Black pearl and blue oyster mushrooms Credit: Mike Sula

Never have I ever objected to anything my esteemed colleague Ben Joravsky has written. Up until two weeks ago he’s been the perfect embodiment of soulful wit and journalistic pugnaciousness—always punching up, never down.

And then he went after mushrooms.

Specifically he wrote that mushrooms are “mindless”; as in unquestioning dummies that passively swallow the bullshit government shoves down their throats.

Ben, mushrooms thrive on bullshit. And there’s a good reason for it.

Mushrooms are merely the visible fruits of vast unseen mycelial networks; threadlike structures that protect and connect the roots of plants, with the ability to warn the other growing things in the forest of impending disease and pestilence. Symbolically, they’re a natural manifestation of the creativity and growth that flourishes in the underground. Mushrooms are naturally rebellious, and they definitely aren’t dumb.

Stop picking on fungi, Ben.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the miracle of mushrooms, ever since Joe Weber of Logan Square fungi farm Four Star Mushrooms started offering gardeners the spent substrate that he grows 11 species of (mostly) edible fungi on.

You might have tasted his mushrooms if you’ve eaten food from Alinea, Elizabeth, or North Pond lately. More likely you’ve come across them at retail outlets like Local Foods and Totto’s Market.

Weber’s mushrooms don’t grow on shit, but they do flush from an organic mixture of soybean hulls and red oak sawdust that he laboriously bags and inoculates into five-pound blocks, each one producing up to four pounds of mushrooms over a month or two.

After that he needs to make room for a new crop. But that doesn’t mean the old substrate is dead. It still contains plenty of active mycelium and the nutrients needed to feed it. If you have access to a shady spot that you can keep moist, Weber says you can grow your own mushrooms for at least a year.

It’s alive. Four Star Mushroom substrateCredit: Mike Sula

That’s doing in the dark gangway next to my sugar shack with the stuff Weber gave me a few weeks ago. Any of the mushroom species he grows can potentially flush out. It’s . . . ahh . . . umm . . . a crap shoot. But after a week I have blue oysters, black pearls, lion’s mane, and another variety I’m not sure about. But even if nothing popped up, I’d be satisfied to have smothered the tangle of weeds that covered the spot with this soft spongy carpet that smells like a morel-topped pizza just pulled from the oven.

You can use it like a mulch in that way, or as a compost additive for gardening—though it’s pretty salty, so Weber recommends you let it lay outside for a season before working with it. In the coming weeks he’s going to begin selling shredded and bagged substrate for something around $10 per 25-pound bag, which is a small startup price for your very own underground rebel network.  v


Originally published in the Reader’s Food & Drink newsletter. Subscribe here.