"I'd like to go to Whole Foods today, and then I want to go pick up some mushrooms," my Aunt Jenny told me one morning earlier this week.
This has been our routine for the few weeks I've been back in the States. I've been helping her out by driving around town, running errands for my grandmother and her. When she relayed her request to me, in Chinese, I thought that maybe I'd misunderstood her, that she wanted to go to Whole Foods and buy mushrooms there. Sometimes my language skills skip a beat, and I hoped I'd caught the gist of her meaning.
I wholeheartedly agreed to take her there. Ever since living in Austin, home to the one of the largest Whole Foods markets in the country, I'm always eager for a trip there. It feels like coming home. Plus, I really like mushrooms.
So, off we went. In the car, Aunt Jenny was vague, yet oddly specific at the same time, about her plans for these mushrooms. We were going to eat lunch at Whole Foods until about 1:00 pm, and then we'd buy the mushrooms. I wondered about the timing, but thought, again, that perhaps I'd missed some important instructions along the way. When I asked Aunt Jenny about it, she waved her hand dismissively, as if I'd already asked and received the answer a million times.
"1:00 pm," she said, emphasizing by pointing an index finger straight upwards and looking at me intensely. "1:00 pm."
Since it was before noon when we arrived at Whole Foods, the two of us took to the aisles, wandering around and picking up snacks. It dawned on me that we were killing time. The only issue was, I wasn't sure why, and my Aunt Jenny hadn't made a move towards the mountains of mushrooms available in the produce aisle.
Finally, at ten minutes until the appointed hour, Aunt Jenny announced that it was time. As I turned back towards the produce section of the store, I saw her heading out of the store instead of following me. I trailed her back to the car and watched her climb in. She settled into the front seat, and looked at me expectantly. I am, after all, the Hoke Colburn to her Miss Daisy.
Apparently, our mushroom agenda was taking us to a second location, and I followed Aunt Jenny's instructions, figuring that surely the destination would provide all the answer I needed. She led us to a friend's home in the suburbs, and we pulled up at exactly 1:00 pm on the dot. Inside, tea and snacks were laid out around the kitchen table, which signaled to to me that we weren't in a hurry for these mushrooms, and that there was some sort of ritual involved in obtaining them. Still, shortly after we arrived, another friend blew into the kitchen, announcing loudly that the mushrooms had better arrive in the next ten minutes, or else she was leaving.
Now I was utterly confused. Where were these mushrooms? Why were we at this house, and how were they going to arrive in ten minutes or less? Were the mushrooms going to arrive here on their own, like a stork dropping off a baby? My mind reeled with possibilities, any of which seemed entirely plausible at this point.
Finally, I heard a car outside, followed by the slamming of a car door. All of the ladies rose to their feet, and together we bustled outside to see a van backed into the driveway. The back hatch was flung wide open, and in the trunk were precariously tall stacks of plastic crates, each one filled to the brim with mushrooms. Two men were briskly setting up small TV tray tables all over the driveway, on top of which they had placed their wares. A small mechanical scale sat on one of the tables.
Suddenly it dawned on me. Aunt Jenny and her friends had a mushroom dealer. But not just any dealer. This man deals in matsutake mushrooms, the prized mushroom of Japanese cuisine. As the women plucked their way through the mushrooms, their stories about the rarity of these mushrooms poured out of them. Domestic matsutakes can retail for up to $90 dollars a pound, and there are some produced in Japan that can retail for hundreds of dollars. Each. The mushrooms are extremely difficult to harvest and die off each season right before the first winter freeze. In terms of flavor, there's nothing that even approaches the unique, earthy goodness of a matsutake. Japanese chefs will often take a single matsutake and shave off paper-thin slices to serve as a garnish.
The mushroom dealer stood back and watched the flurry of activity among his wares, nodding occasionally to confirm the information being passed to me and barking out his bottom line to Aunt Jenny, who I now know possesses the ability to educate me while simultaneously driving a hard bargain. The dealer's cell phone rang. In one swift motion, he reached around for it in the the pocket of his parka and flipped it open.
"Matsutake Joe, how may I help you?"
I died. What a fantastic nickname. In fact, it's quite possibly the single most amazing nickname I've ever heard. I grinned at Matsutake Joe with even more respect. He flashed a huge grin back at me, giving me a thumbs-up with his free hand.
The whole makeshift market was finished in less than 20 minutes. We headed back to my Aunt Jenny's car with enough mushrooms to start our own colony. I marveled to her at how she managed to find her own mushroom guy with a moniker for the ages. She shook her head, choosing not to respond to my statement directly.
"If anyone ever asks you why you love food so much," she said, her head bent into the depths of the trunk so she could inhale the woody scent emanating from the treasure chest of matsutakes. "You just tell them that you inherited it from your grandfather."