Right now, I have a seven-pound bag of organic mycelium substrate inoculating under my kitchen sink. This experiment in home mushroom cultivation is yet another symptom of my abiding hippie-in-the-city existence that has also involved ecstatic breathwork, reiki certification, sourdough bread baking, and concocting herbal tinctures. In lieu of a barn, ten acres of land, and a veggie patch, I have decided to grow mushrooms in my brownstone.
For the uninitiated, mycelium substrate is essentially a compost that fertilizes fungi, and in a couple of weeks (after a diligent process that involves poking holes in the bag, exposing it to sunlight, and spraying it with water twice a day), this “fruiting block” should produce delicate oyster mushrooms that will look too pretty to eat, but that I will sprinkle with salt, fry in butter, and serve for dinner anyway.
And it’s not just me. Mushrooms are having a moment. Specifically, the aesthetically-pleasing heirloom varieties such as pink oyster, lion’s mane, hen of the woods, and pioppini, which are sprouting up everywhere, from The Standard, East Village—proud home of the world’s first in-hotel mushroom farm—to the ingredient list in your face serum. And, as our instagram feeds become saturated with arty fruit still lifes and ikebana florals, mushrooms are the latest natural wonder that also happen to be highly photogenic. With their intricate bluish-gray, bright yellow, and salmon-hued tendrils; velvety brown caps, and amorphous, pillowy white forms, these sculptural organisms are a world away from the generic slimy, bleached button mushrooms of yore.
How did we go from consuming sad, industrialized mushrooms to eating rare beauties worthy of an Irving Penn photo spread? Perhaps it’s just the same Instagramification that upgraded our gas station carnations to ethereal flower arrangements. Or, maybe it’s a sign of a deeper cultural zeitgeist. Organic urban mushroom farmers Andrew Carter and Adam DeMartino of Smallhold, who developed the high-tech “minifarm” at The Standard and also grow mushrooms on site at New York restaurants such as Mission Chinese and Maison Yaki, believe the latter is true. “We’re in a paradigm shift,” DeMartino says. “And us noticing mushrooms more is emblematic of that.”
I’ve always been captivated by the mysteriousness of mushrooms. The idea of imbibing something so anthropologically unknown is seductive. They hint at a portal into another dimension, making one feel as if the boundaries of reality aren’t so limited. Not a plant and not an animal—mushrooms are their own singular species and food group. In fact, we’re really only beginning to learn about the mushroom kingdom and what it can tell us about life on earth. Did mushrooms come from space? Were they here before humans? (To answer those questions and more, may I point you in the direction of the work of Paul Stamets, the American mycologist, author, and advocate of bioremediation and medicinal fungi?) Of course, we know how psychedelic mushrooms changed the course of this country, and we’re having another countercultural wave now, but that’s a topic for another article (please request I write a follow up story on the magic variety—thanks!).
Some scientists posit that fungi have flourished on Earth for more than 2 billion years, and cultures around the world have eaten or used mushrooms medicinally for centuries, dating back to ancient Egypt. Legend has it that a melon farmer in 16th century France discovered button mushrooms on his manure pile and decided to propagate them. Production made its way across the Atlantic to America in the 19th century and the US is now the second largest grower of mushrooms, behind China. While around 2,000 known edible fungi exist, we currently only grow around 10 types commercially.
And while we’re looking at a future where fungi could be the new cacti (how long until Urban Outfitters starts selling home mushroom kits?), maybe the most exciting thing about the organism is its potential to solve the world’s food crisis. Mushrooms are an incredibly sustainable, economically viable, vegan nutrition source. Unlike, say, carrots or peas, they are what Brooklyn-based chef and shroom enthusiast Tara Norvell calls a “center-of-the-plate” ingredient, which she roasts whole like chicken, breads into nuggets, blends into cake batter, and serves up like steak. When eaten fresh, heirloom mushrooms have a meaty texture and unique flavor profiles, contrary to their bland reputation.
The wellness industry, too, prizes mushrooms as a panacea for everything from cancer to cognitive function. Many varieties, such as reishi, cordyceps, lion’s mane, chaga, and tremella are known as adaptogens or “superfoods”—species that are able to withstand nature’s harsh conditions. By eating them, it’s assumed this superpower will rub off on us too. But even the more familiar grocery store mushrooms like shiitake, oyster, and enoki have incredible nutritional benefits as a source of protein that contains B vitamins, selenium, potassium, copper, and (particularly when exposed to the sun) vitamin D.
As we become more familiar with technologically controlled in-situ mushroom farms like Smallhold’s (which look like a blue-light emitting piece of mid-century modern cabinetry), it may only be a matter of time before well-heeled hippies want them installed in their homes as both interior decoration and culinary novelty, too. The future, friends, is fungi.
Photographed by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.