"A shiitake a day keeps the doctor away," is how Nicola MacPherson lyrically translates one venerable Japanese axiom. A self-avowed mycophile and secretary of the Missouri Specialty Mushroom Growers Association, MacPherson asserts that in its native Japan the shiitake is prized for what many consider mystic and healing properties. "The Japanese even give them as gifts," she adds. Here in the States they are more commonly sought after for their distinctive woodsy flavor and resilient flesh. Sometimes referred to as "golden oak," wild shiitakes flourish naturally in fallen oak logs. "The word 'shiitake,'" MacPherson explains, "is actually two Japanese words, shii, meaning 'oak tree,' and take, meaning 'mushroom.'"
MacPherson, whose Ozark Forest Mushroom enterprise supplies the fruits of the noble mycelium to many local restaurants (Shiitake among them), has been cultivating the flavorful fungus for nine years. She pampers her charges with natural logs and spring water but warns that many commercially available supermarket specimens come from "mushroom factories" in Pennsylvania, where they are grown in substrates like sawdust. These nonorganic mushrooms are cheaper but also inferior in flavor. Shiitake purists will be relieved to know that Ozark Forest's organic mushrooms are available locally at Straub's and Wild Oats.
One of MacPherson's favorite ways to savor the fruits of her labors is also the simplest: She brushes a few large caps with olive oil and barbecues them on a hot grill. This preparation, she says, might even convert those afflicted with "slimy-mushroom phobia."
-- Jill Posey-Smith