I typically get a lot of weird looks when I announce to people that I spent a large part of my summer selling mushrooms. I'll admit, it's an unusual job to have, but also a good one.
My boss at Mainly Mushrooms, LLC and his network of wild foragers picked mushrooms nationwide, and they ended up on my table where I sold them to the mushroom-eating populace of a couple of local farmer's markets. This unexpected job taught me a couple of unexpected lessons.
1. People have a lot of feelings about mushrooms.
The truth about mushrooms is this: some people love them, some people hate them. Very few people lie in the middle ground. It was pretty common for a couple to come up to my stand, one gagging and shouting that they "refused to eat fungus" while their significant other excitedly picked out $15 worth of their favorite type and passionately explained how they planned on cooking them.
I also learned that mushrooms can be a nostalgic food for some people. I had a lot of customers who had grown up eating wild mushrooms, sometimes in places like Eastern Europe, who told me that my chanterelle mushrooms reminded them of home. They told me that foraging mushrooms had once been like a sport for them. The same went for midwesterners, who missed their favorite fried morel mushrooms.
2. Cooking mushrooms is not as tricky as you think.
It's as simple as a quick sauté. We carried tons of recipes to let people use with their mushrooms, and I tried quite a few of them, but in the end, it just came down to throwing them in a pan with some oil and garlic before throwing them on whatever else I was eating for my next meal.
3. There are way more options than just the button mushroom.
The tiny sliced brown mushrooms you're used to are not all that's out there. There's a whole world of mushrooms.
There were at least ten varieties of mushroom on my table every week. Sure, I sold button mushrooms, portabella and shiitake, but I also sold some less common ones. Ten points if you've ever heard of chicken of the woods, cauliflower mushroom, morels, or chanterelles. Even more points if you've tried them—they all taste different.
4. Mushrooms are a great substitute ingredient.
Perhaps the most amazing way I found mushrooms can be used was in desserts. We carried dried mushroom called the candy cap. Its flavor is often compared to maple syrup, and it's usually ground up and used to flavor sweet things including cookies and ice cream.
My personal favorite mushroom imitation was "shiitake bacon." A customer taught me that if you oil and salt shiitake slices and press them between two pans in the oven, it actually makes a pretty satisfying bacon substitute. I put them on a BLT. There are a lot of ways for vegetarian and vegan people to use mushrooms as substitutes.
Nobody ever believed me when I described the lobster mushroom. Bright red on the outside, white on the inside, yes, it genuinely tastes like lobster. All in all, its no surprise mushrooms are a favorite of vegetarians.
5. Mushrooms are an underrated food.
After an entire summer of taste-testing different mushrooms and recipes, I've come to realize that mushrooms are delicious, easy to experiment with, and just plain fun to cook. I'm missing their regular place in my diet now that I'm back at school. I want to take them out of their place as a scary, strange thing you only get on pizzas and sometimes burgers, and show people how delicious and versatile this whimsical food really can be.
Morel of the story? A fungi adds life to the party.