Rosendale has its annual Pickle Festival, Saugerties its Garlic Festival, Margaretville its Cauliflower Festival. New Paltz is among many towns in the Hudson Valley with a seasonal celebration of their apple crops. But is there a community in the region as yet that has claimed the humble-but-delicious mushroom as the centerpiece of an annual feast? That prospect may be in New Paltz’s foreseeable future, if Amanda Heidel has her way.
Heidel is an art student at SUNY New Paltz, working toward her Master’s in Fine Arts in Sculpture. When it came time to pick a topic for her thesis, she decided that she wanted to do a project that involved turning waste materials into some sort of public art. “I was inspired by my research of land art that evolved with a community,” she explains. After working with “a lot of different materials,” she began developing relationships with various local businesses that had plenty of food waste to discard on a regular basis: coffee grounds from the Village Grind, spent grain from beer-brewing at the Bacchus Brewery, stale bagels from the New Paltz Bagel Café. “I wanted to try to transform them,” she says.
Around the same time, Heidel was pursuing a growing interest in mushrooms, both culinary and medicinal, and began to look at these coffee grounds, beer grains and bagels as potential substrates for mushroom cultivation. Her first efforts were unsuccessful. So last summer she took a workshop with Erwin Karl of the Mid-Hudson Mycological Association and John Michelotti of Catskill Fungi, determined to learn more about how to “grow your own.” “I went to them and said, ‘I’m trying to grow mushrooms on bagels, and I’m not having much luck with it,’” she relates. The experts not only offered advice, but also put her in touch with Dr. Hon Ho, a mycologist in the Biology Department at SUNY New Paltz, who has given Heidel access to a biology lab for the purpose of growing mushroom mycelium from spores for spawning purposes.
Heidel’s concept began to solidify into the form of a Mushroom Shed: a small wooden structure where mushrooms could be cultivated, both for demonstration purposes and as a place where people could “reduce waste while making food.” She began reaching out to the community in search of a site for this hands-on public project. Ivan Echenique at Family of New Paltz suggested working with the Reformed Church of New Paltz, which already has a small Community Garden tucked in between its Wullschleger Education Building and Historic Huguenot Street’s Deyo Hall on Broadhead Avenue. Cheryl Alloway of the church’s Caring for Creation Committee was supportive of her concept, and Craig Shankles, president of Local at Heart, came on board as well.
Heidel compares the evolution of her project to the process of growing a fungal colony. “The mushroom is a perfect model for collaboration. Every person is a spore,” she says. “When they come together, the hyphae start to form. Once the mycelium begins to develop, the individual is really blurred. We really need each other to make this happen. The shed itself is the mushroom fruiting.”
The Reformed Church offered to make a space behind the Community Garden available, but putting up new construction in a designated historic district is no easy matter, Heidel discovered. Using the wigwam on the grounds of the DuBois Fort as an example, Tom Olsen of the Village of New Paltz Historic Preservation Commission advised her that approval for a temporary structure might be easier to obtain than a permanent one, and that a building that reflects the history of the site would have the strongest appeal. Heidel did some more research and discovered that a crude wooden outbuilding that had been used for tool storage adjacent to the wigwam had originally been a community smokehouse, built in the 1700s. “That was perfect,” she says. “So, we’re modeling the aesthetics of the shed after that structure.” Historic Huguenot Street offered even to donate some antique bricks for the foundation, similar to the smokehouse.
The Mushroom Shed Group’s application received approval for ten years, with an option to renew. That qualified the project to receive fiscal sponsorship from the New Paltz Community Foundation, and a GoFundMe campaign was started as well. Framing for the shed was in progress at presstime, with a goal of having the building complete in time for the Mushroom Shed Festival that’s scheduled for Friday, May 10. That’s the day when the growing containers – glass tubes about a foot-and-a-half in length, supported by a perforated grid that Heidel compared with a Connect Four board – will be inoculated with mushroom spawn. For starters, two types of fungi will be grown: tender, delicious oyster mushrooms and reishi, which are used in medicinal teas for a boost to the immune system.
Anyone who’s interested in participating in the project can obtain their own growing tube. Or just come down to the Festival for a tutorial on how it’s done. There will be recorded music by John Cage, who Heidel says was “a big mushroom enthusiast,” “mushroom yoga” sessions conducted by New Paltz Rock Yoga and themed treats from a variety of local sponsors, including mushroom tea from the People’s Cauldron and pizza topped with oyster and lion’s mane mushrooms from Village Pizza. “Bacchus has brewed a mushroom beer, using chaga mushrooms and thyme,” she notes.
The celebration goes on from 4 to 8 p.m. on Friday, May 10 at the Mushroom Shed site at 92 Huguenot Street. Admission is free, although a “fungraiser” is also promised. To learn more about the project, visit www.facebook.com/communitymushroomshed.