before the steak could turn cold, I dashed back into the kitchen to toss some fresh cherry tomatoes into the pan with a little sea salt and garlic, producing a simple topping that paired marvelously with the porterhouse and didn't make me squirm. As I savored the meal, I reminded myself that for all their supposed culinary appeal, mushrooms have very little nutritional value. They are 90 percent water, and most of their carbohydrates are in indigestible form. Sure, I could force myself to choke down mushrooms like some Fear Factor contestant, but for what? You can keep the slimy, Buddha-killing Smurf houses. I'm waving the white flag.