AFTER LIVING IN Korea for several years, I found that moving back to the States was a daily practice in reverse culture shock. I missed the subways. I missed lightning-fast internet speeds. I missed the mushrooms. Yes, the mushrooms. Because while American grocery stores have comparatively bountiful selections of cheese and yogurt, our boring button mushrooms and plain old portabellas just don’t hold up to the fresh shiitakes, thread-like enokis and meaty king oysters that I could find at any corner mart in Seoul.
So I was intrigued and delighted when two new Las Vegas mushroom farms surfaced on social media: Sundown Mushrooms is run by Chester Cruz and Myrene Delos Angeles, and Las Vegas Mushrooms is run by Aaron Pursell and Sharon Cheung. Both are homegrown operations driven by the same love I share for tasty fungi. Pursell was introduced to the wide world of mushrooms when he dove into foraging in Montana.
“Then I realized, hey, a lot of these ones I’m out finding in the world you can cultivate, you know, right in your house,” he says. Later, after moving to Las Vegas and meeting Cheung, the two got to talking and decided to launch a mushroom business together. Pursell wants people to know there’s more to mushrooms. “Unbeknownst to consumers, your portabella mushrooms are the same species as your little white button and your cremini,” he says. This one species of mushroom, Agaricus bisporus, makes up a whopping 80% of the market — they’re simply sold at different stages of life under different names.
Both Las Vegas Mushrooms and Sundown Mushrooms are currently selling pink and grey oyster mushrooms, as well as lion’s mane mushrooms. Inside Sundown’s misty grow shed, the shrooms sprout from plastic-sealed grow bags lined up on shelves like terrestrial coral. There’s something lovely about them that feels more animal and alive than the hard, Styrofoam buttons you get at the grocery store: The pink oyster’s gills look like they might be breathing. The lion’s mane (right) resembles a tiny sleeping furry creature. A fact from high school biology surfaces and I remember that fungi are more closely related to humans than they are to plants.
Delos Angeles says Sundown’s mushroom selections are seasonal — one of her adjustments to extreme desert temperatures. While her shed is air-conditioned, they try to be mindful of their energy consumption. In summer, they grow warm-loving pink oysters and a summer lion’s mane varietal. “And then come winter, it would be more of the blue oysters, the chestnut mushrooms, because those require about between 50 to 60 degrees for mushroom formation,” Delos Angeles explains.
For Las Vegas Mushrooms’ Pursell and Cheung, who grow indoors in a temperature-controlled room, weather is a little less of a factor. Instead, they’re involved in an air exchange balancing act: Mushrooms breathe out CO2, so they need fresh air. But opening a door means losing moisture. On top of that, our water here is extremely hard.
“We ended up having to create a whole water filtration system just for our mushrooms,” says Cheung. “We always joke, our mushrooms have better water than we do!”
All that care and attention is paying off. A couple weeks ago, I brought home some fresh pink oysters and lion’s mane. I tore the pink oysters into bite-sized pieces before blanching and stir-frying them in a Korean banchan. The bites were tender and reminiscent of chicken. The next day, I shredded the lion’s mane and sautéed them in olive oil with salt and pepper — these were lighter, springier, and almost lobster-like in flavor.
“The main reason that a lot of these larger farms don’t grow these mushrooms is because their shelf life is less than seven days,” Delos Angeles says. “What we grow is very delicate, they bruise easily.” Even if you do see the occasional oyster mushroom in high-end specialty grocery stores, she says, they will often be harvested early, before their prime, so that they’re a little firmer to survive the shipping journey.
Freshness is important to Las Vegas Mushrooms, too. “Our goal is always to have our mushrooms in our customers’ hands within 24 hours, and usually it's within 12 hours because we harvest them usually first thing in the morning,” Cheung says. Both companies package their mushrooms in breathable paper bags, in a conscious decision to move away from plastics use.
These flavorful fungi have also become popular with vegan consumers, who are finding creative ways to use the mushrooms as meat substitutes: crisped up with seasonings in a taco, battered and fried like tenders, or shredded and formed into “crab” cakes. I’m not vegan, but I have happily made mushrooms the centerpiece of a meal and they shine in their own right as mains — earthy, umami-laden bites of natural goodness.
Delos Angeles says that she’ll sometimes encounter hesitant customers at the Downtown farmers market who are drawn to how pretty the mushrooms are, but aren’t sure what to do with them. They’ll opt for a tiny serving and she sends them off with a recipe or two —invariably, they’re back for more the next week.
“That just fills our hearts,” she says. “We're converting these non-mushroom lovers to mushroom lovers.”
THE NIGHT THAT the Strip reopened on June 4, I dined at Mizumi in Wynn Las Vegas. After two angsty months of voluntary lockdown, I met the altered world like so many of us did, with twitchy new antenna tapping out the tentative contours of our new reality, silently scanning social-distance lengths and assessing mask-adoption levels. So, basically, I didn’t exactly sashay into the restaurant with triumphant satisfaction in order restored.
After I sat down, the waiter poured water, pointed out the (disposable) menu, and then gestured at a curious, scalloped paper dish to my right. “A coaster for your mask,” he said. It was a small but salient thing that said 1) the novel coronavirus is going to be around a while, but 2) this doesn’t mean we have to completely forfeit purposeful beauty or pleasure. I felt a little relieved. To witness a negotiation between design and the notion of disease suggested to me that the pandemic was still legible, accountable, comprehensible. Design – human ingenuity – was working on the problem!
A coaster for a mask is just a start. The world is already starting to re-envision its gathering places and leisure infrastructure, and there’s no reason why Vegas shouldn’t be a leader in this movement. We can boast some promising starts, to be sure. Dak Kopec, an architectural psychologist who coordinates UNLV’s Healthcare Interior Design Program, is developing concepts for interior spaces that balance safety and beauty. For instance, one of his team’s designs envisions large public venues (think food courts or restaurants) divided into smaller domed spaces that are both elegant and adaptive. The domed space is a hybrid of two familiar but very different sites, the restaurant booth and the biocontainment unit. “The dome shape encourages better air flow than right angles,” Kopec explains, “and that makes them better for dispersing disinfectant.” In addition, elements like artful UV backlighting and copper accents — both of which have antimicrobial properties — do their part to passively discourage viral spread.
It might be some time before you see Kopec’s team’s domes in a casino or mall, but other permanent pieces of hygienic furniture have begun to populate our spaces. Take the hand sanitizer dispenser. It will soon be as common as the water fountain. Local company SRS Fabrication has launched a line of sanitizer dispensers that are much more pleasing to interact with than a sketchy-looking jug of Purell on a countertop. “When we realized sanitizer dispensers are here to stay, we wanted to design something for the long term that was clean, sleek, and simple,” says Sam Salde, president and owner of SRS. “It’s part of the decor now.” Some of SRS’s models are angular, vaguely futuristic, hinting at a kind of surgical reassurance; others incorporate digital screens for messaging and advertising.
Our private spaces will change as well. UNLV’s Kopec rattles off a list of ways our home design preferences will change: a preference for more square footage (for distance), more segmented and partitioned rooms (for solitude and privacy), and more “behavioral zoning,” that is, a rising preference for rooms with a dedicated purpose as our work lives, social lives, and family lives increasingly converge in our homes. He says, “We’ll definitely see a decline in the open floor plan.” But if we can manage to embrace safety without sacrificing the pleasures of design, we shouldn’t mind being sent to our rooms.
1. JUST WHEN THE DELUGE of “how to vote by mail” flyers from the U.S. Postal Service had you wondering whether there could be a housed American left who wasn’t clear on this subject, Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske raised her hand to point out that, um, those flyers actually contained a mistake or two vis-à-vis her state. Fortunately for us, the Nevada Current’s April Corbin Girnus answers all our questions in this straightforward FAQ.
2. To participate fully in Let There Be No Regrets, the free online event series centered on the life and experiences of U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, you have to watch Unspoken: America’s Native American Boarding Schools. That’s because the first event, next Wednesday, September 23, is discussion of the film hosted by the Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival. The documentary features interviews with Natives who were violently ripped from their homes as children and subjected to ethnic cleansing, as well as those, like Harjo, who benefitted from the schools' later turn toward cultural support. Register for the discussion here.
3. What happens when human-caused and natural — or, as self-describe fire historian Stephen Pyne calls them, “industrial” and “landscape” — fire collide? That’s the question driving “California wildfires signal the arrival of a planetary fire age,” Pyne’s provocative, heart-wrenching argument that we may be entering a Pyrocene epoch. It originally ran in The Conversation in November 2019, and was republished this month, with fresh urgency, in High Country News.
4. What’s the German word for the feeling of being both overwhelmed by news on a certain topic and yet unclear on the exact details? I have that when it comes to Warren Jeffs’ crimes in the FLDS community. The podcast Unfinished: Short Creek is solving that problem for me. A pair of Arizonan and Utahan reporters, one of whom embedded in Short Creek for an entire summer, bring the same journalistic rigor and grassroots storytelling to this project that their predecessors did in first season of Witness Docs’ Unfinished, which investigated Isadore Banks’ lynching in Arkansas.
5. Lest you think I’m all purpose and no play, I am also reading a novel right now: Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Okay, okay, there’s a purpose there, to continue my current preoccupation with epidemic-oriented fiction. And, yeah, environmental destruction, racial injustice, war, and the wealth gap are among the socially conscious characters appearing in the book. But it’s ultimately a story about belief in undying love. Magic, for sure. Realistic? Let’s hope.
“IT BECAME OBVIOUS that it was clowns that would take me forward.” Heidi Rider is a clown, in the now-shuttered Strip show Absinthe, as well as a seasoned performance and visual artist. Earlier this year, adrift in the swirling anxieties of Pandemia — losing her job and being cut off from her main creative outlet, feeling pressured to be productive during downtime — she revitalized her visual art practice by filtering her jitters through the clown archetype. Because there’s no anger, shame, despair, or remorse you can dump on a clown that will alter its grin (and even though many of you are creeped out by them), it became an ideal figure through which to process her upwelling emotions.
Rider will workshop the results of her studio time in a brief pop-up show, titled They’re All Gonna Laugh at You, at the new Available Space Art Projects gallery in New Orleans Square. (ASAP is featured among Ones to Watch in the September-October Desert Companion.) Here are a few examples:
IMAGE: Untitled clown picnic
WHAT IT’S PROCESSING: Anger
ANNOTATION: Living in the moment has become a glib lifestyle homily, redolent of yoga pants and mindfulness apps. But you know who really lives in the moment? Clowns. Think about it: Whatever you throw at it — your joy or scorn, your bad mood or facepaint-related heebie-jeebies — the clown, relying on quick wit, cultivated intuition, a gift for spontaneity, and oversize shoes, transmutes it into play. The performance relies entirely on the contingencies of the situation. This, Rider says, makes the clown a figure of anarchic energy: “It breaks rules, or makes new rules.” Its utility as an avatar of how to navigate our current disorientation seems obvious. Clowns process that heavy baggage into what she terms “unending buoyancy.” This openness to the capricious moment is how Rider not only wants to perform, but to live her life, too, as scarily vulnerable as that sounds. At the other end of the spectrum are those so swaddled in bourgeoisie privilege that they can happily picnic in denial, thinking they’re being present in the moment as the rest of the world comes apart. This accounts for the rage she’s processing in this piece, which beclowns the nonchalance of the white and wealthy. “I really like things that make people uncomfortable,” she says. “It invites people to press into places they’re uncomfortable with inside themselves. I think that’s a useful thing to do.”
IMAGE: Clown cylinders
WHAT IT’S PROCESSING: Creative anxiety
ANNOTATION: Say hello to her little friends, 101 in all, to be mounted on a shelf at eye level and collectively titled, “They’re All Gonna Laugh at You.” Clearly, we’ve got some exposed nerves here. Painted on cardboard toilet-paper tubes, the figures are of course vamping on the anxiety of pandemic hoarding, though they drill deeper than that. They are, it must be said, radically adorable, and, go ahead, look closely, quite individualized. Their primitive vigor derives in part from a curious restriction Rider imposed on herself: As was the rest of the show, these were painted with her left, nondominant, hand. Why? To disable that part of her psyche that insists on perfection. Too often, our creativity bottlenecks behind a fear of rejection, which manifests as a nitpicking need for control, which ultimately stifles our work. Her work. “I’m trying to create systems where my mark-making surprises me,” she says. And trying, as well, to accept the uncertainty that comes with it. “I don’t want a predictable life,” Rider says, and putting your imperfect self out there for public judgment by chortling figures is one way to achieve that. And yet, as she found, her gutsy foray into vulnerability can engender resilience of a sort: “My left hand is learning,” she says. Getting better. “My whole life,” she adds, “has been about adapting to whatever’s happening.”
IMAGE: Untitled hearts
WHAT IT’S PROCESSING: Desperation for acceptance
ANNOTATION: This piece brings us close to the heart of Rider’s show. It originates in a drawing she made for her dad when she was a kid, back during the sort of unsettled, different-school-every-year childhood that forcibly, often painfully, teaches you to accommodate an erratic world. “From your switi pie Heidi,” she wrote back then. This year, that drawing became the portal through which Rider sought in her artwork to (a) reconnect with the little girl who drew with such emotion and abandon; and (b) come to terms with her “desperation for love and acceptance.” Not surprisingly, the prospect of feedback from this pop-up show both excites and terrifies her. “It’s an opportunity to learn,” she says, to prep the work for a longer, fuller showing down the road. Even if everyone’s gonna laugh. “I’m a really resilient person,” she says. Whatever viewers throw at her, she’ll work with it. That’s life.
They’re All Gonna Laugh at You will appear as a pop-up show in the Available Space Arts Project gallery, in New Orleans Square, September 25-26. Beginning September 22, it can be viewed by appointment. Reach the artist through her website, heidirider.com