Mushroom Mania

Aaron Hodgins Davis, 38, founder of Hodgins Harvest in Blauvelt, didn’t like mushrooms growing up. “Then, in my mid 20s, my mom prepared some, simply, with butter and salt. She cooked ‘em crispy and I was hooked,” says Davis. “I had never tasted anything like that before.” So, Aaron began – as many who cultivate mushrooms do – by purchasing a grow kit with his daughter. In 2017 he took the plunge and turned his hobby into a business, Hodgins Harvest, operating out of his home in Blauvelt.

Initially, his was a farmers’ market–centric business. In grueling 70 to 80 hour work weeks, he made the rounds of various local markets. “I loved engaging local communities and introducing people to new products,” he says, “so, I’d cook them right there at the market, give out free samples, and watch the surprise that registered on peoples’ faces: ‘Black poplar mushrooms taste like that?!’ That’s a great feeling.” As demand grew, Aaron’s business model shifted. Hodgins Harvest now concentrates on shelf–stable products like tinctures and grow kits, and seeks to exploit recent developments in online markets that enable him to distribute his products nationally.

Former Palisades resident Peter Baryshnikov, 33, now living in New York City, also cites taste as a key to his involvement with mushroom cultivation. During the pandemic, like many people with offices shuttered and more time for avocational pursuits, Peter started exploring Asian cooking where the likes of enoki mushrooms have been an essential ingredient for centuries. But pursuing high quality Asian foods became expensive and Peter began cultivating his own mushrooms.

As a photography major at Washington State’s Whitman College and the Art Institute of Boston, Baryshnikov was fascinated by how different darkroom techniques affected film development. He saw similar patterns while cultivating mushrooms; altering different percentages of growing material, humidity, and temperature influenced the tastiness of his finished product. He converted a dark room into an automated fruiting station.

The main issues in growing your own mushrooms,” he says, “are avoiding contamination and controlling temperature and levels of sunlight.” He enjoys tweaking his formulas and tracking the details in the process, but understands the challenges. “The trial and error phase is fun, but be prepared for a lot of disappointments. You need to figure out what works for you, what your best fruiting methods are.”

He is adamant that home–grown mushrooms “have a more complex flavor” than their mass–produced cousins, but unlike Aaron, Peter has no burning desire to scale his operation. “I just want to give this product to people I care about and watch them enjoy it.”

While taste sparked Aaron’s and Peter’s interest in the growing field of mycology (the study of fungi, including mushrooms), Kierra Parlagreco, 48, another former Palisades resident who now lives in Mystic, Connecticut, was attracted to their significant nutritional and medicinal qualities. A video producer by trade and training, the pandemic also prompted a shift in her vocational focus. Kierra is currently studying to be a registered herbalist.

She is a strong advocate for mushroom consumption. “Mushrooms are so different from plants,” says Paralagreco. “They have been used in Eastern medicine for centuries to treat a whole range of illnesses. Studies show that lion’s mane is good for brain health and warding off dementia, turkey tail is beneficial in cancer care, reishi strengthens the immune system, and oyster mushrooms are high in Vitamin D." She adds, "Some theorize that we humans have co–evolved along with mushrooms. Our aversion to eating mushrooms in the West coincides with the high incidence of auto–immune problems and other chronic diseases we experience, like cancer. Taking mushrooms and other herbal medicines can lead to fewer side effects in the healing process.”

Aaron, Peter and Kierra all agree that supplementing our diets with a variety of mushroom products, either on the plate or in the form of tinctures or supplements, is an important element in a healthy lifestyle. And for those with nuanced palates – and the time for preparation and presentation – mushrooms can add a delicious accent to your daily cuisine; one that tastes good and is good for you. Drawings by Sonoma “Ko” Parlagreco.