The Mighty Kingdom of Mushrooms

“Nature alone is antique, and the oldest art a mushroom.”
~Thomas Carlyle

September is National Mushroom Month.

A time to celebrate one of nature’s greatest gifts—the mushroom.

The festivity has its roots in the Mushroom Festival, which has traditionally been held the second week of September in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.

However, National Mushroom Month only became official in 1992 when both the Governor of Pennsylvania and the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture declared September as National Mushroom Month.

Let’s discover the history and the health benefits of mushrooms together.

What Is a Mushroom Exactly?

shiitake mushrooms

Mushrooms are technically a fungus, not a plant.

In fact, mushrooms belong in a kingdom of their own, separate from both plants and animals because of how they obtain their nutrients.

Plants make their food using the sun’s energy in a process called photosynthesis while animals eat and then internally digest their food.

Fungi do neither. Their mycelium grows in or around a food source, secrete enzymes that digest the food externally, and then absorb the nutrients.

Experts say that about 14,000 varieties of mushrooms exist. While some are poisonous, the vast majority of mushrooms are edible and delicious!

Here is a brief description of some of the most popular varieties of mushrooms:

  • The White Mushroom: This is the most common type of mushroom, native to North America and Europe. Its scientific name is Agaricus bisporus but it is also known as a table mushroom, Italian mushroom or white button mushroom. Its stalk and dome-shaped top boast a mild flavor. When immature, these mushrooms are white in color; common names include cremini and baby bella. A mature white mushroom turns brown and is called a Portobello.
  • The Morel: A cone-shaped mushroom, morels (or Morchella) are darker in color, ranging from tan to brown. The morel has a sponge-like and porous appearance and a strong flavor that is often described as ‘earthy’ or ‘nutty.’
  • The Shiitake: Native to Asia, shiitakes are brown mushrooms with a wide-umbrella-shaped top. Because of their dense taste, they are often used as a meat substitute in plant-based dishes.
  • The Truffle: Often referred to as the ‘diamond in the kitchen,’ truffles are considered a rare delicacy. They are recognizable by their bumpy, uneven appearance and strong, meaty flavor. Truffles have a high price tag because searching for them is a long, labor-intensive process. They can be found by dogs (or pigs!) who have been trained to recognize the truffle’s distinct odor.

The History of the Mushroom

For centuries, very little was known about mushrooms.

mushroom

They were simultaneously considered to be delicious, deadly, magical and mysterious.

Because of the mushroom’s mixed reputation, the world was originally split between the Eastern half that loved mushrooms (mycophiles) and the other half that feared them (mycophobes).

That division melted away when the French introduced mushrooms into their haute cuisine, and the Western world started to embrace this culinary novelty.

Americans became enthusiastic fans and even began to form clubs dedicated to finding and cooking different types of mushrooms.

Kate Sargeant’s One Hundred Mushroom Recipes, published in 1899, was one of the first American books devoted to preparing mushrooms. Way ahead of her day, Sargeant talks about how mushrooms are the ‘meatiest’ of ‘vegetables’ and even suggests using them in place of meat.

Why Mushrooms Are Good for You

morel mushroomEarly civilizations understood the healing properties of mushrooms; in fact, the ancient Egyptians called them the plant of mortality.

Simply put, mushrooms are good for you.

They are low in calories, filled with antioxidants, fiber, and protein, and also an excellent source of B vitamins, selenium, potassium, copper and Vitamin D.

Preliminary studies show some evidence that, when included in a healthful diet, mushrooms may:

  • Boost the immune system
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Promote gut bacteria health
  • Help lower cancer risk (specifically breast cancer)
  • Protect against cognitive impairment

Dr. Rosane Oliveira and Classic Mushroom RisottoHow to Celebrate National Mushroom Month

The best way to celebrate National Mushroom Month is to eat them!

And to help you do just that, here is one of my favorite mushroom recipes: Classic Mushroom Risotto.

Enjoy, and happy National Mushroom Month!