Grown with Pride

By Helen Cordes
Photography by Jenna Noel

Fans of the fungi know the moment that promises prime palate pleasure—when smooth slices of mushroom surrender to the sauté, become fragrant and glisten with droplets of flavor-sating umami. Of course, the quality of that aroma and nectar soars when a mushroom is truly fresh, and Central Texas mushroom lovers score a huge coup with family-run Kitchen Pride Mushroom Farms so close at hand.

Just down the road past Lockhart and Luling, the McLain clan draws on three generations of mushroom savvy to produce white button, caramel-colored crimini, meaty portabella and delicate oyster mushrooms at their farm outside of Gonzales. “The mushrooms we’re picking today will be in kitchens tomorrow,” says Greg McLain, the affable son of founder Darrell McLain. “We can deliver from order to store within 24 hours.”

Freshness, consistent quality and close oversight keep the Kitchen Pride harvest a favorite among Texas home cooks and chefs. The secret to producing superb mushrooms, Greg explains, springs from “lots of experience.” The McLains’ penchant for mushrooms began in the 1970s, when Darrell worked for mushroom firms such as Ralston Purina. “In high school, I’d work in the mushroom-packing rooms,” Greg recalls, “but I was really interested in the growing aspect.” After getting a degree in agricultural management, Greg worked at mushroom farms in Oklahoma and Colorado. In the 1980s, the family decided to try their own hand at mushroom farming and put down roots in Gonzales, a site with central proximity to major Texas cities. The first Kitchen Pride mushrooms were picked in 1988.

Over the years, the farm grew quickly and prospered. Today, Kitchen Pride produces some 200,000 pounds of mushrooms per week for retailers such as Whole Foods Market, Central Market, Wheatsville Food Co-op, Fiesta Mart and Wal-Mart, as well as for the Austin and San Antonio farmers markets. And the second generation of McLains grew, too. Son Phil (now deceased) worked in sales. Daughters Gina and Lori, along with a passel of grandkids, now help run the farmers market stands and assist in the office. Generation three of the McLains enjoys the camaraderie of tending—and eating—mushrooms together. “It’s fun for us cousins to work together and learn about mushrooms,” notes Gina’s son Mark, a Texas A&M engineering sophomore with a nose ring and ready smile who tended the Austin Farmers’ Market stand this summer. “And then we have get-togethers—last week my grandpa butchered one of his cattle and we all had great beef with lots of mushrooms, which is my favorite combination!”

For a business that’s grown fourfold since its beginning, daily operation is anything but simple. “Every single factor—temperature, humidity, oxygen mix, aeration—must be controlled and monitored and continually adjusted for each step of the process,” notes Greg, as he strolls through the cavernous main building housing 57 mushroom-growing rooms. “Our computer system keeps track of everything going on in all the growing rooms, but we also check on it personally,” he says, adding that their employees now number just over 200.

The mushroom growing cycle begins outdoors, where its growing medium is crafted from a rich compost comprised largely of materials such as wheat straw, cottonseed meal and brewing by-products from local farmers and suppliers. After pasteurizing the mix, mushroom spawn are added and the earthy loam is spread onto long aluminum shelves in the dark growing rooms.

Within two weeks, the spawn will begin the metamorphosis into mushrooms. “See those white threads?” Greg asks as he shines a flashlight and pokes into the dark, thick carpet. “Soon those mycelia will start clumping together and that’s the beginning of a mushroom.” Several growing rooms down, shelves are now chockablock with plump mushrooms ready for careful harvesting by hand—the final phase of an 80-day process.

While white button and brown crimini are most popular, portabella sales are increasing, Greg notes, and explains that portabellas are produced when brown criminis are thinned, allowing the caps to grow into tan umbrellas atop deep sienna gills ruffled below. Customers are cottoning to their most recent addition of oyster mushrooms, too, he adds, as he opens a room full of suspended bags of compost blossoming with delicate, fluted oyster fronds.

The McLains are proud to have grown an enterprise that’s become a prominent local employer, but what’s most pleasing to them is that their passion for mushrooms is being reflected in Texan taste buds. “People are getting more adventurous and seeing that mushrooms taste good in just about everything,” says Greg. And at a time when everyone’s pinching pennies, mushrooms are a hearty and economical staple that are also racking up impressive health pluses. Add in the year-round growing season and the farm-fresh local availability, and mushrooms could be crowned a Central Texas wonder crop.

Healthful Properties of Mushrooms
Need another reason to add mushrooms to a pizza, pâté or points beyond? According to Mary Jo Feeney, a registered dietician who monitors mushroom studies worldwide as editor of the quarterly Mushrooms and Health, recent studies reveal that mushrooms—including ordinary white buttons and brown criminis—show great promise in boosting immunity, fighting off inflammation and reducing cancer risk. And a 2008 Johns Hopkins University study shows they can help with weight control. Subjects compared feelings of fullness after meals with either mushrooms or higher-calorie meat and felt just as satisfied. “So mushrooms may help reduce obesity, which is connected with chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer,” notes Feeney.

Study Highlights:
• Lab rats who ate white mushrooms (at daily amounts that would be proportionately normal for humans) gained immune strength that fought cancer better than non-mushroom-fed rats, according to an Arizona State University study published this February in the journal BMC Immunology.

• White button mushroom extract slows certain types of breast cancer growth in mice; human studies will test this ability with breast and prostate cancers at the City of Hope Cancer Center near Los Angeles.

• Mushrooms contain ergosterol, which, with sunlight, is converted into vitamin D. Mushrooms are also a good source of important minerals such as selenium, potassium and zinc.

• Medicinal mushroom extract is used widely as a cancer fighter (including at Houston’s M. D. Anderson Cancer Center) and adjunct to chemotherapy.

Chorizo stuffed Mushrooms/Dai Due
Oyster Mushroom Salad/Dai Due
Taglierini al Funghi/Siena
Hongos al Epazote/Whole Foods Market Culinary Center
Mushroom Cappuccino/Lake Austin Spa Resort
BBQ Portabella Burgers/Lake Austin Spa Resort
Pork & Mushroom Chilaquiles with Winter Squash, Red Chile Salsa & Papaya Relish/Lake Austin Spa Resort
Mushroom Salpicon/Lake Austin Spa Resort
Red Wine Risotto with Mushrooms and Pancetta/Lake Austin Spa Resort
Roast Chicken with Sage and Mushroom Cream/Lake Austin Spa Resort