It seems mushrooms are having a moment, and not just on restaurant menus. You can see their enchanting shapes on tote bags, greeting cards, earrings, and tattooed on people's arms. They're also the stars of countless Instagram posts. Now mushroom mania — and not the psychedelic kind — is coming to Somerville as a local forager opens a new shop devoted to mushrooms.
On a recent Sunday afternoon Tyler Akabane led a group through wooded trails at a park in Saugus. He pointed out common edible plants, like ground ivy and garlic mustard, but everyone really wondered if we'd find some elusive spring mushrooms.
Akabane explained how the seasons clue us in to when and what we might discover. “Summer is where you get really quick mushrooms,” he said. “Porcini, chanterelles, black trumpets.”
For Akabane, foraging for mushrooms is like an Easter egg hunt. Over the past decade he has been showing people how to search for and safely identify mushrooms on forest floors, tree trunks and decomposing wood piles.
“If you give a man a mushroom, he eats for a day,” Akabane said. “If you teach a man how to pick mushrooms, he'll eat for a lifetime.”
Beginning May 18, Akabane can do both at The Mushroom Shop in Somerville. The Winter Hill store's quirky decor and white tin ceiling give it a mom-and-pop vibe. Shelves are lined with mushroom-friendly condiments like soy sauce, vinegar and spices. Seasonal veggies like asparagus are also for sale. But the homey space's centerpiece is a big refrigerated case like you'd see in a butcher shop.
“I feel like this would have been for bologna or something,” Akabane said. Now he'll be stocking it hard-to-find mushrooms sourced in Massachusetts, other parts of the U.S. and beyond. He'll offer mushrooms like matsutake, black trumpets, chanterelles and hen of the woods.
The 37-year-old's fascination with fungi sparked early on the North Shore.
“When I was a kid I grew up in a town with a lot of Russian folk,” he said of Swampscott, “and that's just part of their life, is picking mushrooms. So I was aware that that was a thing. I feel like many Americans don't think of picking mushrooms as a normal thing to do.” The practice is more common in places like the Pacific Northwest.
Akabane started hunting for mushrooms after college. He dove into books and got hooked. A bunch of titles are for sale in the shop, and some books from his collection are available for customers to peruse.
While working as a music teacher for students with special needs, Akabane prowled the woods after work for mushrooms. Sometimes he picked more than he could eat and offered them to local chefs. About 10 years ago the hobbyist was able to shift his passion into a full-time job when he joined mushroom legend Ben Maleson's wholesale business which supplies acclaimed Boston restaurants. But Akabane said he always dreamed of having his own shop, and the pandemic made it a reality.
He recalled how in February 2020 a huge shipment of mushrooms arrived from Oregon. Then, everything shut down, and, “moments later, all the restaurants are closed.”
Not sure what to do with the perishable trove, Akabane posted on Instagram asking if people were interested. “And the whole thing caught on like wildfire,” he said.
Orders flooded Akabane's account, Mushrooms for my Friends, and for months he earned income by delivering boxes to people's doorsteps.
As restaurants reopened, Akabane struck out on his own to work with restaurants including Field and Vine, Uni and Menton. Proven demand gave him the confidence to try raising money for a brick-and-mortar space. His supporters met his goal in two days. Apparently the timing is right — mushrooms seem to be everywhere.
“It's happened before,” Akabane said, “There have been different periods of time when there've been mushroom booms.”
The shop's newest employee, Madeline Dede-Panken, also happens to be working on a dissertation for her doctorate that traces the history of mycophilia. The country's oldest mushroom club was founded in Boston in 1895.
“At the turn of the 20th century, much like today, there was this real upswell of interest in eating mushrooms that came from an interest in nature and going back to the land, which we see today in sustainability concerns," Dede-Panken said. "There's also a real interest in shopping locally and being part of a community.”
When neighbor Jimmy Nasson stopped by to check on the shop's progress, he recalled the enthusiasm for mushrooms in the '80s and '90s. Nasson was a produce supplier and explained how he used to sell a lot of portobellos and shiitakes. “They overtook the white mushroom,” he said.
Nasson has lived nearby for more than 80 years, and has seen Somerville — and the shop — change over decades. It's been a soda fountain, a bakery and a specialty produce shop. “I like little places,” he told Akabane. “We used to have a lot of smaller places in Somerville.”
As Nasson was leaving Akabane handed him a bag of fresh oyster and maitake mushrooms.
“I've never had them before,” Nasson said while thanking Akabane, who suggested cooking them with a little oil, garlic, butter, and salt.
Akabane hopes his shop will be like a clubhouse for “mushroom people” (as he calls fungophiles like himself) and for the uninitiated. Akabane said the mushroom kingdom is wildly diverse, and it can be intimidating.
“I think the American palate can be afraid of textures, when you compare it to, say, Japanese food. But if you're more open to different flavors, maybe you're more open to different culinary backgrounds, and therefore to different types of people,” he said, “along with becoming more open to things that are unfamiliar to you.”
Akabane wants to demystify the magic of mushrooms through workshops and lots of conversation. While he joked that the store might be “kind of weird” for the Boston area, he's got big plans that include organizing a mushroom festival in Somerville.
This segment aired on May 18, 2022.