When I received my mushroom kit in the mail, it looked like a small shoebox. The instructions took me only five minutes to follow: Stand the box upright, open the perforated window, slice through the plastic sheet with a knife, and “mist” the surface. The kit even came with a miniature spray bottle, the kind I’ve used to keep my cats off the furniture.
Then I started to wait. In 10 days, the kit promised, I’d enjoy a half-pound of fresh oyster mushrooms
“I don’t know if I’d trust a mushroom I grew myself,” friends told me, usually with an awkward laugh. It did seem a little strange to stick a box full of recycled coffee grounds in my basement. I’ve maintained a few plants in my day, but they always started as seeds, not spores. Still, I loved the idea of cultivating mushrooms. Unlike nearly everyone I know, I love mushrooms. I inhale portabella burgers. I eagerly whip up mushroom omelets. I could eat sautéed shiitakes with anything. I love that they’re packed with vitamins C, B6 and B12. I love that they’re full of protein and substitute so nicely for meat
And the best part, I learned, is that growing mushrooms has a green impact, even if nothing green is involved. Back to the Roots is a new company based in California, founded by Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora during their last semester at Berkeley. Their idea was to recycle organic waste for growing food. This year, Velez and Arora expect to reuse 3.6 million lbs. of coffee grounds. The mushrooms’ secret ingredient is as simple as the muck at the bottom of your French press.
Back to the Roots is only three years old, but already Velez and Arora have become a media sensation, and they’ve even lectured at the ultra-posh TEDx. They have marketed their kits in a variety of ways, from family-friendly science project to epicurean’s delight.
That said, nothing can distract me from the sheer weirdness of growing fungus in my own home. Unlike tomatoes and bean sprouts, mushrooms do not thrive in sunlight. Indeed, I was instructed to find a dark, moist place to keep my little box of ground coffee. The box simply stands in the open air, in the dark, a safe distance from my two investigative cats
Although I love mushrooms, and I once seriously considered picking matsutakes in Oregon, I didn’t know much about them. As it turns out, pearl oyster mushrooms are not the neatly chopped white mushrooms you find at the supermarket. Agaricus bisporus (the “button mushroom”) grows on the ground, often in grassy meadows. They particularly love growing in manure, which is why my friend Bill never eats a mushroom of any kind.
I was even surprised to learn that button mushrooms and portabella mushrooms are the same thing. The species Agaricus bisporus starts as a creamy round cap, and then it flattens into a parchment-colored saucer. Given the right environment, they can grow as large as a Frisbee.
In contrast, the oyster mushroom typically grows on trees and stumps. Just as edible, the Pleurotus genus has a wide, floppy cap and a gilled stem. The oyster mushroom looks a little like a sleepy guy in a sombrero. They cling ostentatiously to the bark of fallen trees, clumped together in warped little tribes.
From Blob to Bounty
Mushrooms don’t grow like garden plants. I prepared myself with time-lapsed YouTube clips, and had I not watched them, I might have felt weird about the fungi evolving in my garage. The mushrooms begin as a mossy black clump, the kind of mildewy stuff you fear finding in your closet. Then the spores find critical mass and separate into dark gray blobs, which gradually lighten into baby caps. The eerie part is when the mushrooms actually push through their plastic wrapper, looking more Photoshop than toadstool.
Now that I was prepared, I couldn’t wait to watch my mushrooms grow. Pittsburgh is a wet and overcast city, with plenty of grim cellars. If this worked, I imagined starting a subterranean farm. But that would be later. In 10 days, I could look forward to a decent salad.