I find my bread in unlikely places.
Especially now, half-way through my year long experiment of not eating bread.
Especially now, half-way through my year long experiment of not eating bread.
I have this theory that when the Israelites were wandering through the desert for 40 years following the exodus from Egypt, they were living on a curious mushroom. Using the record of Exodus 16, consider the properties of Manna: the Israelites were to harvest it in the morning when they arose, and to only pick as much as they could use that day. If they tried to save some for the next day, it would turn into an inedible worm-ridden purulent gunk. They were only to harvest it six days in a row; the sabbath was to be a day of rest, so on the sixth day only, they were allowed to harvest and prepare enough for two days. This was the only time maggots would not attack the manna if they gathered too much. We are asked to believe that the inexplicable food, sent by God daily, sustained the tribe for 40 years as they wandered about the desert looking for their promised land. Oh, I guess they ate quail, too.
The mushroom theory of manna first came to me when I found my first giant puffball in the woods, years ago. This had to be something like manna, I thought. Its growth is miraculous, inexplicable and awe-inspiring. How could a ball of food, bigger than a volleyball, grow overnight, so rapidly without the intervention of something as mysterious as God? Surely it didn't just grow here; we know how slowly plants are supposed to grow -- first you plant the seed then you water it, nourish it, protect it. Here, no seed is visible: in no time at all, you have this enormous edible bloom. Perhaps it fell from heaven.
It is not a stretch to come up with such a mushroom theory. A puffball even looks like a loaf of bread, sitting on the floor of the forest. Not just any bread. It looks like untoasted wonderbread. Only bigger. Puffier.
Of course, the manna that the Israelites found was probably closer in shape and form to their own unleavened cakes. From the account in the book of Exodus, I get the impression that manna covered the ground, more like a mycelium layer, which the Israelites could scrape together:
"In the morning a layer of dew was around the camp. And the layer of dew went up, and behold, something small was on the face of the wilderness, scale-like, small like the hoar-frost on the earth. And the sons of Israel looked. And they said, each one to his brother, "Is that a whatness?" for they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them, "This is the bread which Jehovah has given to you for food." (Ex 16:13-15)
"And the house of Israel called its name, Manna (literally, 'whatness'). And it was like the seed of coriander, white; and its taste like cakes with honey."(Ex 16:31)
I dusted off this old theory the other day when I went to the woods hoping to find a puffball. Conditions were right: these were warm autumn days in early October, nice and humid, after some substantial rains, with cool nights.
Indeed, far off the trail, I found a spot where 8 giant puffballs were growing in an area about 20 yards wide. This was bounty indeed.
But like the Israelites in the desert, if I was to take more than I could immediately use, what would I do with it all? Although I love eating this mushroom, my wife can't stand it. And I could only eat maybe a quarter of one of these bad boys with a meal, by myself, no more. While I can refrigerate some, no one really wants to eat massive amounts of puffball every day for four days per puffball. Even the Israelites tired of manna.
And how do you carry 8 puffballs, each the size of basketballs or medicine balls, through the woods for a couple of kilometres? With no bag? Reluctantly I had to leave some of them behind. But I took off my t-shirt, turned it upside down, and morphed it into a sack with 3 holes in it (head and arms). Those holes were a lot smaller than the puffballs, so the mushrooms wouldn't fall out. In this way, I was able to bring 4 of the giant mushrooms out of the woods with me. Thank goodness it was still humid. It was a beautiful day to walk around shirtless.
But I still had to deal with the awful bounty of four giant puffballs in my shirt when I got home.
Deal with it
As predicted, I ate about a quarter of one of the puffballs for dinner, sautéing them with nothing but a tiny bit of water. In the past I would have heated some butter or some oil in the pan. But the no-added-fat vegan chefs are right: frying up mushrooms and veggies doesn't need anything, really, other than perhaps a tablespoon or two of water to get it started. Just a bit of heat in a deep frying pan, and these moist mushies will boil away to a serving size, releasing most of their moisture to stew in their own juices.
I have had good luck with roasting puffballs in the oven, in the past, with a batter made of corn, too. But this time, I thought I'd try drying them -- I've done that before too, with success. I cut the puffball "loaves" into thick slices and started dehydrating them.
My wife rebelled. The dehydrator generally sits in the basement, in the room next to her studio. The smell of the puffballs was pretty intense, and she made me move the operation to the garage. Even there, she gasped and made gagging noises and complained about rotting corpse smells every time she opened the door.
It wasn't that bad. She can be histrionic and exaggerate things sometimes. Still, you might want to be a bit careful around puffballs. I did a quick search of PubMed, and found several articles about how certain varieties of puffballs (not the easily identified and ubiquitous giant puffball) have been known to cause pneumonia-like symptoms in dogs. These are mostly animals that snuff up a great snootfull of spores when they tromp through some old puffballs in the woods. The rest of us probably know enough to stay out of clouds of old puffballs. On the other hand, quick drying them in the dehydrator was making the garage smell rather mushroomy. My wife insisted on opening a window in there.
What I ended up with, when I was all done, was several baskets full of dried mushroom slices. Each one is about the size of a thin rounded pizza slice, or a slice of bread. The consistency is sort of like bendy styrofoam. Or very thin rice cakes. And the taste is mushroomy.
I can eat these like bread, with a bit of hummus, or miso, or kimchi, or jam, or nut butters. I can also spread tomato sauce on them and veggies and pretend it is pizza. I can also rehydrate them in soups and sauces as needed.
That was how I dealt with the bounty of this year's puffball crop.
No doubt Moses wouldn't like it. To him, it only shows I don't trust God to give me a puffball every day (and two on Friday) for the rest of my life. Well, seeing is believing. If God gave me more of these, every day, I wouldn't have to exploit this many when they so rarely occur.
I'll bet there are more puffballs out there, ripe for the picking. The four I left behind might be too old to use by now, but the days are still warm, and more must be growing, if one gets off the trail and knows where to look. Now when I go, I take my camera, just in case I see the miracle of 8 of them in one place.
I love found food. God's bread. Forest manna.
Here is the mystery of everything, reenacted.
Notes to Myself
- To update my year-long fast from (wheat) bread: This experiment continues with success, and I'm halfway through the year.
However, I miss the ease of bread. And I find I am more obsessed with eating these days than I ever was. I eat huge amounts now, of vegetables, fruit and cooked starches. I am amazed at the amount that I eat, and the frequency, and that I don't seem to gain any weight. I'm like Alice, running as fast as I can so that I can stand still. In my next blog post, I hope to explore this a bit more.
I returned to the woods a week or so later (on Canada's Thanksgiving) and the puffballs I left behind were still there. Unfortunately, they were past their prime, the flesh was yellowed and spoiled, so I just left them behind again. I did, however, take a couple of pictures of them. Here are the leftover puffballs, in the woods: