Fifth Street

December 2, 2021

A gourmet mushroom farm in Vegas | The brain scan that ate my mind | Media Sommelier: Believe Her provokes outrage, but offers hope

IN A SMALL, tightly packed warehouse in the shadow of the Tropicana, EvaSara Luna unzips the flexible door of a Mylar-lined, LED-illuminated grow tent. Inside, along the soft walls, are lines of industrial-strength shelves packed with epicurean gold.

"They're called 'pink oyster'," Luna says, pointing to curvy-cupped gourmet fungi bursting triumphantly from clear, recyclable plastic bags. These savory beauties, unmistakably rose-tinted, are among the many varieties grown at this hyper-local mycological enterprise, Desert Moon Mushrooms.

Maybe you've seen pictures of vast, dank indoor farms whose acre-wide dirt floors are dotted with symmetrical round caps of white button mushrooms. Desert Moon is the aesthetic opposite of that. Here, inside a handful of grow tents, multi-hued organic fungi burgeon to fruition: delicate, furry-looking lion's mane; golden oysters reminiscent of orchestral trumpets; fairyland-like black pearl kings; and more. The kaleidoscopic urban garden scene brings to mind a tropical coral reef blended with a space telescope nebula photo.

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"A mushroom's life begins with those bags — that one is oak, this one is organic soybean hulls," says Enrique Gonzalez, Luna's life and business partner, in another part of the snug warehouse. There, the duo assembles 12-pound bags of substrate, a 50-50 blend of shredded wood and legume husks. "The soy hulls are kind of like a supplement," he adds. "Higher nutrition, higher nitrogen."

Once filled, the bags are sterilized with steam for 13 hours. Only then are mushroom spores — the fungi kingdom's equivalent of seeds — introduced to the substrate in a cleanroom outfitted with laboratory-grade HEPA air filters. Utmost hygiene is essential in cultivating Desert Moon's culinary product line.

Luna and Gonzalez turn out some 140 inoculated bags a week, and they have a sizeable repertoire of mushroom varieties resting in spore state, as well. "We have more than 20," Gonzalez says, of the company's total unique cultivars, "but we don't grow them all at the same time."

"We do six on our menu, our usual that we have at all times, but we're always coming up with new mushrooms here and there," Luna adds.

What led Luna and Gonzalez to this niche market? Curiously, neither had a deep familial or cultural attachment to mushrooms growing up in Las Vegas. For both, the fascination started after graduating from UNLV.

Gonzalez brings a bit of the wild side to their shared story. Armed with a mechanical engineering degree, he went north from the sere Mojave Desert to the verdant forests of Alaska for six years. There was a gastronomic kicker, though: "All my buddies were into hunting, but I'm vegan," Gonzalez says. "So what I hunted were mushrooms." (Right, Desert Moon's blue oyster mushrooms.)

Luna got her degree in sociology, but casework was not in her career plan. "I knew I wanted to start a business after college. I didn't want to do the 9-to-5 thing," she says. "I did a lot of research on what would match my values — I'm also vegan."

After Gonzalez returned to Southern Nevada, their mycelial endeavor started to take root. Luna spent a lot of time researching micro-mushroom farming on YouTube and beyond, and a business plan began to take hold.

In the less than two years since the couple embarked on their agronomic venture, their products have become a hit in the Las Vegas food world. But it was all something of a lark at the start, Luna says. "'Let's just give it a try,'" she recalls them saying their first days in business. "And pretty much it just blew up from there." (At right, vegan "shrimp" and grits created with Desert Moon's lion's mane mushrooms.)

These days, Desert Moon delivers delectable merchandise across town, including to acclaimed restaurants like Delilah at Wynn Las Vegas, where Executive Chef Joshua Smith created a side dish including the Desert Moon name. That's extraordinary for a small, new-to-the-game vendor.

"Our mix usually includes chestnut, lion's mane, black pearl king, and pink oyster mushrooms,” Smith says. “We use them as a garnish in a few dishes, but primarily we use them for a side dish that sells very well."

And while Desert Moon's mushrooms can look exotic — even extraterrestrial — they are eminently approachable on the plate (and palate).

"We prepare their mushrooms very simply with basic aromatics like olive oil, salt, pepper, shallots, garlic, and sherry wine," Smith says. "We serve them with whole-roasted garlic cloves and a sweet-and-savory sauce that includes white miso, sherry vinegar, kombu seaweed, and a knob of smoked butter."

It’s no trade secret that the food-service industry, especially on the supply chain side, can be an impersonal, take-it-or-leave-it affair. Not so with Desert Moon, according Smith.

"One of my favorite things about working with EvaSara and Enrique is their customer service,” he says. “They write us often to ask if we’re happy with the product and to see if there’s anything they can do better. I wish all vendors were this caring."

Chef Smith's guest-favorite mushroom melange is likely an occasional, on-Strip treat for most Las Vegans, but Desert Moon delicacies also show up seasonally at neighborhood eateries like Edo Tapas & Wine in Chinatown and Summerlin-adjacent Honey Salt.

Beyond restaurants, Desert Moon also sells its fantastic fungi to retail customers at farmers markets throughout the valley, including the Wednesday gatherings at Bruce Trent Park on Rampart Avenue. Maitakes, shitakes, and chestnuts sometimes make a show at the Desert Moon booth, as do premade mushroom growing kits for home chefs.

Building on its accomplishments, Desert Moon has other developments in the works. First, Luna and Gonzalez are in the process of creating a new product: mushroom jerky. "We're hoping to get into something like Whole Foods with it," Luna says.

Increasing Desert Moon's chances of dried snack success, Luna was recently chosen as one of 10 participants in a Farm2Food Accelerator program co-sponsored by the Nevada Department of Agriculture and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture Foundation. The five-month curriculum mentors woman-owned farming, food, and beverage businesses in expanding into new markets.

Continuing Luna and Gonzalez's mix of serendipity and commitment, the Farm2Food Accelerator award came as a surprise. First, Luna received an email out of the blue to apply. She did, but adds, laughing, that she didn't go overboard on her application — she thought she had a slim chance of getting accepted. But here she is.

She describes the entrepreneurial training program as being about creating a new value-added product. “It's been very helpful so far,” she says. “It's only been two weeks, and I've learned a slew of things. I just feel lucky being part of it. I feel it's going to do us well."

In response to demand, Luna and Gonzalez are also planning to move into a much larger warehouse space soon. Business is growing like … well, you know.

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MY NEUROLOGIST recently recommended some routine brain scans (routine for him but not for me!). When I downloaded the resulting MRIs from the online health portal, I wasn’t sure what to think (or what I was thinking with). It looked like an exploded version of my Dynamic Brain in
some super-vivid flashback to 9th grade biology (or college psychedelia). Wild, man, wild.

At first, I was just fascinated by the modern fantasy of it all (as if that’s really my brain, right?). Then I was struck by the religious science — the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to ... The Outer Limits!

But I kept coming back to the sheer visual art of the scan itself. Jolts and wisps of electric color in some frames, ponderous shadows in others. Across the range, an animate clash between fractals and blob … jagged line and soft curve … lobe and lightning … seed pod and cephalopod.

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Of course, I was worried about what the imagery “meant.” No one gets an MRI without reason, and if it’s an MRI of your brain, any reason is a concern. Still, I’m an artist, and I wanted to “buck up” — to make something of the cryptic artwork from inside me — and there’s no better way to meet anxiety than to use it creatively, to externalize it, and to share it! Here was a weird new window into the depths of my being, on a literal level. I wanted to embrace it.

So, I started printing out some of the images and collaging them into a Mind Mosaic — or at least a Brain Mosaic. I couldn’t decide if I enjoyed working with the images digitally on screen more — or very physically covering an entire wall with them. Heck, either avenue was mesmerizing. On screen, I created a prog rock music video from the imagery. On the wall, I jigsawed shapes with organic messes of spray-glued ghost cartography to form a mad Byzantine personal cosmology. (Yes, I got excited.)

One of my beliefs is that the experience of not being sure of what you’re looking at is an essential part of the appeal of art. As a child, I dealt with extreme pareidolia (the tendency to perceive meaningful scenes in random patterns), and this still haunts and directs me. I felt empowered, as they say. Until …

Until I went back to the online health portal to check out some more of the bigger image files. Then I saw that there was a priority-flagged email waiting.

I found out rather quickly that the brain images I’d been reviewing and had become so enthralled by — and had actively started turning into a wall-sized map of a private world — weren’t images of my brain. It was someone else’s cerebral terrain. Oh, dear. A slight administrative/clerical error. A problem in delivery. Apologies.

I admit I didn’t really know what I was looking at, but I thought I’d been looking at me! A rich series of odd thoughts and emotions sluiced through my mind, and I would’ve liked to have seen the MRI take on them. Did it matter that I’d made art from a strange brain? Did that dissolve the personal meaning? Did it change the visual art in front of me in any tangible way? How did this new information affect my exploration and performance of Personal Identity?

I puzzled over this puzzle that I’d parsed together — and then I reached a pragmatic decision. I recalled that I’d once come into a mass of old post office “Wanted” posters that had gone out of date. With a Stanley knife and tactical field scissors, I slit and shaped these fugitive faces into one larger composite face, which I dubbed “Complete Stranger.” I followed this same magical practice with my phantom brain imagery. I make dimensional masks as well, and the notion of a mask — as in some ceremonial blended face —  seemed appropriate.

I admire the colors and contours of the Strange Brain. I hope the anonymous Whoever who’s represented in this scientific “stained glass window” profile won’t object to how I’ve shattered and reformed the pieces. One of my favorite artists famously said, “There’s a hole in Whole.” Funny that phrase, a piece of my mind.

Kris Saknussemm is a novelist and multimedia artist who lives and writes in Boulder City.

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1. ABOUT A MONTH ago, New York Times columnist and The Argument producer Jane Coaston asked, in a piece that stuck with me, “Does our culture have a true crime problem?” Given what I’ve learned while reporting on intimate partner violence (not to mention my feminist values), I began to question my own love of true crime podcasts. In this context, Jezebel recommended the recently released Believe Her as one that “turns all the troubling true crime tropes upside down.” I bit, enthusiastically, and you should, too. Believe Her is the riveting story of Nikki Addimando, a New York woman who is currently serving a 19-year sentence for shooting her abusive husband, Chris Grover, to death in 2017. As promised, the six episodes released so far have altered my understanding of who the U.S. legal system sees as the victims in situations where people — mostly women — defend themselves against the perpetrators — usually men— of intimate partner violence.

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Particularly in a world where stand-your-ground and reasonable-fear laws tend to be invoked by men bearing arms, the situation of Addimando and the legion of similar victims she represents is infuriating, at times almost unbearably so. Fortunately, Believe Her also comes with the occasional ray of hope; for instance, state laws that are evolving to allow past abuse to be taken into consideration when sentencing domestic violence victims who defend themselves with deadly force. This podcast isn’t anti-true crime so much as a demand of accountability for elected prosecutors that put battered women in prison as eagerly as their electors gobble up stories about those same women turning up dead. Heidi Kyser

2. I wouldn’t call myself a diarist per se, but I’ve been dutifully keeping a daily journal for years — it's not so much a secret glurge of my deepmost feelz as it is a skeletal log of the day’s personal events that serve as handy mnemonic Polaroids to hopefully forestall the inevitable puddification of my brain. But, dayuuuum, after reading “The Most Ambitious Diary in History,” a New Yorker piece by Benjamin Anastas, I realize I gotta up my game! Anastas profiles the late Claude Fredericks, a Bennington lit prof whose obsessive diary-keeping ultimately becomes his life’s work, the expanding volumes gradually filling up multiple bank safes in his basement. Of course, Fredericks wasn’t just a hopeless graphomaniac; there was, forgive me, a method to his Moleskine: To his mind, the diary was an emerging literary form whose time had come. At the very least, he predicted the latest trendlet in novels, Anastas writes: “Three decades before the rise of autofiction — novels that appear to hew to an author’s lived experience, largely dispensing with the artifices of fiction — Fredericks is calling for something similar.” Anastas also observes that Fredericks’ sometimes desperate desire for some measure of literary immortality for himself may not come in quite the form he had hoped — “He is right that some stray ‘jewels’ were hidden inside (the journals), but in the main his millions of words are a monumental disappointment,” Anastas writes — but Fredericks did achieve it in some modest measure: His voluminous outpourings from 1932 to 2012 are now housed at the Getty Research Institute. Andrew Kiraly

3. Who doesn’t love the magical vibrant colorful blocky world of Minecraft? Kids! Teens! Teachers! Grownass tired adults for whom Creative Mode + cannabis = the closest thing you’re gonna get to a safe rave for aspiring geriatrics! And, finally, industry! Yes! Industry loves Minecraft as a greenwashing tool to acclimate the soft youngling minds of tomorrow to the supposed necessity of extractive, polluting fossil fuels whoa wait wtf am I typing? Yeah, over at The Baffler, writer Dolly Church considers the darker-darker side of the video game industry, in which military and corporate interests ranging from the U.S. Army to the Minerals Council of Australia use popular video games — or sometimes distinctly branded, industry-focused, customized versions of them — as recruitment tools, you know, for the kids. It is not a new phenomenon — she notes the existence of a joint Chevron/Maxis Studios game with the cringily awkward name SimRefinery from 1993 — but the role of such pro-industry edutainment in an era of dire climate emergency bears refreshed scrutiny. Ah, makes me pine for the good old days when video games were simply the culprit behind school shootings and Satan worship … AK

4. Okay, I know we’re all just so completely over the myth of the asshole genius, that tropey chimerical hangover of, what, Western romantic paleo-individualist histori-something something. Case in point: Recently I was chilling, somewhat impatiently, in a medical office waiting room and they were playing House on the communal TV — remember House, the drama series about the deeply pained asshole genius doctor? — and I almost violently transcended my own epidermis with just, ugh, how over it I was. But! Do read this brief, delightfully piquant anecdotal remembrance of Paul Rand, a titan of 20th-century graphic design known for, among many other things, his eccentrically disciplined methods of working and communicating. I certainly wouldn’t call him an asshole genius in the astringent flavor of the cultural figure’s contemporary supercapitalist avatar; but his irascible single-mindedness, creative stubbornness, and self-aware instinct for a certain Zen spontaneity in design must have made him interesting to work with in the best ways. May we all be such assholes. AK

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Photos and art: EvaSara Luna and Enrique Gonzales by Christopher Smith; blue oyster mushroom courtesy of Desert Moon; lion's mane "shrimp" and grits by @PeaceLoveAndPickles; brain scan art by Kris Saknussemm

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