“Hey, you sure are a fun guy,” my sixth-grade science teacher would say, trying to get us all to laugh at the lame twist of pronunciation on the word “fungi.”
“I think there is a fun Gus “among-Gus,” he’d continue, as the brown-nosers in the front row would giggle and titter, while the rest of us in class would moan in pain at the lameness of his humor.
Nevertheless, learning about mushrooms was a highly anticipated day at my junior high. It was one of the few times that our science teacher—with his wavy, groovy hair, slightly higher than mid-thigh shorts, tight polo shirt, puka beads, and a mid-1970s Tom Sellek moustache—singled out the sixth grade class as special. Mushroom day was when he brought in the giant Puffball mushroom that he has picked from some secret location in a nearby wood, to slice, batter, fry, and serve to each of his sixth-grade science classes. I wonder if a teacher would still be allowed to bring in a wild mushroom and serve it to his class? Somehow I think not.
My little sister ate some small, wild mushrooms one afternoon with the neighbor boy. My mom rushed them both to the hospital to have their stomachs pumped after they had consumed a large quantity of a charcoal-like substance. Because of her unrelated incident, the Puffball mushroom always gave me pause, but it never stopped me. Who could turn down anything from Tom Selleck?!
I am in Minnesota working at the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, Minnesota AND it happens to be morel mushroom season at the moment. Drive around town and you will see signs in food market windows proudly and enthusiastically announcing: “We have Morels!” “The Morels are In!” “It’s Morel Time!” Families have been taking Saturday morning excursions into the wooded bluffs of the Mississippi River to harvest these sponge-like spires. Morels are IT, at the moment.
I love mushrooms. I always have—long before my Tom Selleck of a science teacher fried my first puffball. Growing up they were always on the pizza my family ordered or my mom would make her “special” green beans, which weren’t very special at all now that I think about it—drained, canned mushrooms were added to canned green beans in a pan with a little salt and pepper, and maybe a pat of margarine. But at the time, they were very special green beans indeed—all because of the mushrooms.
In Italy, the Porcini mushroom is the “fun-guy” “among-gus.”
[Italian pronunciation: “porcini”=”pour-CHEE-nee”; “funghi”=”FOON-gee”]
Large and toadstool-shaped, they are the mushrooms that I imagine always having a woodland sprite cleverly perched upon its cap deep in the Italian woods. Moth, Cobweb, Mustardseed, and Peaseblossom could easily have been perched on the Porcini mushrooms Shakespeare might have found had he been in the Italian woods while writing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Nonna made several mushroom dishes while I was with the family in Viterbo. Mushroom-filled crespelli (crepes), a bruschetta of mixed mushrooms, and a penne pasta with mushrooms and cream—the recipe for it is in my book Beyond the Pasta: Recipes, Language & Life with an Italian Family.
I am excited to be in Winona for the morels in May and I hope to be in Viterbo for the porcini in September. Nonna’s penne recipe is going to have a Winona-twist on it later this week when I make the dish with fresh morels instead of fresh porcini. An experiment is always good. I think my science teacher would approve.
I do like my funghi!