Pal Joey Porcelli turned me on to this lecture series, subtitled Random Encounters in the History & Science of Food, at the “part art museum, part public forum” that is the small but extremely cool & refreshingly eager-to-engage Lab at Belmar. Each two-part lecture provides an in-depth intro to a specific ingredient—honey, for instance, or salt—& includes a tasting thereof.

I sat in on “Mushrooms: A Farmer, an Anthropologist & a Mushroom Dinner.” Hey…you know what they could’ve done is seat us on mushrooms, fairy-style, & have butlers in powdered wigs & stockings serve us cakes & hot-cross buns like so—


man, I should be running this thing!

If I were, I’d make sure there was more to eat. Come to think of it, judging by the portion sizes, maybe they thought fairies actually would be in heavy attendance. Me being the heavy attender, I’d rather have paid extra for a full meal than a pittance ($20) for a trifle. Hence the minus on the A. But otherwise, this really was a fascinating foray into fungi; come fall when the series starts up again, I’ll be sitting front & center.

As gorgeous images like this filled the screen beside the lectern


above the real thing arrayed in radiant display on a buffet table,


UC Santa Cruz professor of anthropology Melissa Caldwell took us on a vicarious tour of the forests of Russia, where we foraged for the “peasant meat” that feeds as well what Caldwell calls Russia’s “bionational ideology,” grounded in the belief that Russian soil is supremely pure (Chernobyl notwithstanding; actually, considering the “radiation-eating fungus” scientists have found growing on the walls of the damaged reactor there, maybe Chernobyl’s miraculous proof).

Then we got some soup, which I promptly knocked over & was promptly brought more, which I promptly gobbled up before getting this sweet shot of my empty cup atop my stain:


Deeply earthy (that’s sublithospheric to you geophysicists!), spiked with sour cream & garnished with 2 long, tall croutons of black bread, it was the kind of soup that stirs vaguely atavistic sensations in the sipper, ancestral memories of biting into boiled potatoes with dirty hands in the twilight after working in the fields since frosty dawn. In a nice way.

Following a brief greeting by guest chef Matt Selby—of Vesta Dipping Grill & good old Steuben’s—the second speaker, James Hammond of Fort Collins–based Hazel Dell Mushrooms, launched his schtick by assuring us that “Colorado is a terrible place to grow mushrooms” (too intemperate, too dry, too windy). He was pretty much a font of frisky fungal 1-liners after that—likening, for instance, the lion’s mane mushroom


to “a tasty tennis ball or polar bear testicle”; recounting how people used to drink their urine for a secondary high after eating the potentially deadly hallucinogen known as amanita muscaria;

Bonus factoid!: “Amanita muscaria” is also the title of a pretty old Shelleyan Orphan tune.

& generally peppering his chronicle of experiences cultivating shiitakes, pink oysters (which “have a watermelon smell”), much-prized matsutakes, clamshells (which taste of “enoki on steroids”) & more with yuks like “there are old mushrooms hunters & there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old bold mushroom hunters.”

Amid (deserved) applause for Caldwell & Hammond, servers made the rounds with this:


Atop those dandelion greens—pretty punchy in themselves—were slices of hand-cured lamb loin (think lamb prosciutto) & lightly pickled cuke as well as roasted black & king mushrooms; the dressing amounted to a smart, tangy take on Ameritacky ketchup-based Russian dressing, for which Selby relied on crushed tomatoes, smoked paprika & vodka.

Beside it, a pavé—basically a cube of savory bread pudding—zinged (zung?) with both truffles & morels, plus a dollop of osetra-sprinkled crème fraîche. (The crispy beet chips listed on the menu were nowhere in sight; too bad, as I bet the touch of sweetness would’ve been crowning.)

In short I left slightly hungry but highly stimulated. There are worse ways to go.