By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist
It isn’t a fruit or vegetable, it isn’t a fiber, and it certainly isn’t a protein. Then what is a mushroom?
Other than the mouthwatering anticipation with which chefs and foragers harvest morels or golden chanterelles from the Gallatin Valley each year, or prized truffles from France or Italy, most of us don’t often give the mushroom the same attention as local beef, trout, or fresh produce.
Classified as fungi, mushrooms are referred to as hidden kingdoms unto themselves. They have a symbiotic relationship with plants, animals, and other fungi, as well as a parasitic one.
The study of mushrooms is called mycology, which differs from the disciplines of biology and botany. And while you may never think about the white buttons in the blue Styrofoam in the produce section, they just may be the most unique food you’ll ever eat.
Most of us believe the round, colorful structure we see growing above ground to be the whole mushroom, when in fact that is merely the “fruit” of a much larger organism living underground made up of connected filaments called mycelium.
Modern day scientists say that mushrooms are more closely related to animals than plants, the primary reasons being they “breathe” oxygen and “exhale” carbon dioxide like humans, rather than the reverse in the plant world. And mushrooms contain no chlorophyll.
The late ethnobotanist Terence McKenna suggested that mushrooms are responsible for human intelligence as we know it. His theory hypothesized that mushroom spores possess all of the necessary requirements to travel on space currents. Furthermore, they could have settled in the brain matter of primitive humanoids and, following the lines of modern day hallucinogenic mushrooms, directly contributed to our modern day intelligence and self awareness.
McKenna went on to theorize that mushrooms are the reason there is human life on earth.
While this may seem like material from a science fiction novel, there is no avoiding the fact that mushrooms possess many traits that are unique to their kingdom alone.
Fungi build cell walls out of chitin, the same material that makes up the hard outer shells of insects and other arthropods. These cell walls contain similar chemicals found in butterfly and beetle wings, as well as the plumage of some colorful birds, such as peacocks.
Living spores have been found and collected in every level of earth’s atmosphere. Mushroom spores are electron-dense and can survive in the vacuum of space. Additionally, their outer layer is actually metallic and of a purple hue, which naturally allows the spore to deflect ultraviolet light. And as if all this wasn’t unique enough, the outer shell of the spore is the hardest organic compound to exist in nature.
Who knows, maybe I’ll look to the stars the next time I enjoy a fresh, sautéed Crimini mushroom with a glass of Nebbiolo in hopes of seeing a mushroom-shaped constellation.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.