By Tim Hayes

“Would you look at this kid?  He could be a brain surgeon.”

The chatter from my parents around the Formica-topped kitchen table became nothing more than background noise.  Important work lay before me.  Lengthy, precise, essential work.

Picking microscopic chunks of mushroom out of that evening’s tuna casserole dinner entrée, that is.

Made with cans of tuna fish, bread crumbs, and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup as a binder, I guess, tuna casserole occupied a regular spot in the starting supper menu rotation.  And on those evenings when it took the mound, I knew it was gonna be a long night.

The Campbell Soup Company – long before the days when anybody could even guess what “Chunky” soup meant – minced up mushrooms into teeny-tiny pieces to go into its canned product.  Not small enough to slip by unnoticed, but just big enough to stand out as miniature tastebud bombs, which needed to be extracted one by one from the dish served to me.  At least in my binary world of really good (hot dogs, spaghetti and meatballs) and unspeakably terrible (liver, city chicken) food selections.

Using tines of a fork, the edge of a butter knife, or the tip of a spoon, each shrinky-dink piece of mushroom got moved to the outer rim of my plate.  A monument to grade school stubbornness from one perspective; a tribute to stick-to-it-iveness from another.

Either way, that gross, disgusting pile of mushroom flotsam would never make it past my gums.  No sir, no how, no way.

Fast-forward to high school, and a side booth at “Danny O’Doogle’s,” the pizza shop a half-block from our school building.  There with a bunch of my friends, scarfing down cheap, borderline-quality pizza and generally horsing around, my best buddy – before I knew it – flipped a big old hunk of something onto the slice I was lifting to my mouth.

I took a bite and immediately noticed something different.  A new texture, a new taste, a new mouthfeel, new vistas opening somewhere in my life.  After chewing and evaluating this unanticipated culinary delight, I swallowed and smiled.  The other kids around the table, by this time, were laughing, thinking they’d gotten the better of me.  But I really liked it, whatever “it” had been.

When told the source of my edible epiphany had been a mushroom, well, you could have knocked me over with an anchovy.

From that day forward, mushrooms became an obsession.  In salads, on pizzas, between layers of ham and cheese on sandwiches, I made room for the ‘shrooms.  As our children grew up, I understood what my parents were thinking about me as a kid.  They couldn’t bear to look at a mushroom, much less eat one.  “Okay, fine, good,” I’d say to myself.  “More mushrooms for me, then!”

Then, a couple of years ago, an allergist performed a “scratch test” to see if any foods or entities might have been causing a recurring rash.  The test came back with all kinds of wacky, off-the-wall allergens, and one absolute crusher.

Yeah.  You guessed it.  Mushrooms.

Our family knows all about how dangerous and serious food allergies can be, so the scratch-test news landed with soul-pulverizing reality, but also a clear dose of realism about the need to stay away from my moldy soulmate from that day onward.  No more fungi for this fun guy.

My love affair smited by modern medicine, mushroom mania soon gave way to an infatuation with black olives.  An infatuation that has only grown over time.  Salads, pizza, in between ham and cheese.  Old habits die hard.  Only the variables change, I suppose.

Every now and then, however, a cook at a restaurant will slip up and leave mushrooms in a dish that I had ordered de-shroomed.  And suddenly I’m six years old again, back at that Formica-topped kitchen table, carefully extricating bits of mushrooms from my dinner, stacking them onto a pile at the far rim of my plate.

You know, perhaps Mom was right.  Maybe I could have been a brain surgeon.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes