Posted On: 07/01/2000
According to Middle Eastern hieroglyphics carved some 4600 years ago, the Egyptians believed that mushrooms were the plant of immortality. As a result, the pharaohs declared them food for royalty so that none of the working class could ever touch them, let alone revel in their unique, earthy taste. Not so in the year 2000 in St. Louis, Missouri.
On the gloriously temperate evening of June 18th, a group of certifiable gastronomic sensualists met in Tower Grove Park at the Humboldt Pavilion to partake in some major mushroom epicureanism. These brave and hungry souls assembled under the umbrella of a group known as the Incurable Epicureans, who meet four times a year to participate in very unique dining experiences. It is an offshoot of a larger organization known as MOMS or the Missouri Mycological Society.
In 1983, MOMS was established to bring together people from a plethora of different backgrounds and walks of life who shared a passion for talking about, hunting, cooking and eating mushrooms. MOMS organizes mushroom hunts (The next one is called Sweat & Chanterelles. It is at Meramec State Park July 14, 15, 16), lectures, and classes by esteemed Mycologists, and dinners and overnight trips that emphasize mushrooms, superb food and great company. The current President (there have been three others who have held the position), Maxine Stone, emphasizes that the group is strictly "grassroots" without any bureaucracy or ego infringement. It only costs $15 to become a member and for more information you can contact Maxine at 314.963.0280.
The dinner for our outdoor feast was the brainchild of Julie Ridlon, who is currently the Chairman of the Incurable Epicureans (which also has a $15 membership fee - call Julie at 636.227.7596 for more information). Entitled Mystery French Picnic, it consisted of ingredients gathered solely by the indefatigable Ridlon, from predominantly local farms and establishments such as Biver Farms Organic Produce and Bob’s Seafood on Delmar. The sixteen participating members were presented with the food items and it was up to them to work together and prepare the meal. And prepare they did! The aperitifs of Champagne with Chambord and fresh black raspberries certainly fueled everyone’s fire. Using the grills available at the Humboldt Pavilion as well as few propane burners provided by Julie, everyone came together to create an astonishing meal.
We began with appetizers that consisted of fresh French Bread sauteed in Keller’s European Butter covered in melted Morbier Cheese and assorted fresh herbs topped with a delectable White Truffle Honey. There were radish greens sautéd in olive oil with sliced white mushrooms as well as rustic Black Trumpet mushrooms sautéd in their own juices and finished off with fresh cream and rosemary. Shelled fresh fava beans were lightly sauted in the European butter along with fresh tarragon and dill. A quick note. The difference between European butter and American butter has nothing to do with attitude and everything to do with water content. The European variety has a much lower water content - enough said. The appetizers were rounded out by fresh radishes, Nicoise olives and Herbs de Provence olives.
While it may appear that the Incurable Epicureans are strictly about food, they are actually an amazing group of people with many layers. Barbara O’Brien, owner of The Silver Garden in Webster Groves adamantly attests to that. A few years ago, Barbara’s only child unexpectedly died. She said that within a few hours of receiving the devastating phone call, many of the members from MOMS and the Incurable Epicureans rallied around her to show their friendship and support. O’Brien says the group, "satisfies you on so many levels. There is the obvious culinary satisfaction but there is an interactive openness where you become exposed to some many different new things. There are people here who work on assembly lines as well as doctors and everyone is treated all on the same level. Eating and enjoying food is a primary human experience."
The dinner itself came together as flawlessly as a Prix Fixe at Lutece.
A gorgeous Nicoise Salad that was laid out ingredient by delicious ingredient for everyone to create their own tableau. Grilled fresh tuna was accompanied by just picked organic lettuces tossed in a fresh herb Dijon mustard truffle vinaigrette, yellow wax beans with fresh basil, free range hard boiled eggs, imported white anchovies, organic tomatoes, boiled fingerling potatoes dressed with a mustard vinaigrette, grilled white eggplant/summer squash/fennel/green garlic, and Chanterelle mushrooms sautéd in butter and olive oil and finished off with fresh tarragon.
There was fresh bread from Breadsmiths and an abundance of phenomenal wines that were shared as if they were grape juice. Two bottles that stood out were a 1982 Saint Estephe Corier Chateau Meyner Bordeaux supplied by gourmet vinegar-maker Gene Leonard and a 1975 Andre L’Ballande Chateau Baret offered up by Scientist Pat Lennon.
So you must be thinking - these people really know how to drink and eat! You’re right, except there’s more.
Ridlon prepared SIX desserts. Paté Choux Pralines dusted with powder sugar and chopped almonds, Puff Pastry filled with Chantilly Cream and topped with fresh blueberries, black raspberries and pie cherries soaked in Grand Marnier, Puff Pastry filled with Chantilly Cream and topped with fresh gooseberries, yes gooseberries, and they were amazing. There was also Puff Pastry with tart pie cherries complemented by homemade almond paste and a perfect almond Croquant. On top of that astonishing list were delicious Vahlrona chocolate mushrooms made by Maxine Stone. I heard more than a few marriage proposals that evening.
There was magic in the air and in the food that night in Tower Grove Park, and it was not solely attributed to the fact that mushrooms, in one form or another, were present in every course of that meal. The true transcendence occurred because the Incurable Epicureans came together with some amazing gastronomic ingredients and created a meal that will surely live on immortally in the minds and stomachs of all those who were there.
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