Why hello there, and welcome to Kitchen Castastrophes Quick Tips, where we slice and dice some facet of food-culture into fast-acting factoids to feed your face. I’m your alliterative ace and assonant auteur, Jon O’Guin, and today’s post has been a long time coming. I’ve actually sprinkled bits and pieces of it through various posts, where they burrowed deep, away from the light, and spawned new life to feed my engines of despair. I speak, of course, of the Mushroom!
No, sorry, this is a MOSH Room, we're looking for MUSH rooms. Easy mistake.
Yes, that fungal food that’s feared by more than a few, it’s time to talk about a Mushroom’s place in meals, with the requisite tours of history and botany to explain what it is, where it comes from, etc etc. In fact, we’re not actually going to get to talk much about the culinary qualities of Mushrooms today at all, since there’s a lot of science to get through first. Pre-warning, so you, unlike me, don’t get 1,000 words into the post, and realize that “shit, we’re not going to have room to talk about cooking these suckers!” So today is instead Touring day, where we discuss what mushrooms ARE, before we tell you how to use them.
But First, Some Anecdotal Affirmation and Assurance
Now, I have to apologize. I am…embarrassingly under-informed regarding mushrooms. Now, normally, being under-informed about a topic is nothing to be ashamed of: we all start uninformed, and then become correctly informed. And some of us, mad men that we are, consistently and constantly push until we’re over informed. But the reason my lack of information is embarrassing is…well, because it’s really, TRULY, my FAULT.
See, in my last or second-to-last year of college, I needed some simple science credit in order to graduate, and picked a course that sounded interesting: “The Fifth Kingdom: Mushrooms, Molds, and Fungus”. A class I attended maybe 4 times, and then intentionally failed. It turns out that I am NOT “fine” with a class that starts at 8 AM and takes 35 minutes to get to, as I thought I would be at scheduling. Had it been at 9, maybe I would have passed it. But maybe not. I actually failed…something like 10 classes over the course of my college career. Basically one every semester.
Did NOT fail Stage Make-up, though. Despite that terrible blending on the scar tissue. Good lord, what was I thinking?
The reason isn’t hard to figure out: I was (and, honestly, AM) pretty bad at time management…or rather, I’m unwilling to compromise my priorities for things I don’t respect or value. I failed English 101 multiple times because I didn’t value the way our school taught it, and therefore would skip it to study for other classes, or to attend rehearsals for extra-curricular plays, or to attend events to support my scholastic clubs. It wasn’t that I would do NOTHING, it’s that I’d look at the class every day and say “I have better things to do”. And a LOT of foundational, “you need this to graduate” classes have (somewhat) strict attendance policies. So, whereas, in say, Geology, I could skip a class every week, miss a project worth 15% of my overall grade, and STILL get a C in the class, English, and this Fungus class, would just fail me.
As noted earlier, this is totally my fault. And I get why these classes are taught that way. I’m not even saying it’s a bad lesson to teach: if I approached a paying job with a “I can simply not show up for 1/3rd of the work-week”, I’d get fired pretty fast…depending on the job. But I bring it up because that experience is one of the things that helped establish part of the mental foundation of this site; that feeds our ethos: despite failing 9-10 classes at college, I was NEVER on academic probation, because if I cared in a class, I did well. My teachers REGULARLY praised me saying I was a great student “when I bothered to show up.” Were there difficulties? Of course. I had to take a semester of summer school in order to graduate on time. But other than that, I was well-regarded in my fields, frequently doing things I loved to do, and overall quite happy. And that taught me that it was okay to fail. You can fail for a variety of reasons: from making a mistake, to being a stubborn jackass, to simple bad luck. And no one LIKES to fail. But failing doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t make you dumb.
I’ve had friends recently reach out to me, telling me they feel lesser, they were feeling stupid, because they’re not where they think they should be in their life. And it’s okay to feel that way, to want to make a change. It’s okay to push yourself. But it’s also okay to acknowledge that sometimes, Life isn’t fair, and that some of your losses AREN’T your fault. There’s a story I like, about the show Archer. When they were casting the show, they sent out the audition form with a note about the character Mallory Archer: “Picture Jessica Walter from Arrested Development.” And I’m certain people reached out to the studio, interested in the role. But they didn’t get it. Because one of the people who saw that note was Jessica Walter. From Arrested Development. Who got the role.
Turns out she's very good at acting like herself. Who would have guessed?
I like that story partly because it was told to me wrong, as I had heard that the note came from a casting director talking to a room of applicants who happened to include Jessica Walter. I also like it because it really drives home the idea that sometimes, you’re just gonna lose. What else could the other women who wanted the role do? They came, they saw, they were conquered. You make the call, with the information you have, and it doesn’t pan out. That’s FINE. Stock Brokers make less money than random chance over HALF the time. Sports announcers predict the wrong team will win more often than they get it right! It’s okay to fuck up, as long as you keep trying. That’s why we make catastrophes here.
AS evidence indicates we often do.
So, with that in mind, let’s talk about how little I know about Mushrooms.
Fungi: The Fifth of between 3 and 8 Kingdoms
Look, while that title is accurate, and covers a lot of interesting taxonomic ground, I gotta be quick here, because I spent 700 words explaining that it’s okay to suck at things because I’m an arrogant dick who skips early morning classes. I honestly don’t know why you people listen to me sometimes.
Anyway, as the name of that college class suggested, a fairly common nickname for Fungi is “the Fifth Kingdom”, because life-forms are divided into 5 kingdoms. You know: Animals, Plants, Bacteria, Fungi, and The Other One.
Alvin, Simon, And the Fat One!
At least, that’s what was taught to me back as a kid, which is weird, because the 5 kingdoms model was formed in 1969, and then modified to a 6 kingdom model in 1977, 11 years before I was born. An 8 kingdom model was created in 1993, and then condensed to 6 in 1998. IF you’re wondering how the hell it can go through so many changes, it’s because of the two you’re not thinking about: Animal, Fungus, and plant stayed the same through all the changes, it’s just a matter of whether bacteria is one or two categories, and whether Protista ( "the other one") should be 1 or 3 kingdoms. (Like, algae aren’t technically plants, so they went here. Protozoa aren’t bacteria or animals, so they went here. But Algae and protozoa AREN’T similar, so should we divide them?)
So fungi aren’t plants, they aren’t animals, and they’re not Protozoa. So what are they? They’re sponges made of lobster shells!
The Best Jokes Are the Ones that Are True
Alright, we’ve been inspirational and taxonomical, so let’s wrap up with etymological and physical.
The word “mushroom” doesn’t actually have a great etymology. Either Old French or Latin started calling the little things that grew out of moss “mousseron”, but there’s no clear explanation why, or what exactly it was meant to mean. It just showed up, and got spread around.
“Fungus”, on the other hand, does have a clear etymology. It’s from Latin, fungus. What? Sometimes we just straight up keep using a word. What’s interesting is where Latin got it from. As is typical, they stole it from Greek, where the word is sphongos, and means, as I joked a second ago, “sponge”, referring to the puffy, crumbly texture of mushrooms. So when the two words broke off, one dropped the first ‘S’, and the other dropped the ‘H’. I just thought that was pretty neat.
I wanted a picture of Spongebob holding a mushroom, to make a "reunited at last" joke, but in trying to find that, I discovered that there's now a breed of fungus NAMED after Spongebob (spongiform squarepantsii), so we've got a fungus named after a sponge, and "fungus" is named after "sponge".
That's some good etymological irony right there, my dudes.
Anyway, to my other ridiculous claim: Fungi aren’t animals, who are by-and-large made of meat. Nor are they plants, which are made of carbohydrates and starches. Fungi are instead latticed patterns of chitin. Chitin, if you’re unaware, is the substance that makes up the scales on fish, and the exoskeletons of crustaceans and insects. Hence ‘a sponge made of lobster shells’. Now, mushrooms are much softer than crustacean shells because their chitin is much smaller, forming merely the cell walls, rather than unified structures like a shell. What’s further interesting is that chitin isn’t particularly digestible by humans, but the microscopic nature of fungal chitin allows it to break down more readily from heat, creating fats and carbohydrates. Mushrooms, unlike many vegetables, are actually BETTER for you after cooking: they increase their vitamin levels, have more calories, and generally serve as a sterling example of why we started cooking foods to begin with.
Though they can also make us QUESTION why we started cooking foods to begin with...
An Historic Conclusion
Mushrooms are a hugely complex and wide-spread part of culinary culture, which is part of the reason I’ll need two posts to handle it all. Evidence has been found of humans eating mushrooms up to 13,000 years ago, which puts it in roughly the same category of culinary longevity as bread, and older than the evidence of concerted mechanisms for acquiring salt.
This was years before Fortnite launched, you understand.
That’s why I wanted to lay so much foundation here. You may not eat them very often, but Mushrooms have been around for a long, long time, and there’s a lot going on with them. They’re complicated, simple, and used in foods around the world. So it’s important to take your time with them.
MONDAY: JON TAKES A DAY OFF, WHILE HIS BROTHER GETS CRABBY.
NEXT THURSDAY: LET’S WRAP THIS MUSHY STUFF UP, SHALL WE?