By Anne Pyburn Craig
Oyster mushrooms are utterly delicious sauteed in butter with a touch of garlic. They’re also a superfood: low in calories and sodium, free of cholesterol, fat and gluten, rich in protein, fiber, vitamins B1, B3, B5, B12, C and D, iron, zinc, potassium, phosphorus, selenium, calcium, and folic acid. Oyster mushrooms, which sell out on Walmart.com for $32.99 a pound, will soon be available to the New Paltz community free of charge via the Mushroom Shed, thanks to the energy and vision of an MFA student, Amanda Heidel.
The Mushroom Shed will house edible and medicinal mushrooms grown on spent beer grains and coffee grounds from local businesses, an extension of The Reformed Church’s Community Garden. It’s springing into existence— fruiting, one might say—with a Mushroom Festival on May 10; you’ll find mushroom beer, mushroom chocolate, mushroom yoga and art and much much more.
Heidel, a native of New Jersey, found her way to art studies in New Paltz by virtue of a series of adventures that included six years with Viacom in Florida, graphic arts studies at the New School, and a sojourn to India. Back home, she knew she wanted to make art but wasn’t sure where to begin. A Rutgers professor suggested New Paltz might be a good fit, and it turned out to be sheer serendipity.
”I have always had an interest in materials that are transforming, particularly waste materials,” she says. “When I’m making sculptures I’m always repurposing found objects. And I really like science, and growing things,I started collecting peach pits and making peach pit milk, just taking what was around me and transforming it. I noticed an abundance of bagels being thrown away, so I’d take them home, grind them down and bake them back into bread. Then I became interested in mushrooms; I tried growing them on bagels, which wasn’t so good. I started collecting spent grains and coffee grounds. Then I got connected with the Hudson Valley Mycological Society and with Catskill Fungi and started learning a whole lot.”
What she learned amazed her. The kingdom of the fungi may well be, as expert Paul Stamets has eloquently written, the key to saving the world; the mushroom’s potential as food, medicine and overall ally—there are mushrooms that consume and neutralize pollutants—is just beginning to be discovered. And when the community of New Paltz discovered they had an emergent mycologist in their midst with energy to spare, it was game on.
“I started having meetings and sharing what I was doing, and people became interested. The conversation was, how do we take these materials and create recycling that grows food and also builds community? And it slowly became, OK, this is viable, how do we realize it? We did temporary mobile installations and workshops and started to think it should have a permanent space. where people could come and learn and develop relationships. And I connected with the biology department and studied with a mycologist who taught me cloning and growing from spores. I was getting prepared for whatever this was going to be.”
In her days in the advertising department at Viacom, she’d honed her organizational and schmoozing skills, and it all came in handy for the next part. “I’d gone to Family and asked if there was a way to take this idea and do something for their clients and provide food,” she says, “and they connected me with Cheryl Alloway at the Reformed Church, and I started meeting with her and Craig Shankles every week to talk about an extension of the garden.”
Doing anything in the heart of the New Paltz historic district involves enormous layers of protective red tape, but Heidel managed to navigate it with a combination of dogged determination and collaborative conflict resolution..”I felt really strongly that it should be right there connected to the church garden community, not off on its own. There were a list of obstacles to be overcome, historic and archaeological concerns.” She researched the issues, sought out the experts and took tour after tour. “There was this one beautiful shed they never talked about and I finally asked and was told it was the community smokehouse, where people made food. It felt like a direct connection to a shared space for mushroom cultivation, and it inspired the look.” That aesthetic won over the historic preservation powers, and with the enthusiastic backing of the New Paltz Community Foundation, the Mushroom Shed began to take shape.
Besides oyster mushrooms, the Shed will grow and provide reishi, known in China as the “mushroom of immortality” or divine fungus.” Reishi is tasty in tea, in soup, or grilled and is a potent antioxidant; it helps liver function, vision and blood sugar, supports the immune system, protects against inflammation and high blood pressure. Reishi mushroom, which sells for $30 a pound online, will be available free at the Mushroom Shed.
All are invited to the grand opening at 92 Huguenot Street on Friday, May 10 between 4 and 8 pm. You can also join in the fungi fun by coming to Mushroom Shed organizational meetings, held at 6 pm on the second Tuesday of each month in the New Paltz Reformed Church education building. Plans are being made for workshops and events covering mushroom, cultivation, cuisine, wellness, papermaking and art for all ages.
Heidel is more than a little amazed and grateful at this latest chapter of her life, at the art it turned out she was making. “Being the cultivator of the project, working in the biology lab learning and witnessing things I never knew existed, it’s so much fun,” she says. “The spores drop from the cap and shoot out these little filaments that connect with others’ filaments to form the mycelium mat…watching them form, and then having all these experiences with the community…the mushroom is a great model. Sending out those filaments. We can learn a lot from the mushroom.”