Variety on the Table


Growing up in France, mushrooms were a normal part of our diet. My mother never served us a bowl of mushrooms alone, but they were mixed in to her delicious sauces, soups, and stews. Her creamy Coquilles St. Jacques, which she always served in large scallop shells, combined tiny scallops from the west coast of France in a buttery sauce with button mushrooms from the market. Her veal roast with cêpes (porcini) practically melted on the fork. I thought mushrooms were just another vegetable until I was ten, when the "mushroom incident" occurred. Maman had gone to Lourdes for several days on pilgrimage, and she left my father and the children in the care of the young Austrian woman who was the live-in maid and child minder of the moment. When she returned, something suddenly set her to screaming in the kitchen. Apparently my father had expressed his enjoyment of mushrooms, and the maid had thought it would be nice to cook him some for his dinner. She had simply gone out into the park after the rain, picked the mushrooms that had sprouted under the trees, and sautéed them with onions. Maman discovered the leftovers and was convinced the maid was trying to poison us all. She fired her on the spot. I suspect my father, who had not been affected in any way by his dish of very local mushrooms, was disappointed. We were given a strong lecture on never, ever picking mushrooms unless we were with adults who knew what they were doing. The occasion never came up as we were soon swept back to the States, where the only mushrooms my mother could find were in jars or cans, another source of her disappointment with American food.

This has changed, of course, as the healthy food scene and local markets have brought fresh mushrooms into American kitchens in a big way. At our local market, we are especially fortunate to have Ferial, the "Mushroom Lady," bringing a dozen varieties of cultivated mushrooms to pick from every week. She also features seasonal wild mushrooms, and she makes sure they are all edible and delicious. Her mushrooms have inspired my cooking and my art. You can find her at the Arlington, Falls Church, and Vienna markets in Virginia, and the Bethesda and Baltimore markets in Maryland. Don't miss a chance to talk to her about her recipes and her interesting life. If you're fortunate, it will be chanterelle season!