Museum tells all about mushrooms Kennett Square, Pa.: In the dark about fungi? Phillips' place will fill you in.

November 19, 1995|By Jeffrey Weiss | Jeffrey Weiss,DALLAS MORNING NEWS

Catch fish, raise cattle, farm tomatoes. We generally have some idea how most of our food starts out.

But how do you grow a fungus? On purpose, mind you. The stuff in the back of the refrigerator doesn't count.

The mysteries of mushroom farming -- it's nothing like Old MacDonald -- are revealed at the Phillips Mushroom Museum, just off the main road through Kennett Square, Pa., west-southwest of Philadelphia, in southeastern Pennsylvania.

This is mushroom country, obvious on a warm day to even the most clogged nose. Even without the signs advertising "mushroom soil" for sale, the smell -- a cross between blue cheese and Fido's mistake on the rug -- makes it clear that big-time agriculture is going on.

According to the American Mushroom Institute, more mushrooms are grown within 10 miles of Kennett Square than any comparable place in the world. And this is the only museum devoted to explaining how those mushrooms are grown.

Not that the local air, water or climate have much to do with making this the mushroom capital. Credit capitalism. This is just the place where the first large-scale mushroom farm in the world was started by a man named J. B. Swayne in the late 1800s. Swayne made money, and his neighbors paid attention.

One of those neighbors was William W. Phillips. Phillips took Swayne's method -- basically using vacant space in a greenhouse -- and adapted it to the needs of mushrooms.

The museum is the product of the next generation. Local legend has it that Phillips' two grown sons and their wives were playing bridge together in the early 1970s. Between bids and trumps, the men decided they wanted to create a museum. The women $$ agreed -- on the condition that they could have a gift shop.

And that's what you'll find, just off a road that eventually heads north into the Amish country. A small brick building holds a one-room museum and a one-room gift shop. Both pack plenty into a small area.

The museum features scale models of the nearby mushroom farms, a few real live mushrooms and an endearingly quaint short film on the history and horticulture of the cultivated mushroom.

"They are one of our most glamorous foods," one exhibit claims. And both film and static displays make a point of the safety of the cultivated crop vs. the chance of picking up a toxic mushroom in the wild.

The age of the film -- circa 1973 -- shows in the Nixon-era hairstyles of the women and in the recipes.

Sauteing 'shrooms in gobs of butter is a tad out of step with the no-fat '90s. And that meatloaf recipe for when hubby brings the boss home for dinner might steam a female CEO who visits the museum these days.

Cultural anachronisms aside, the film's scenes of mushroom cultivation are still pretty much what's going on in any of the low, windowless buildings that cover acres of ground in the surrounding area.

America's cultivated mushrooms are mostly one variety: the white agaricus capestris.

Growing them involves the creation of a nutritious but sterile compost, the "seeding" of the compost with tiny spores, the growth of thread-like mycelium throughout the soil, and the sprouting of the familiar umbrella shape from those threads through the top of the soil.

It's all done in the dark. Unlike most plants, mushrooms neither need nor want sunlight. The darkness makes it easier to maintain the constant cool, damp conditions ideal for a large harvest. And the indoor agriculture means that mushroom farming is a year-round proposition.

More detail -- lots more detail -- is on hand at the museum.

The adjoining gift shop offers the freshest mushrooms a visitor to this part of the country will have ever tasted. And freshness matters, even with an edible fungus. Imagine the difference in taste between a vine-ripened tomato and the vapid supermarket version.

The shop also offers ties, aprons, cutlery, dishes, wind chimes, salt-and-pepper shakers, posters, books and even cookies and candy with a mushroom motif.

Since most of us won't ever grow mushrooms but might eat them, the museum and gift shop offer some practical advice on the care and cooking of the local produce:

* Don't peel.

* Don't soak.

* Don't overcook. (Three minutes in a hot pan is enough.)

* Don't store in a warm place.

If you go

The Phillips Mushroom Museum (909 E. Baltimore Pike, U.S. 1, Kennett Square, Pa. 19348; [610] 388-6082) is not the Smithsonian. But neither are you going to battle big-museum crowds. About 9,000 people dropped in last year -- and went away knowing pretty much anything they'd ever want to about the commercial mushroom industry. The museum is open daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is $1.50; discounts offered for children and seniors.

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