Mushrooms, the fruits of their labors

March 24, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

One step was omitted in the recipe for linguine, crab and wild mushrooms that ran in yesterday's Food section.

The clam-and-saffron mixture should be added to the skillet after the green onions and tomato paste. Simmer for two minutes before adding the crab and tarragon.

+ The Sun regrets the error.

Everybody knows what a mushroom is, right?

Bet a pound of shiitake you don't have any idea.

Misty Dodson lifts a plastic bag from a shelf full of similar plastic bags. It is mostly full of a mottled, organic-looking brown and white substance.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

"The mushroom actually holds it all together," she says. "It's just sawdust, and it's all sterilized. We put the [seed-carrying] grain in it, and it starts to grow. And in 10 weeks you have something that's a solid mass. And what's holding it together is the actual body of the mushroom. The mushroom is the body. The thing that we call the mushroom is actually the fruit."

Ms. Dodson's partner, Peter Baxter, lifts another bag. "Once it develops that brown mottled appearance, it's ready to fruit."

Ms. Dodson, who has a degree in agriculture from Purdue University, and Mr. Baxter, a gold geologist who went to school in Maine, are the proprietors of Chesapeake Mushrooms of Millington, in Kent County.

The tiny company, which is about a year old, raises exotic mushrooms -- shiitake, oyster, lion's mane -- for restaurants and markets around the Eastern Shore. They're also experimenting with raising medicinal reishi mushrooms, a huge, brilliant and deep red variety that is promoted as an immune system booster. It's very popular among Asians, Mr. Baxter said, and can fetch $90 a pound in Asian markets. All of their mushrooms grow on wood, and require light to grow.

Most of their production is in shiitake, a meaty, cream and brown mushroom with a smoky, nutty flavor. They're terrific simply sauteed by themselves and served as a side dish, but chefs used them to enhance pate, seafood, soup and dozens of other dishes.

A few years ago, Ms. Dodson, a native of Mishawaka, Ind., and Mr. Baxter, whose family is from Kent County, began casting about for a business that would get them out of their travel-intense first careers -- something they could do together, a business that would be self-supporting.

It was almost by accident that they got into mushrooms. Mr. Baxter saw a brochure that had been sent to Ms. Dodson and said, "This looks like fun."

Mushroom production in the United States has traditionally been secretive and mysterious. The two got little information and less help in developing their business. They took the only course they could find, in Washington state, and read everything they could lay their hands on.

Today, in their single facility, a rented former dairy barn, they do -- everything themselves. They built all the furniture and equipment they need and they grow their own mushrooms from culture to finished product.

"Something that makes us different from other people, is that we make our own spawn," Ms. Dodson says. "Most people don't have the laboratory and don't have the background to do it."

She and Mr. Baxter show a visitor their sterile room (visitors must first remove their shoes), where everything is scrubbed regularly with a bleach solution and a ventilator exchanges the air every three or four minutes.

"This part is a part that most people do not see," Ms. Dodson says. "It's very secretive in a lot of ways."

As a result of all the secrecy, Mr. Baxter says, "in the U.S., most people don't know about mushrooms. In Eastern Europe, they're raised on mushrooms."

To develop niches for their fledgling business and to dispel some of the secrecy, Ms. Dodson and Mr. Baxter hold one-day workshops twice a year, teaching people about mushrooms and about growing them. The next class will be offered April 3 and 4. Students will get information packets, a tour of the mushroom facility, supplies for hands-on cultivation of shiitake and oyster mushrooms, lunch, and a demonstration of mushroom cooking techniques. The classes cost $50. (For information, call Chesapeake Mushrooms at [410] 928-3515.)

They also sell kits for growing mushrooms at home, and have begun to dry their excess stock for use in soup and sauce "kits."

Total mushroom production is now about 200 pounds a week. As a comparison, a commercial grower in Pennsylvania might harvest 30,000 pounds week. But massive expansion is not in their plans.

"We decided when we started that we would never be bigger than the two of us could handle," Ms. Dodson says.

It's just what they were looking for: a better way of living. "This is a better way of living," Ms. Dodson says, despite that fact that "it's a lot of work. It's very physical, it's seven days a week. Because mushrooms never sleep."

Ms. Dodson and Mr. Baxter collect and develop recipes that will showcase their mushrooms. Here are two of them.

Creamed beef with shiitake

Serves four.

1 ounce dried shiitake

3 ounces sliced dried beef

2 tablespoons butter

4 tablespoons flour

2 cups milk

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