Eating the Past: stalking the wild mushroom
Like most people of Czech ancestry, my immigrant family loved to hunt mushrooms, and we found several varieties in the nearby Payette National Forest. There was a large yellow one that we called a “cauliflower mushroom,” which my mother cleaned off the dirt hidden in its many crevices, and then she chopped, sauteed, and mixed it with beaten eggs.
My grandmother, who was by far the most knowledgeable mushroom expert in our family, would search out the oyster mushrooms, taking care to distinguish them from similarly-gilled mushrooms that were poisonous, and she would use these to make a cream sauce that we served over omelets. And of course, there was the queen of wild mushrooms—the delectable morels. These, our family sliced, breaded, and fried in butter.
Within both Czech native and immigrant cultures, mushrooms (or “houby,” as they are called in Czech) serve as an iconic cultural symbol, and mushroom-hunting has been a beloved tradition for centuries. Even today, Czechs go out into the forests to hunt mushrooms an average of twenty times a year. For them, mushrooming is serious business.
Fostering the love of both mushroom-hunting and a love of the natural world, the older generations take great care to pass along mushroom identification tips and the location of their favorite, but secret, hunting spots. The activity of mushroom-hunting is rich with layers of symbolic significance for Czechs. Because mushrooms often suddenly appear overnight, people sometimes associate them with magic and providence. Mushrooms also represent life born out of decay, as well as the capriciousness of life where one mushroom can be a treasure while the next one can prove deadly. This intermixing of life and death is characteristic of a Czech point of view and is evident in their common joke about mushrooms that goes, “All mushrooms are edible, but some are only edible once.”
References to mushrooms appear throughout Czech folk, artistic, and literary culture. Mushrooming finds its way into Leoš Janáček’s 1924 opera The Cunning Little Vixen, where an old forester remembers the day when he and his bride had gone mushroom hunting. But blinded by their new love, they gathered more kisses than mushrooms. The famed Czech illustrator Josef Lada published a series of humorous stories and illustrations about mushrooming. In one, a man parades back and forth through the village with his overflowing basket, just so that his neighbors can admire his hunting prowess.
And finally, the nineteenth century writer Božena Němcová documented a Slavic, mushroom origin tale about Jesus and Peter happening upon a joyous wedding party. Before they joined the gathering at the humble Bohemian cottage, Jesus admonished Peter to accept nothing more than bread and salt from the villagers because they were so poor. But the small Czech pastry called koláče proved too tempting for Peter, and he slipped a few into his pockets as they said their goodbyes. Later, as they walked through the forest, Peter lagged behind Jesus so that he could furtively nibble on his pastry. But each time he took a bite, Jesus would abruptly turn around and ask, “What are you eating?” and each time Peter would spit out the koláče and reply meekly, “Nothing?” This went on until there was no koláče left and Peter had to confess his disobedience. As an act of forgiveness and reparation, Jesus transformed the crumbs that Peter had spat out along the way into mushrooms, which would come back in the forests year after year. Thus, mushrooms became, as Czechs say, “the meat of the poor.”
Below, you’ll find a traditional Czech recipe of mushrooms and barley called Kuba, the Janacek song and see the Lada illustration Evelyn Funda referred to.
Mushrooms are the stars of this traditional meatless dish that is served during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Eating kuba to break the fast on Christmas Eve or New Year’s day was thought to bring health and strength. Marjoram is a signature herb in Czech cooking, so don’t skip it; also note that Czechs use a lot of garlic in this recipe, but you can adjust to taste.
1 cup dried mushrooms*
1½ cup cold water
1 cup pearl barley
4-6 tablespoons butter, divided
1 cup vegetable stock or broth
2 large onions, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon caraway seeds (optional)
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
Salt and pepper, to taste
Rehydrate the dried mushrooms in 1 ½ cup water; let them soak 2 hours or overnight. If using fresh mushrooms, slice and saute in 2 tablespoons of butter. Rinse barley under running water and drain; then gently toast the barley with 2 tablespoons of butter until light brown (stir often to keep the barley from burning). After barley is toasted, pour in the broth and the soaked mushrooms, along with the soaking water. Add salt and pepper and cook this on medium low heat for 45 minutes until the barley is cooked. Meanwhile, sauté the chopped onions in the remaining butter until they begin to caramelize; add the garlic and allow the mixture to further caramelize to a rich brown but don’t burn the mixture. When the barley still has 10 minutes to cook, preheat oven to 350 F, and butter a large baking dish. When the barley is tender, add the onion/garlic mixture and the marjoram and caraway seed. Taste and adjust salt and pepper. Pour into baking dish and bake for 20-25 minutes. Serve as a main dish with a side of pickles or as a side dish.
* Dried mushrooms are preferred in this recipe because they have more intense flavor, but 1 ½ cup of fresh mushrooms and 1 extra cup of broth may be used instead.
Leoš Janáček’s “Forester’s Aria,” from the final scene of The Cunning Little Vixen, 1924.
English: “The Forester’s Aria,” English Translation by Norman Tucker, Performed by James Corrigan for Random Opera Company’s online #OperainLockdown, 2020. Note: when performed on stage, the opening lines “Bright as a new tin soldier, chestnut brown, tall and slender, like a girl I knew” are typically sung to a mushroom that the forester holds. At Janáček’s request, this song was performed at his funeral in 1928.
Czech: “Neříkal jsem to?” [“Didn’t I Say So?” or “The Forester’s Aria”] in the original Czech with English subtitles by the National Theatre of Brno, the same theatre where the opera originally premiered in 1924. Sung by Svatopluk Sem in this 2018 production, this song goes until the 4:30 mark. (As a point of personal priviledge, I would note that my cousin Silvie Adamova served as Assistant Director for this National Brno Theatre production.)
Find Josef Lada's 1926 illustrations and a feature on Lada’s mushroom stories here.