On the weekend after Labor Day in the hilly town of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, a group that totaled 80,000 people gathered to celebrate. Many drove across state lines to get there. They weren’t commemorating a monumental day in history or an important win at the Little League World Series. No, these people had arrived to celebrate the humble little mushroom at the town’s 29th annual Mushroom Festival.
Located about 30 miles outside Philadelphia, Kennett Square isn’t that unusual of a place to host such a quirky event. After all, it is renowned for being the “Mushroom Capital of the World,” an area where half of America’s mushrooms are grown. As you drive through it, you’ll occasionally catch a mildly unpleasant whiff of the nearby farms and the compost used to grow their prized product. You’ll also see Kennett Square’s nickname branded on the town’s water tower. If there’s anywhere that deserves the rights to a funky fungi festival, it’s here.
But what is it about mushrooms, exactly, that draws such an enormous crowd year after year? I was curious. So I went to find out.
If when you hear the word “mushroom” you imagine pre-sliced white buttons in little pre-packaged Styrofoam tubs, you’re apparently not alone. The festival’s most popular attraction was the specialty mushroom table, which featured exotic types like shiitake, maitake, royal trumpet, and oyster (yellow, pink, and gray) mushrooms. People crowded around, taking photos on their phones of shrooms they had never seen before, asking questions of the growers standing behind the table.
“For a lot of people, all they know are white mushrooms and portobellos,” said Todd Cullen, a manager at Phillips Mushroom Farms, as he was busy poring over a bed of young, budding mushrooms. “They’re amazed to see the whole gamut of what we grow here.”
In another tent, local chefs gave live cooking demonstrations to encourage the crowd to embrace all types of mushrooms at home.
“We should all be eating more mushrooms, and I’m not just saying that because we’re in the Mushroom Capital of the World,” said Brett Hulbert, executive chef of Portabello’s Restaurant in Kennett Square, as he sautéed a variety of exotic mushrooms in Madeira wine and butter. He gave the pan another toss. “I mean, just look at these!”
“You want to try to keep as much of the integrity of the mushroom as possible,” said Will Tornay of Long Cove Foods as he prepared his signature dish — warm vegan scrapple with a roasted maitake and oyster mushroom salad. “It’ll be worth it.”
When it comes to believing that mushrooms deserve more attention in the culinary scene, the festival and its passionate attendees aren’t alone. Little by little, the humble little mushroom is gaining a ritzier profile that extends beyond Kennett Square. According to the Mushroom Council, mushroom demand hit record highs in 2013. Perhaps this is due in part to the rising popularity of foraging for exotic types, which has brought with it a new attraction to fancy fungi. One American chef is so infatuated with mushrooms that she has recently written an entire cookbook devoted to them, in which she extols the virtues of cooking with all types.
“The best edible mushrooms have vastly different personalities, no different than your friends,” writes Becky Selengut in her new cookbook, Shroom. “Some are dark and moody, while others are cheerful and fruity, subtle and mysterious, or bold and grounded.”
My day at the Mushroom Festival went by quickly. I soon felt myself feeling a new fondness for edible fungi, and began to support the festival’s ambitious mission to further the education and excitement for all things mushroom. So I was a bit disappointed to find a handful of vendors not featuring anything fungi-related. As I bumped shoulders on my walk down State Street, the main street in quaint Kennett Square, I saw stands promoting oddities like specialty toe rings and personalized dog bandanas.
Fortunately, there were also plenty of stands that did take the town’s cherished crop to heart. Some did so in predictable ways — by serving marinated mushrooms, fried button mushrooms, as well as mushroom soups, salads, and risottos. Others were a bit more off-the-map. The town’s salon had a banner that advertised a woman with a mushroom hairpiece. Food trucks featured oddities like mushroom ketchup and cream of mushroom ice cream, which I couldn’t resist trying. It was definitely odd, something you’d only find in the Mushroom Capital of the World — sweet and creamy, and filled with awkwardly sized chunks of frozen white mushrooms. To be honest, I wouldn’t be sad if I were never able to eat it again.
As the festival wound down, I watched a young girl get a purple mushroom painted on her cheek while she munched on breaded white buttons. I overheard another boy excitedly talking about the mushrooms he was growing in his own backyard. I saw an older couple leaving with boxes of assorted specialty mushrooms.
“Well,” the older woman said to her husband, “at least we know what’s for dinner tonight.”
It might be too soon to say that a mushroom boom is looming. But with a demand for them that continues to grow, it’s certainly good news for the Mushroom Capital of the World.
Scrapple & Roasted Exotic Mushroom Salad with Apple-Pear Vinaigrette
For roasted mushrooms:
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 large cloves, peeled, cut in half lengthwise
4 small shallots, peeled and cut lengthwise
7 ounces maitake mushrooms
7 ounces oyster mushrooms
8 sage leaves
Fresh cracked pepper
⅓ cup apple cider vinegar
⅔ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 pear, diced
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 head frisse lettuce
1 quart baby kale leaves
8 slices scrapple (or vegan scrapple)
For roasted mushrooms:
Preheat oven to 450°F.
Gently pull apart clusters of mushrooms into smaller clusters, keeping as natural a shape as possible.
In a large bowl, combine all ingredients, gently folding to coat with oil.
Remove to a sheet pan and evenly distribute ingredients.
Cook on top shelf of oven for 20-25 minutes, or until ingredients turn golden brown. Remove and keep covered in a warm location.
Cut scrapple into ¼-inch slices. Cook in well-oiled pan over medium heat for 4-5 minutes until golden brown. Flip to repeat. When finished cooking, remove from pan and set aside.
For dressing, whisk together oil, vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste. Add pears and set aside.
To assemble, evenly distribute lettuces, shallots, and garlic on plates. Drizzle with dressing. Place warm mushrooms and scrapple on top. Serve immediately.
Adapted from Chef Will Tornay of Long Cove Foods
2 pounds sliced white mushrooms
1 pound sliced cremini mushrooms
1 pound shiitake mushrooms
1 package dried porcini mushrooms, reconstituted in warm water (reserve water for soup)
5 strips bacon
1 white onion, diced
2 quarts chicken broth
1 pint heavy cream
5 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 cup mascarpone cheese
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Juices from ½ a lemon
1 dash hot sauce
Salt and pepper, to taste
In a large stock pot, render bacon until the fat & bacon is crispy, remove bacon from pan and set aside for later use.
In same pot, sauté onion for 3 minutes, then add white, cremini, and shiitake mushrooms. Sauté for another 10 minutes.
Add chopped porcini mushrooms and the water from the mushrooms, chicken broth and heavy cream, fresh parsley and thyme. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes
Add mascarpone cheese.
Transfer half the soup to a blender and puree until smooth, an add back to the soup. (At this point if the soup is too thin for your liking you may thicken it with a roux)
Test soup for taste, add Worcestershire, lemon and hot sauce as needed. Finish the soup with bacon crumbles.
From Chef Mike Cappozolli of Cappozolli Catering
Recipe photo courtesy Long Cove Foods. All other photos by Julia Silva.