Kennett Square – Mushroom Capital of the World

Kennett Square water tower - mushroom-shaped and saying it like it is.

Kennett Square is the mushroom capital of the world.  If you live outside the US, however, the chances are high that you will never have heard of this small Pennsylvania town of some 6000 inhabitants.  The area now known as Kennett Square was originally inhabited by the Lenape Native Americans.  The name derives from the original land grant from William Penn of one square mile. General Sir William Howe marched through Kennett to the Battle of Brandywine during the American revolution. A strongly Quaker community, Kennett Square was Abolitionist, thus also an important part of the Underground Railroad, helping slaves escaping from the south to the north for freedom. In 1853 a group asked for Kennett Square to be incorporated and in 1855 it held elections.

All very interesting but what has this to do with mushrooms, you may well ask.  Well, Kennett Square’s original economy was largely based on growing cut flowers in hot houses, most specifically carnations which were very fashionable in the 19th century.  Those thrifty Quakers did not want to waste an inch of space in their green houses and hit upon the idea of growing mushrooms in the damp dark spaces underneath the tables on which the carnations were grown. Mushroom spawn was imported from Europe by J B Swayne. In those pre-automobile days there was plenty of horse manure around for mushroom compost.  Even the leftover cocoa shells from chocolate production at the nearby Hershey factory found a purpose in life. The rest, as they say, is history.

Kennett Square Today

The carnations are long gone but Kennett Square produces over a million pounds of mushrooms a week, supplying most of the mushrooms eaten in the USA, hence the appellation Mushroom Capital of the World.  Mushroom technology and growing techniques have changed considerably over the decades and the range of mushrooms grown has expanded to meet consumer demand.  Transportation has also improved, enabling growers to get their mushrooms to consumers in pristine condition.  These days mushrooms are grown on racks in climate controlled sheds as they favour cool dark conditions.  The growing medium is adapted according to the type of mushroom. Those that grow on decaying wood such as oyster mushrooms are grown in ‘logs’ of compressed sawdust. Those that in nature would grow on the forest floor are produced in bags of rich organic compost.  

Unlike the tulip farms of Holland, mushroom farming does not beautify the landscape as it relies on rows and rows of climate-controlled sheds rather than pretty fields.  The only outside activity is the production of steaming piles of manure being broken down for compost which cannot be pleasant for those living downwind.   Growing conditions do, however, have to be strictly controlled and sterile to prevent unwanted moulds and fungi moving in and the whole process is actually very clean and hygienic. The compost is pasteurized to sterilise it before it is inoculated with the spores of the chosen variety of mushroom.

Mushrooms for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner

The mushroom farmers of Kennett Square produce the familiar white mushrooms as well as Crimini, Portabella, Shiitake, Oyster and Trumpet mushrooms.  While fashions in flowers come and go and in times of economic decline are a treat easily surrendered, mushrooms in their various forms are food on the table and for most people are a regular purchase rather than a luxury item. The average American eats 4 pounds of mushrooms a year in some form or another.  For vegetarians and vegans they provide a tasty natural substitute for meat in recipes.  Mushrooms feature in so many different cuisines and culinary styles, they are unlikely to ever fall out of fashion.

Kennett Square Mushroom Festival

For the last 31 years the weekend after Labor Day has been celebrated as the annual Kennett Square Mushroom Festival, an event embracing all things mushroom and paying tribute to the role these humble fungi have played in the region’s prosperity. Around 100 000 people attend the festival each year.  These days as we are increasingly encouraged to know where our food comes from and what goes into producing it, we may see more communities come forward to promote their particular specialty crop and prove that it is ethically and sustainably produced. One of the features of the mushroom festival is that it provides an opportunity for consumers to talk to the individual growers, many of whom are multi-generational family businesses, and buy produce from source.  That can only be good for both the growers and the consumers.  If you are an avid mushroom fan and are in the area, why not make a diary date for the 32nd Kennett Square Mushroom Festival?

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