Sleeper quarantine food trend: Growing your own mushrooms with Smallhold


    A Smallhold mushroom farm at Kimchee Market in Greenpoint. The company primarily grows mushrooms and supplies stores and restaurants with these indoor mushroom farms, but since the pandemic they have also begun offering grow kits for home cooks. Photo: @kimcheemarket

    During quarantine, banana bread, sourdough, and regrown window sill scallions (or fruit fly sanctuaries in my case), got some heavy rotation in our timelines, gaining status as the official food trends of lockdown. Mushroom farming was the sleeper trend that called my name. While it may sound intimidating, Brooklyn’s own Smallhold makes this protein-proliferating hobby accessible via their locally delivered (and now nationally available) grow kits. Each block is fully colonized, sterilized, hydrated, and inoculated, ready to be loved and misted multiple times a day so you can reap two to three blooms per kit.

    Oyster mushrooms sprouting from the side of the fungal block that Smallhold provides. Photo: Regina Bresler

    Established in 2017 as New York City’s only organic mushroom farm, Smallhold was founded by Andrew Carter and Adam DeMartino who were roommates during their college days at University of Vermont-Burlington. They normally run their wholesale operation from the Brooklyn Navy Yard and supply retailers like Whole Foods Brooklyn. They also have mini-farms-cum-art-installations set up at individual restaurants including Olmsted, Bunker Vietnamese, and Mission Chinese as well as educational units for L.E.S Girls Club. But this February they found themselves facing the same dilemma as the rest of the city: Finding balance for themselves and their business during crisis mode. Keeping their dozen-deep team safe and hopefully employed was of the utmost importance. Everyone went remote, minus the farmers working in their warehouse set-up, which Andrew and Adam refer to as the “germ bunker,” replete with decontamination suits and all.

    With restaurants shut down, and wholesale slowed down, at first they were just helping out their personal network within the restaurant and service industry by providing their organic goods at a discount direct from their company van parked outside The Meat Hook in Greenpoint. Grow kits weren’t originally part of the plan, but after providing a few friends with blocks, word spread like spores, and they decided to open up the option of homegrown organic mushrooms, along with offering more than half a dozen possibilities grown in-house to those in the NYC area. Did you even know that oyster mushrooms came in pink and yellow? For those of us who view mushrooms as essential grocery-list staples, you know those varieties are hard to come by outside of farmer’s markets and specialty shops.

    Much like their products, Smallhold continues to blossom. You can find their fresh mushrooms in local farm CSAs, get one of their grow kits delivered nationwide, and or purchase a four-kit subscription to help round out your personal farm, and try lesser-known varietals like the Phoenix Oyster. You can expect more in the way of events and lectures once we’re phased out of quarantine restrictions, and the company has projects planned with Head Hi Coffeeshop, the New York Mycological Society, and Archestratus Books + Food. Keep an eye on their Instagram for details, and just to ogle their otherworldly grows.

    The author with her fungal progeny, Guillermo. Photo: Regina Bresler

    As for my own foray into the magical world of mushrooms, I have neither balcony nor backyard for even the most micro of micro farms, but what I do have is space above my kitchen cabinets, a spray bottle and a step stool, teamed with plenty of time on my hands to monitor my mycological progress. Smallhold recommends you name your fertile little fungal blocks, and so Guillermo was born. That first week was spent climbing, and spraying and cooing at my fun guy. Up and down, and standing atop the kitchen counter became a meditative process, and how thankful I was at that moment to live alone and not be reprimanded for this practice. It was encouraging to watch tiny pins begin to sprout, and suddenly overnight the blooms would burst, doubling and tripling in size. I posted them to social media like a proud mama, and like a proud mama, I was reminded that not everyone thinks your baby is as beautiful as you do. By day nine, Guillermo produced what looked like a pound-plus of blue oyster mushrooms. I baked them into flaky hand-pies, scrambled them with eggs, and sauteed them with some of the flowering chives from Brooklyn Grange that came in the sample box Smallhold briefly offered that included three varieties of their mushrooms, a dealers choice of sausage from The Meat Hook, and more produce picks from the CSA.

    My second flush of mushrooms started optimistically enough, but I lost focus as the protests over George Floyd’s murder began in Minnesota, and then here in the city. While Guillermo momentarily cleared my mind of the Covid crisis, he couldn’t keep my attention amidst concerns for those fighting in the streets over police brutality and the massive civil rights movement rapidly spreading across the country. My second harvest was woody and underdeveloped, but it still fed me well. There was too much happening hour to hour, and sometimes you have to choose what you water. The next block I order will be Lion’s Mane, a mushroom credited with anti-anxiety and antidepressant properties, and said to mimic the taste of seafood. I’d never encountered those before the sample box, but I made “crab” cakes from them one night and slept like a baby. Between the sirens, helicopters, fireworks, and endless heartbreak of this year, a bit of homegrown sleep-aid and plant-based protein feels like a welcome addition to my personal timeline.

    Smallhold Grow Kits cost $34, take about two weeks to ship, and roughly one week to harvest. A four-kit subscription is $120. Both can be ordered online.

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