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Fungus Alert

In search of "wild mushrooms"

Lewis Carroll produced the perfect portrait of the prototypical copywriter in 1871, when in Through the Looking Glass, he had Humpty Dumpty explain to Alice, "When I use a word…it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

This Humpty Dumptyism infects many varieties of American speech. Perhaps, because unlike France, the United States does not have an Academy of Immortals whose job it is to fix the meaning of words precisely and vet which words enter the language and which do not. Writers of restaurant menus, and those who critique them, are particularly egregious practitioners of Humpty Dumptyism. How many times have you been served an appetizer -- a noun that comes from a verb that means "to excite or sharpen one's desire for food" -- that could surfeit the front line of the Nebraska Cornhuskers? An insidious new term appearing in restaurant-related journalism is "concept," as seen in the current issue (no. 37) of my table, where a restaurant named Surfer's Paradise is described as "Part of a seafood chain that has two other concepts in California and two in Hawaii…." What do you eat at a "concept"? Virtual food?

In order to accurately identify the actual perpetrators of this Humpty Dumptyist School of Lexicology and then apply to their figurative sad, saggy bottoms the whistling, corrective rod of the Houston Press's ire, a suitably rigorous experiment must be devised and run on a word with a clear meaning. "Appetizer" lacks rigor in that one can always eat less than the entire portion of a given dish. "Concept" does have a legitimate use, not in the vocabulary of diners, but plausibly in the language of food-service professionals and especially educators who run restaurant-management programs. There, general principles are taught that can be applied to all types of food-related businesses and services.

The phrase "wild mushrooms" fits this bill of particulars. As a descriptive term, it is as common on mid-range restaurant menus as toadstools on suburban lawns after a summer rain. The word "wild" has come down to us orthographically intact from the pure Anglo-Saxon of the late Dark Ages. The meaning has shifted over the past millennium; our Anglo-Saxon ancestors used the word to denote something chaotic, as in "Yo! Beowulf, you planning on getting jiggy with that wild Celtic babe?" Today, its primary meaning is "living or growing in its original, natural state; not domesticated or cultivated."

When asked, waitpersons in restaurants with "wild mushroom" dishes on the menu invariably return with a list of common names of species. The normal varieties are button mushrooms. (Agaricus bisporus is a mushroom that has been cultivated since the 17th century. The white variety is a mutant strain that appeared in a Pennsylvania mushroom grower's greenhouse in the early 1920s. Like beefsteak tomatoes or American Beauty roses, it is not found in nature.) Then there are cremini mushrooms. (Called A. bisporus in its original, brown-skinned form, the fungus had its name ceremoniously changed as a marketing ploy designed to play into America's love affair with Italian food.) The portobello also makes frequent appearances on menus. (Another A. bisporus, this time grown under slightly different conditions to produce a larger fruit body; the name, again, is a copywriter's invention.) Don't forget about the shiitake. (Lentinula edodes, a mushroom cultivated in China since the beginning of the last millennium. The common American name is actually Japanese.) On occasion, diners also run into less frequently cultivated fungi, such as the oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus); the enokitake (Flammulina velutipes); the wood ear or tree ear (Auricularia auricula); or the hen-of-the-woods (Grifola frondosa). The last four can be found in the wild in North America.

Are the growers and marketers of these mushrooms selling their produce as wild? The Monterey Mushroom Company, whose home office is, not surprisingly, near Monterey, California, has a satellite operation near Madisonville, about halfway between Houston and Dallas along Interstate 45. The high-tech plant, located on a mere ten acres of land, produces most of the mushrooms consumed in Texas. David Nesselrode, a cultivation manager for the company, rattled off some of the astonishing statistics of this indoor farm.

"We harvest 500,000 pounds of Agaricus [button and cremini] per week and some 35,000 pounds of ports. The Pleurotus harvest is less than 1,000 pounds per week. In a year, we grow 25 million pounds of Agaricus." Would Nesselrode describe the farm's output as "wild"? "Personally, I wouldn't," he replied, adding that "99.9 percent of mushrooms in restaurants are commercially cultivated." When pressed, Nesselrode did offer the opinion that cultivated mushrooms, other than the white button variety, are referred to as "exotic," but never "wild." The packaging used by Monterey never bears the word "wild." So, that is not the source of the mangled nomenclature.

A casual survey of Houston restaurants offering "wild mushroom" dishes turned up Urbana [3407 Montrose, (713)521-1086], which offers a highly regarded "chicken and wild mushroom quesadilla"; Habanero Blue [1601 Commerce, (713)224-4468], which has a tasty appetizer described as "Wild Mushrooms and Queso Frescos Sopes"; and Mia Bella [320 Main, (713)237-0505], home of the novel and delicate "Strudel di Funghi e Formaggio" appetizer that the menu further describes as "wild mushroom strudel with goat cheese."

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