Russula xerampelina, “the shrimp mushroom,” is a plump, brittle fruit with a viscid cap whose color variation is captured by the species’ poetic surname which means, “the color of dried vine leaves.” Rosy, to red-brown, to just plain brown, its gills are white, and its stem often (but not always!) has a telltale “blush” of pink.

Its flavor is indeed, if one is suggestible and strains their imagination, a little shellfishy. But the common epithet is typically thought to refer to the aroma: shrimplike. As it matures and raises its pileus to expose it’s lamellae, that aroma becomes detectable and finally penetrating. But by then it’s too late.

A similar-looking poisonous species, R. emetica, and the mere fact that it is gilled, deters novices. But that aroma, combined with the sweet and mild, rather than painfully radishy and acrid, flavor are the sure and faithful qualities that set them apart. Yes, it really does come down to aroma and flavor.

“Should I really put something in my mouth whose name means ‘the sickener’ in order to discern the edible from the poisonous, gangster?”

It depends on your level of commitment, doesn’t it? Do you want to be a perpetual dilletante, always nibbling around the edges, but in the end just fodder for the hoard of heavily-armed outcasts and survivalists who will surely seize control of the industrial food supply when our foreign policy fiascos and internal political and tribal strife result in an eternal river of poor leadership complemented by general civil unrest? Or do you want to be an intimate of the sauvage banquet?

Michael Kuo, a mycologist who maintains the mushroom identification site, wrote, in 2005, a little diatribe where he insists that the scent of R. xerampelina is not at all crustacean, but vaginal.  Because men have been responsible for so much of the mycological taxonomy that we still use today, Kuo argues, “spermatic” eventually became an acceptable olfactory descriptor, while “vaginal” is still not. Then he goes on to ask: what does sperm smell like anyway?

Do some mushrooms indeed smell like sperm, or is that just wishful thinking? Losing myself in reflection, a memory surfaces: a wastebasket filled with wads of facial, bath, whatever tissue, and a gray scent, the scent of decaying fungus. Adolescence. Before we gained the privacy and good sense to flush those things. So perhaps semen smells vaguely fungal, and not the other way around.

Kuo admits, however, that we not only have the genus Phallus, which is indeed disgustingly phallic, but the species Amanita vaginata which, like most amanitas, does indeed emerge from a protective sheath. Perhaps not coincidentally, Amanita vaginata is commonly known (to get really off-topic) as the “grisette.” In 18th and 19th century France and England, the word referred to a coquettish, working-class woman with intellectual aspirations. Grisettes traded on their charms, physical and intellectual, to gain access to the Bohemian intelligentsia. The fungal fruit that gracefully emerges from a cocoon-like volva is brown to grey, slender for the genus, and strikingly poised. It is the most conspicuous edible of a genus that includes several lethally poisonous (and equally, if more strikingly, beautiful) species.

Back to the subject at hand: If we agree with Kuo about the aroma, what do we do with this vaginal-smelling mushroom? The preeminent expert for West coast mycological taxonomy, David Arora begins thus: “edible and unforgettable–it is one of the least appreciated of our edible fungi…. The young, nutty caps are caps are superb stuffed with grated cheese, chives, walnuts, and parsley and then broiled.” The irrepressible mycophile goes on to exclaim that, unlike their brethren, “they are rarely riddled with maggots!” I would have loved to go all-in with the xerampelina like that, but until now I’d only ever encountered one or two at an outing which hadn’t been host to a writhing mass of diptera grubs (which insect family has the longest phallus, in relation to body size, of any animal). Those I’d always mixed in with the others, the boletus, the cantharellus, sulfureum, pleurotus, armillaria, the mushrooms for commoners—not to be confused with the common mushrooms—in some ramshackle melange: risotto, burritos, spaghetti con funghi. I didn’t yet know about xerampelina‘s singularity, it’s subtle sophistication. It’s popularity with the the diptera flies should have been all the recommendation I needed, but they’re flies.

So basically my wife didn’t trust them (me) enough to allow me to serve them as the main feast, as I (we) now feel they so richly deserve. She didn’t know that I’d been feeding them to her all along in small quantities all along, combined with the more familiar species. But I wonder: how long must one go on not sickening (or killing) someone before they trust you without question, unhesitatingly, absolument? How long before we can eat a grisette, in other words?  I don’t know, but I started with some ham and xerampelina crepes:

I made some chestnut crepes with this recipe that is accredited to Martha Stewart, and we”ll just leave that here:

1 1/2 C sifted chestnut flour
1/8 tsp salt
1 1/4 C milk
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 C (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted

Mix the first four ingredients in the order listed. Whisk in one tablespoon melted butter. The rest of the butter is to grease the pan a little before each crepe. Or you could just do what I did: put all the butter into the batter, grease the pan before your first crepe, and be done with it. I will say that this recipe is a little unsatisfactory, as it’s really for desert crepes. I’d like a more floury, less eggy crepe next time.

Then I made mornay sauce. Recipes are so fucking boring. Here’s a recipe written by dear old Craig Claiborne, probably taught to him by Pierre Franey. So, like Pierre, we use gruyere instead of cheddar (and this recipe makes about twice as much as I did).

I sliced the mushrooms and sauteed them in butter, with a sprinkle of salt and some thinly julienned red chilies. Chilies with mushrooms is, I think, an Oregon thing. Witness the treatment of mushrooms at so many classic Oregon establishments—Higgins, Joel Palmer House, Columbian Cafe…

Then I put the mushrooms into the mornay:


Shrimp Mushroom Mornay

Shrimp mushroom Mornay

The rest is self explanatory:20140825_19280620140825_192418 20140825_192427 20140825_194241


The dabbling of mornay over the top is to keep them moist while they bake, uncovered, at 450F until the ends brown a bit and they are heated through, 15-20 minutes.



Benzaldehyde’s a Bitch

You ever heard of this benzaldehyde? I’d never heard of it until recently when I decided to discover exactly what it was that I hated about almond extract, cherry Coke, and Oregon myrtle (aka California bay). That’s what it is.

According to this guy, the benzaldehyde is formed as one of the breakdown products of amygdalin and amygdalin’s arch enemy—amygdalin hydrolase. Amygdalin hydrolase catalyzes the reaction that turns amygdalin into sucrose, cyanide, and benzaldehyde. Cyanide.

When an animal like you or me crunches into a bitter almond, or a peach, cherry, or apricot nut, the two chemicals are brought together so that the “bitterness” of benzaldehyde warns us that what we are about to eat, might kill us. If we don’t heed that warning, the cyanide may indeed kill us. This means that if you enjoy bitter almond flavor, I perversely have a greater sense of self-preservation than you. We didn’t see that coming.

My boy over at that other blog says that for this reason artificial almond flavor is superior to natural, since natural almond extract actually contains some cyanide while artificial is pure benzaldehyde. I don’t really care. It all tastes of death to me.

Technology Can Take Care of Itself!

For an assignment in college, I wrote a review of Rowan Jacobsen’s American Terroir, a readable and informative, if stylistically flawed, argument for the application of the eponymous French notion to American soil. Borrowing from the format of Pollan’s Botany of Desire, Jacobsen walks us through a selection of American foods and agricultural products (Avocados from Michoacan, Yakima Valley apples, Puget sound oysters…Puget Sound?! Get the fuck out of here with that polluted backwater; Willapa bay or die!) and explains the geological, meteorological, hydrological, ecological, and whatever other logical contributes to the product’s individual distinction. It really is a good piece of pop-scientific nonfiction, kind of my favorite genre.

Anyway, this professor, a published writer of some popular nonfiction in the science vein, took exception to this passage in my piece:

The facts, concepts and philosophies woven throughout the book defend Jacobsen’s baldly staked positions on various contemporary culinary controversies. Jacobsen states his distaste for “molecular gastronomy,” the branch of contemporary culinary culture that employs the methods of the laboratory in the kitchen, early in the book: “I have no interest in this food” (15). It’s a popular position to take, but Jacobsen illuminates his position with a visit to Les Jardins Sauvages outside of Montreal where the focus is on Cuisine Sauvage: cooking with the produce of forest and fallow. The proprietor, Francois Brouillard would, “when he was five dehydrate grasshoppers on the woodstove, steal his mother’s rolling pin, and crush them to make a crust for the fish he’d caught in the river” (119). The techniques are inventive, creative, totally original, but low-tech and therefore, accessible. Jacobsen takes a swipe at Hervé This, the “father of molecular gastronomy” for “taking paint sprayers to innocent pieces of goat cheese” (124). Perhaps Jacobsen would find more to love about This if he’d read chapter 59 of Molecular Gastonomy in which he explains the empirical truths behind le terroir in cheese-making (203).

Regardless, Jacobsen’s culinary worldview is more aligned with that of Nancy Hinton, Brouillard’s wife and chef de cuisine, who has been creating a new type of cuisine completely outside of the conventional paradigm using not high-tech gadgetry or food-as-theatre pyrotechnics, but an artist’s intuition. Specifically, she and Brouillard forage their own ingredients to create such oddities as Cattail stock, desert courses seasoned with dried mushrooms, and pureés enriched with pigweed.

This is not to say that Jacobsen sees no place for manipulation or scientific inquiry in the realm of culinary arts, indeed his introductory explanation of the chemistry of taste makes clear that he appreciates an empirical approach, but that the “molecular gastronomic” approach to cooking follows in a certain tradition. Jacobsen traces that tradition to Antoine Carême “France’s ‘King of Chefs and Chef of Kings’” (14). The problem with this type of cooking, not to suggest that the world would be richer or more equal without it, is that it relies on a heavy battery of specialized equipment to produce highly manipulated and deconstructed food whose object is not necessarily to be satisfying or even delicious, but rarified. It takes power away from the ingredients themselves, and the common people who might be inspired by them, and invests it wholly in the engineer, or chef, or technician.

Now aside from noting how much better of a writer I was in college, you can see where I take Jacobsen’s side in the molecular gastronomy vs. traditional technique “debate,” while still granting that these molecular gastronomists might have something to teach us about the raw ingredient. Actually, I added that little sentence defending Hervé This after I got back the first draft from my professor on which he had scrawled “anti-intellectual” (in the context of a sentence) in regards to this passage. Yes, my professor suggested that criticism of techno-cuisine is tantamount to a thoughtless, knuckle-dragging, celebration of ignorance.

Obviously, this sticks in my craw (and a craw is not a claw, or a paw, or the space between your cat’s paw and claw like it sounds— it’s a bird’s esophageal digestive organ, the crop, the throat) and informs a lot of what I write and think about today. From my piece on letterpress, to my interviews with woodworkers using traditional techniques and materials to build restaurant wood surfaces, to my crazed ranting about Soylent, I’m fascinated with the tension between the traditional and the technological, the hand-crafted vs. the computer engineered, the analog and the binary. This isn’t to suggest that there’s a clear “choice” to be made between these “poles”, or even that there is a polar dichotomy to choose between. But I’m sure you can intuit what I’m getting at here, if you really want to, that is.

My professor, like a lot of modern people, conflates a slew of independent concepts into a monolith called Intellect, or Science, or Progress, or something like that, and it pisses me the fuck off. First, if we can’t decouple science from technology, then to criticize a technology is to criticize the science that makes the technology possible. Case in point: Genetically modified crops. Scientific American and other scientific publications have been on a hot tear in defense of GMO’s. And I understand their concern since a lot of people who are critical of GMO’s see the entire technology as not just fundamentally flawed, but actually evil. These opponents throw the technology and the science together into the same large bag and set it ideologically aflame, while the science and technology establishment stand at the top of the mount and thunder down: “You Fools! I give you fire, and you drown it as thoughtlessly as you would a kitten!” This is unproductive since, in my opinion, the technology has primarily been deployed as a wealth generation machine for agribusiness, but holds promise for medicine and agriculture on a warming planet (disease resistance, drought resistance, etc….) However, we can’t really control what the technology is used for once it’s deployed; the market (and to a lesser extent the unelected bureaucracy) makes those decisions for us. So I say, label it. If the genetics are sufficiently novel to get market protection in the form of a patent, then they are sufficiently novel to handle market scrutiny. These are big kid genetics. Not because I think BT soybeans are poisonous or something, but because that’s the only control any of us can hope to have over the deployment of new technologies which purportedly exist to serve us, but which are actually deployed to make us serve their real masters: the people with the capital to build and own them. (And yes, I realize that these technologies are older than cell phones at this point, but agribusiness has been fighting these efforts tooth and nail for decades now.)

See what I did there? I used principals derived from a wide body of human study and interest to make a decision regarding the regulation of a technology, without attacking the science behind the technology. Nifty huh?

But what about that molecular gastronomy? That stuff, by definition, exists to serve people tasty food, right? Sure, it’s just harmless experimentation, “playing with food” as it were. But what much of it really does is to trade skills for equipment. For example: Water circulators (and this is not a knock on you guys who have them. I love you guys! Thanks for reading!) pretty much cook the food for you. Seal the food in an airtight pouch with a vacuum-sealing machine, set the circulator for the temperature of optimal doneness, drop it in, and forgettaboutit. Sure beats spending years sweating over the stove learning to cook the product at the exact right temperature (as determined by how quickly it burns your hand), how long to rest after cooking and in what medium, and how to determine doneness by sight and touch. All that skill, all that accumulated intuition, gets reduced to a button. I feel the same way about Traegers. Still, your Traeger brisket generally looks like a pasty white-boy approximation of what a Kansas City pitmaster moving meat around on pikes in a room-size brick oven turns out. It tastes good, sure. But, (and this is where I digress into all sorts of squishy, subjective feelings and stuff) it lacks soul. And soul, as far as I’m concerned, resides entirely in the burnt ends.  

As for the rest of it, it confounds criticism. It stands so far apart from what we recognize as food that it becomes impossible to place value judgements on it. I cannot say whether this lichen-smoke puff or nitro-frozen olive oil slick is well executed because, what the fuck am I going to judge it against? And that’s fine, because if these foods stick around long enough to become established parts of mainstream cuisine, we’ll eventually establish benchmarks to judge them by. (“Oh, this seaweed and uni foam has way too much…mass. It coats the palate almost like… sustenance.”) And when these foams and nitro-freezes and vapors and ethers become as common as french fries, were all gonna need some new cooking equipment. And bigger kitchens. Because nearly every new technology comes on as a harmless little amusement or a productivity-enhancing tool, quickly progresses to indispensable for the responsible worker-citizen, and eventually slays everyone who doesn’t adopt it. Technology is an insinuating little bully like that, so stop treating it like a sacrosanct institution: Technology will smite all it’s enemies in due time. Technology can take care of itself.