My Side of the Mushroom

This is my mother’s recipe. It’s her story and I’m stealing it. That’s the fate of our poor parents, to have their nostalgias taken from them and manipulated by those they trust (and here Jesus, and God—who are both definitely reading this—nod knowingly, as if to say, “You’re telling me, man.”) I could go on; I have mom stories for days, especially involving food.  Once—I shit you not—she drove us from our home in Toronto all the way to Memphis, just for ribs. I met a professional wrestler in a bar on that trip (she took us to bars; bars that served food). If my life had ended at that moment, I would have died happy—and remarkably healthy for a dead 9-year-old.  And I don’t even think he was WWF.  He was probably just a giant man.

It was my mother who, in the ’80s, discovered the ranch up in the San Juan mountains, and it was she who taught me this recipe. She is therefore twice over responsible for what followed (or thrice if you count that whole birthing thing, which I do not). Many years later, but when I was still a young man, I returned to the ranch to work. I would say I was playing cowboy. I’m fine with that. I slept in a barn. I shoveled shit and bailed hay. Most days, at 6 am, I rode a horse up a grassy mountainside dappled with Aspens to convince many more horses—and several mules—back to breakfast. I chased coyotes across meadows. It was real enough.

What I remember about that time has little to do with horses:

  • Waking up to mice running over my uncovered body, face included.
  • My first gun
  • The purple label on a $6 bottle of vodka
  • Hitchhiking
  • Sexual incompetence
  • Coffee, just grinds and river water, boiled in a cast iron kettle over an open fire
  • A hospital room in Alamosa, Colorado
  • Those mushrooms

I can’t tell you which route I was riding, but I know I was searching for Dunton Meadows; acres of sun-beaten grasses where we liked to run the horses. To access the meadows, you had to climb two hours on switchbacks up steep, wooded hills. Twice during ascents we found hikers in trees (inexperienced hikers will climb trees when they catch sight of a bear; unfortunately, a black bear can climb a tree faster than any human, and a grizzly can knock it down).  It was above those hills, in the pines that edged the meadows, where we found the chanterelles.

I knew something of the potential penalties of ingesting poisonous mushrooms from a laminated poster that hung in the barn.  They ranged from benign “drowsiness,” to the nightmarish “coma,” which, when you think about it, is really just much more severe “drowsiness.”  But there was an expert back at the ranch, so we picked fearlessly. Endless orange aberrations made their way into our saddlebags until it looked like they were fighting the canvas to escape—tiny boxers working a bag from the inside.

“Mushroom hunters came to southern Colorado from all over the world hoping to find what I had, and I was just tossing them into an everyday pasta sauce.”

The ranch also operated as a restaurant and its industrial kitchen should have overwhelmed, but I was young and showing off, so I barely noticed. I raided the walk-in for lemons, parsley, and butter (the smell of that fridge, that’s another thing I’ll never forget; add it to the list). Using the same knife I’d used to chop the mushrooms, I took a diagonal slice from a girder of butter. I didn’t even measure; I wanted to keep moving and I knew this sauce well, for the most part.  I had only ever worked with pedestrian, cultivated mushrooms: the button, cremini, and portabellos the grocery store heaped in unimpressive mounds. I knew chanterelles only by reputation and by the high price on the laminated card that the mushrooms themselves supported—somewhat mockingly, I thought—from their “woodsy” looking basket at the specialty food shop. Mushroom hunters came to southern Colorado from all over the world hoping to find what I had, and I was just tossing them into an everyday pasta sauce.  There was joy for me in imposing an extraordinary ingredient on the quotidian—Wolverine using his claws to slice bread—that would, for as long as the flavor lasted, transform my little world.

The pasta took forever to cook. We lived at 10,000 feet above sea level, so this was a fact of life, but not one of which I was aware.  I was laughing. After months of peanut butter sandwiches I was so close to sharing the perfect food, this taste of home augmented by our treasure—a singular flavor as complex, robust and nutty as anything in the world of mushrooms—and I was being stymied by the most simple cooking step in the book: boiling water.

“These were not mushrooms that would be found by anyone else; these inexact flavors could never be reproduced.”

Eventually it came together. I used linguine. I won’t try to describe the flavor, save it to say I’ve never made better, and every chanterelle since has been a letdown.  We ate it in that large, haunting kitchen—I, in my dirty jeans, perched on an aluminum counter—the bowls in our hands. These were not mushrooms that would be found by anyone else; these inexact flavors could never be reproduced. It was the best version of something I’d prepared a hundred times, magnified by an independence that was as new to me as it was inflated. My discovery, my driving, my recipe, my ride. One feels taller on a horse—more man—but you are not; it’s his legs, her strength. Still, the difference between confidence and feeling confident is grey and gossamer.

I woke up late that night with a weight on my many blankets, something foreign on the edge of my bed.  She’d been out at the bar with the staff old enough to get in, which was all of them but me.  She was wearing a towel, smiling bigger than Indiana.  “It was really good,” she said.

Sorry, mom.


INGREDIENTS

1 lb. fettucine or linguine

1/3 c. olive oil

1/3 c. butter

1/2 lb. mushrooms, sliced (cremini, white button)

1/2 lb. different mushrooms, sliced (portabello, shitake, oyster…whatever you can afford)

2 lemon rinds, grated (only grate the yellow; no white)

1/2 c. lemon juice

1/2 c. whipping cream (optional)

2 tbs. chopped parsley

pepper

1/4 c. parmesan, grated

1 clove garlic

PREPARATION NOTES

1.  Cook pasta (3-5 mins if fresh)

2.  In a large skillet, hear olive oil and butter using low/medium heatAdd mushrooms and lemon rind an sauté until just limp

3.  Bruise the garlic and add it

4.  Add lemon juice and simmer for 2 minutes

5.  Add cream and allow to thicken (approximately 2 minutes)

6.  Season with pepper and stir in parsley

7.  Toss with pasta and serve cheese separately

 

John Ortved: 

1 Square
3 Tbsp self-satisfaction
1 Cup oats
½  Cup Wasp
½  Cup Jew
1 Litre Canadian fealty
Dash of salt
1 Tsp prurience
¼  Cup middle child, poorly aged
½ Tsp neo-liberal economics

Mix in a bowl until only a few lumps remain, then gently pour into well-greased publications like the New York TimesVanity FairGQNew YorkMcSweeney’s and the New Yorker.