In the Dark: My Mushroom House Visit

Blog: What's the Big Idea?

In the Dark: My Mushroom House Visit

Every geographical place has its defining characteristics. Sometimes it’s the architecture or the natural features. Sometimes it’s the history or the culture.

As soon as I decided to set Cadaver Blues, the first book in my Phuoc Goldberg mystery series, in the Brandywine Valley, I knew it had to involve mushroom farming, which is one of the valley’s most lucrative — and certainly its most unusual — industry.

I wrote the first draft of the scenes in the mushroom house from the seat of my pants, if you will, using only what I’d gleaned from conversations around the neighborhood. But when the time came for my final self-edit, I wanted to refine those scenes, so I arranged for a friend to take me through her family’s mushroom distributorship and farm, Buona Foods.

More than two-thirds of all mushrooms produced in the United States come from within 15 miles of my house. Trucks laden with tons of mushrooms lumber right past my driveway. When I’m out and about, I routinely see one or more mushroom-growing operations through the car window.

And then there are the times the mushroom houses come to us — in the form of their own very special fragrance. Every month at least, for miles around you can smell the pasteurization of manure, which is one of the main ingredients in mushroom bedding.

I’ve learned that it’s true what they say about mushrooms: They’re kept in the dark and fed shit. But you suspected that already. Here are a few things you might not have known:

  • Growers used to throw away a certain kind of mushroom that had grown too big before harvesting. Someone renamed these “portabellos,” and now they command premium prices.
  • Mushroom “seeds” — really spores — are called “spawn.”
  • Nearly every kind of mushroom that you’d find in a supermarket is grown in the vicinity of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.
  • The biggest nemeses of mushroom farmers are flies, which can ruin an entire crop. That’s one of the reasons mushrooms are never grown in a single big building.
  • Mushroom farming is successional farming. Since mushrooms are grown indoors and climate is strictly controlled — down to the moisture and temperature of the growing medium — there’s typically a new crop being harvested every month of the year at each mushroom farm.
  • After every harvest, the mushroom beds are emptied and steam-sterilized before planting starts all over again.

I’m leaving out a great deal of technical stuff here. In fact, one of the reasons mushroom growing is geographically concentrated is the advantage of having intellectual capital in close proximity. Many of the growers, in fact, are third or fourth generation, and there are all kinds of mushroom specialists in the region, from distributors to mycologists.

You can bet I’ll revisit the mushroom farms in a future book. In fact, as it turns out, these days some of the mushroom pickers — called “piscadores” — are Vietnamese immigrants, who have joined Mexican immigrants on the picking lines. We can only imagine what Phu, who’s conflicted about his heritage, would have to say about that!

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