“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. We had two bags of grass, 75 pellets of Mescalin, five sheets of acid, a salt shaker full of cocaine and a whole galaxy of uppers, screamers, laughers .. also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Bud, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls…not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked in a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.”
So went that famous passage from decades-old “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” by gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson. It came to mind recently as I ruminated, clear-eyed and clear-headed, about mushrooms. No… not the psilocybin variety that were a likely part of Thompson’s drug cache. But I am a man of a certain age, and mention of the fungi conjures more than one meaning.
Meaning, I say — not memories. I skipped those experiences in my youth, preferring instead to study stars through my telescope, not an altered consciousness.
It’s the other kind of mushrooms that I relish. I love everything about them, from their fleshy, creamy, smooth, luxuriant textures to the way they improve the flavor profile of most any dish. There’s something sensual about these spore-bearing fruiting bodies with their delicate stems and caps. Something organic, primordial even. Most of the 14,000 species are produced above ground, as they have been for eons, maturing from mere buttons. Some grow slowly while others, like the parasola, with their reedy stems and wide, flat caps, are more ephemeral: they appear overnight, and like accidental lovers, vanish by afternoon, chased by humidity and growing heat.
Fabrizio Casini, our Produce Director, is responsible for selecting the mushrooms Hiller’s sells. Early each morning he and his team arrive at Detroit’s Produce Terminal, where they skillfully examine the daily crop of mushrooms with great effort and care. The mushrooms are adeptly boxed by variety, separating portabella, baby bella, enokie , shitaki, cremini and morels, then delivered to our stores and surgically placed on refrigerated shelves.
Most mushrooms sold in supermarkets have been commercially grown on farms, except for the most exotic ones like my favorite Matsutaki. Prized for their distinct spicy aroma and anecdotal magic health value, these pricey gems grow naturally under trees — in Japan, the Japanese Red Pine — hidden on the forest floor under fallen leaves. They’re also found in Europe, Asia, parts of California and the Pacific Northwest. We get ours from Oregon, plucked from under Sugar Pines and Douglas-Firs.
Kyoko Watanabe, director of our Japanese Food Department, orders these herself, delivered overnight nestled in small boxes.
When in season, just a couple of months each fall, the Matsutaki’s hot… particularly with our Japanese customers. Our 14 mile and Haggerty store also carries Shemeji, another mushroom with East Asia origin and legendary healthy attributes. Kyoko likes to sauté her Matsutaki, with their long, broad stems and darkish caps, in drops of soy sauce and citrus or in a little Ponzu. Sometimes, she’ll chop some into rice and add sake.
The Matsutaki is said to have a symbiotic relationship with its tree roots. That resonates, since my most memorable experiences with it are entwined with my youngest son Spencer. Before going off to college he and I had a ritual. Every Thursday night while the mushroom was in season we’d go to our favorite Japanese restaurant and order Matsutaki Dobin Mushi, a delectable soup dish in which dashi stock, soy sauce, sake and salt are added to a pan and brought to a boil. The mushroom, tofu, seaweed and a small piece of chicken or fish are divided into Japanese earthen teapots, into which the soup is poured and steamed for several minutes. It becomes an exquisite broth, which Spencer and I would gently savor before eating the balance.
Matsutaki Dobin Mushi became the centerpiece of our evening, just the two of us alone. It was one of those times when food became a metaphor between father and son, a vector for sharing and building an adult relationship. We never had our first beer together, instead, we’d go to the restaurant, share the meal and discuss the world through the eyes of a young man, while savoring something that few other Americans even knew of, let alone tasted. It was our secret and a spot-on catalyst for the development of trust between a father and his beloved son.
Often I think about relationships. I have three sons and that can be very difficult. Boys usually grow through asserting themselves, and fathers frequently resist. And learning is important for both sides. So the Matsutake meal, with all its mystical qualities, served as the perfect querencia for the two of us. All those layers and complexities … just like a relationship, begun by the pouring of broth into small china cups that quickly heat up, demanding patience until the broth cools.
And so it is between a father and his son.