The Fungus Among Us: Something to Eat or a Super-Hero Capable of Saving Our Planet?

Although I hate to admit it, Inspiration for my title is from the SpongeBob SquarePants episode entitled “Fungus Among Us” (Season 5, 2007)

The “fungus” in the title of this piece refers to mushrooms. I had considered using “The Fun Guy Among Us” but that pun is so yesterday. This being a BigLittleMeals blog, you may suspect that I’ll be extolling the culinary virtues of mushrooms and perhaps even providing a recipe. You’d be correct about the recipe but, tasty as they may be, my primary interest in discussing mushrooms is what the approximately 14,000 species of them have in common that could help save our planet. But before I get to this “something” let’s look at what our planet needs to be saved from.

You may recall my recent Andy’s Corner rant about those packaged goods that require super-human effort and cunning to get open without self-inflicted bodily harm. Even though heartfelt, I have to confess that my rant was self-centered and short-sighted, focusing more on my personal frustration and inconvenience than on the much broader and more onerous threat that packaging materials pose for our planet.

Indeed, most of us are aware that our modern single-use plastic-dominated lifestyle is filling our landfills and oceans with huge amounts of almost indestructible plastic waste. We’ve all seen the horror pictures of what plastic waste can do.

It’s estimated that between 1.15 to 2.41 million tons of plastic are entering the ocean each year. Forbes

While the poster child of plastic waste in our environment is the plastic bag, anyone who has received a fragile parcel and has had to decide on how to dispose of those super-annoying bulky chunks and peanuts made of Styrofoam can appreciate my claim that Styrofoam also qualifies as a poster child for plastic waste.

We loved the dinner plates we recently received from eBay, but loathed the plastic wrap and dastardly Styrofoam peanuts.

[Editor’s Note: Technically my real concern should not be with Styrofoam but rather with something called “extruded polystyrene foam.” Styrofoam is a trademarked name for material that is primarily used for insulation in buildings (that is why we capitalize the word). Even so, for stylistic reasons I will use the familiar (although erroneous) “Styrofoam” in my discussion; you have to agree that it’s much more convenient to say”Styrofoam peanuts” than extruded polystyrene foam peanuts.”]

An article from Sciencing.com provides just some of the reasons I think that Styrofoam deserves Poster Child status:

Because Styrofoam is a plastic product, manufacturing new Styrofoam products uses non-renewable fossil fuel resources. As a plastic, it also degrades slowly and is highly flammable. Marine life, such as marine mammals, marine birds and turtles, also mistake Styrofoam as food and then die for either starvation or choke when they swallow pieces of it. Styrofoam is lightweight, it is only 0.01 percent of our solid household waste, but the volume of Styrofoam going to our landfills causes it to fill landfills with a product that lasts for centuries.

Even ambitious programs designed to recycle Styrofoam haven’t helped matters. According to the JSTOR Daily web site (which reports on research published in major academic journals), major Styrofoam recycling programs initiated by several municipalities (including New York City) were failures. Most of the processed Styrofoam ended up in landfills despite the recycling efforts. And the kicker was that these programs actually cost more and had a higher “carbon footprint” than if the Styrofoam had been directly landfilled.

So if we can’t recycle it and it doesn’t decompose, what’s our alternative? A possible answer brings us back to the “fungus among us” part of the story.

Every one of the 14,000 species of mushroom springs from mycelium. Illustration from Mylo-Unleather.com.

Actually, what’s of interest here is not the mushroom that we see on our hikes through the woods or in the market produce section, but rather the part that lies below the surface. I’m referring to what is called mycelium.

Products made of Mylo, a trade-marked leather-like material created with mycelium (image from the Mylo-Unleather.com).

The website for Bolt Threads, the company that manufactures Mylo, a leather-like material using mycelium, offers a nice overview of this amazing fungal organism:

Mycelium is  part of the fungi kingdom and is the network of threads, called hyphae, from which mushrooms grow. Not all mycelia fruit mushrooms, depending on the environmental conditions, but all mushrooms come from mycelia…

[It is] most prevalent in fields, forests, and heavily wooded areas. Its hyphae, a network of web-like structures that form mycelium, secrete enzymes to break down food sources to be used by the organism.

Mycelium is being touted in the news and on the internet as a miracle organism. It can decompose existing plastic and toxic waste; it can be used to make a variety of environmentally friendly goods; and when discarded mycelium-based products decompose quickly while enriching the soil. Here is a list of just some of the mycelium products I have come across:

  • bricks for buildings
  • chairs
  • vegan meat substitutes
  • cosmetics
  • shoes
  • coffins
  • polystyrene foam packaging.

It was this last item that caught my attention and brings us back to the question of what can be done about the Styrofoam waste issue. A 2020 NY Times article about alternatives to single-use plastics reports on how the company Ecovative Design uses mycelium to create a packaging alternative to Styrofoam:

Ecovative Design uses mushroom tissue (mycelium) to create a packaging alternative… Imagine receiving a television set in a box, its corners swaddled in plastic foam. Now, imagine that padding is made of mushrooms….

Ecovative grows packaging by filling custom-shape molds with agricultural residues like wood chips, which act as a food source, and mycelium cells. The mycelium feeds on the wood chips, growing its fibers around and through the food source, and, in four to six days, takes on the shape of the mold, which can then be removed.

I was excited to learn that one of my favorite non-alcoholic beverages has started to use mycelium-based packing.

When you compare this kind of “mushroom packaging” which takes only 30 days to compost (and, better yet, can be used as fertilizer in your back yard) with petroleum-based Styrofoam, which fills up an estimated 30% of our landfills and takes at least 500 years to biodegrade, it’s easy to see the super-hero potential of our fungus friend. Just imagine, instead of trying to figure out where to dispose of that pile of Styrofoam that your new blender was packed in you could just compost it your garden. And, while your zucchini and tomatoes are appreciating those added nutrients our planet will benefit from having that much less plastic waste.

I’m thinking about getting this decal for our car.

So returning to the question suggested in the title about whether a mushroom is something to eat or a super-hero, the answer is of course both. And to emphasize the eating part, I am including a recipe for Hongos Guisados (Mushroom Tacos With Onions And Garlic). Enjoy the tacos while contemplating whether to use your next batch of mycelia-created Styrofoam to fertilize your zucchini or your tomatoes.

Hongos Guisados – Mushroom Tacos With Onions And Garlic (without the mycelium)

Hongos Guisados (Mushroom Tacos With Onions And Garlic)

  • Servings: 12 street-size tacos
  • Print

Adapted from a Rick Bayless recipe. I used a combination of oyster and shiitake mushrooms, but you can use whatever kind strikes your fancy. Also, serving it with Mexican crema (or sour cream) is highly recommended.

Ingredients:

  • 12 ounces fresh mushrooms (of your choice), washed and chopped into 1/2 -inch pieces
  • 1/2 medium white onion, diced
  • Fresh green chiles (roughly 2 serranos or 1 jalapeño), stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
  • 2/3 C chicken stock or water
  • 1/2 small lime, juiced
  • 1 T vegetable oil (or lard or bacon drippings)
  • 3/4 of a 15-ounce can tomatoes, drained and roughly chopped OR 1 large ripe tomato, roasted or boiled, cored, peeled and roughly chopped 
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 1/2 T (plus more for garnish) chopped cilantro (optional – Rick Bayless recommends using epazote which is not always easy to find)
  • Salt, about 1/2 tsp (depending on the saltiness of the broth)

Place the mushrooms, onion, chile, broth or water, lime juice and oil in a medium-size saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, cover and cook 3 minutes. Uncover and cook until all the liquid has evaporated and the mushrooms begin to fry in the fat or oil.

While the mushrooms are cooking, puree the tomato with the garlic in a blender or food processor. When the mushrooms begin to fry, add the tomato mixture and optional cilantro (or epazote) and cook until the liquid has reduced and the mixture is thick, about 5 minutes. Season with salt (usually 1/2 teaspoon, depending on the saltiness of the broth) and scrape into a serving bowl. Serve with tortillas on the side for making tacos along with crema (sour cream), lime wedges, and cilantro or epazote for garnish.

Recipe brought to you by BigLittleMeals.com and Andy and Ann.

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