Filling Our Cup: All things fungi with Sophia Roe

Filling Our Cup: All things fungi with Sophia Roe

We had the pleasure of (virtually) sitting down with chef and advocate Sophia Roe, host of Vice’s Counter Space and fungi enthusiast, for a long chat about mushrooms and fungi. We discussed Sophia’s favorite ways to cook with mushrooms, how she is inspired by fungi’s ability to be solution-focused, the astrology of mushrooms, and so much more—her enthusiasm for fungi is seemingly boundless. Brew a cup of mushrooms and join us for long, windy, passionate mushroom chat!

Hey Sophia, so excited to chat all things mushrooms with you today. Your love for fungi is so palpable and contagious. Where and when did it start?

I’m originally from Florida, where there aren’t a ton of mushrooms. There's a ton of mold there because there's so much humidity down there. I was just really fascinated by decomposition - really fascinated by the fact that like a lemon is here and then it just is not anymore after a certain period of time. This idea of something that biodegrades—that's really cool to me. And then I started cooking and realized that mushrooms have a lot of really interesting flavors. You can do a lot with a mushroom in the culinary sense. When I first really started using them in my early 20s, they were kind of like tea. I realized, “wow, I can dehydrate this thing. I can make broth with this thing. I can soak these dried mushrooms with other stuff and create really cool flavors.” I think mushrooms are delicious. I was a kid who liked them. I was a kid who liked mushrooms on the pizza kind of thing, that kind of weirdo.

I’ve also always been a science-y weirdo—I'm that person that watches weird keynotes on bacteria. It was probably five years ago when I happened to catch a keynote from Giuliana Furci (of the Fungi Foundation), and I just was fascinated with her. I'd never seen a woman speak about fungi before, and the way she spoke about fungi in this sort of noble sense was fascinating. I was really fascinated with the idea that something is there, and then it dies. And then we don't see it anymore, right? Like the most noble thing that we can do is die, right? And then it becomes a landing field for all this other new life. I feel like death has become the one part of wellness that no one really talks about. And we really don't actively spend time preparing for that. If you were to die tomorrow, what do you want to say to everybody? I think it can be beautiful—there is something noble about being put in the ground and being a place for something new to grow because essentially, that's the circle and cycle of life. That's how it works.

Fungi are absolutely crucial for the circle of life.

In a time when we don't think we need each other, fungi shows us that we do.

How do mushrooms and fungi inspire you?

I really want solutions—I'm a solution type of gal. And I feel like solutions need imagination—and imagination leads to revolution. We need revolution in order to get to solutions because something is not connecting. For example, as we talk about climate change and addressing waste: the word waste is so funny to me—that is what fungi are here to tackle. Thanks to fungi, there is no waste in nature.

So many problems we’ve created are not of nature. Plant cells evolve, animals evolve, grow, and change based on their needs and the environment around them. Have fungi gotten the call on their mycelial phone saying “hey, fungi, we’ve got a little bit of a plastic issue, and we need to reformulate ourselves to be able to tackle this”? Science has shown that there are absolutely fungi that can eat plastic. (Though it'll take a long time).

I just feel like nature always has the answers. I see a lot of solutions and answers in fungi.

But how do we get people to take fungi seriously? We don't even really learn about it in school. At the Fungi Foundation, we talk about how growing up we learn about flora and fauna, plants and animals. I've been on set so many times where I hear people say, “Oh, mushrooms are like my favorite plant.” But they’re not plants! They are totally separate beings that do a totally different thing. I just feel like there are a lot of solutions for the problems we are experiencing as a society if we take the time to understand how these organisms work and their potential.

What role do mushrooms and fungi play in your day-to-day life?

I am the most excited person in the world when I find a cordyceps when I'm in the woods—that’s a very special experience for me, but I am rarely foraging. In my day-to-day, mushrooms are an organism that reminds me that I need people, that I need nature, and that I need things. Fungi prove that no matter what kind of organism we are, we all need each other. I think about them all the time.

When it comes to mushrooms and fungi, I love nomenclature. I love learning their different names, learning where they come from, learning that this mushroom only grows near this tree at this certain time. I think mushrooms also say a lot about species diversity, which is so important. This is why a cemetery is a really great place for fungi, right? Because people bring in flowers to a cemetery. And that's bringing in an interesting sort of plant diversity, which is also really good for nature. The more diversity in a pool, the better, the stronger that pool gets.

But also, they make me feel good. I mean, my hair looks like a mushroom, and I didn't even plan that. So they make me feel good.

I love that you love learning about them! How else do you relate to them?

Figuring out how to cook with them, and eating them, of course.

But also, exploring what they mean for nature, circadian rhythms, and seasons. What time of the year do they appear? We get really excited when it's August in New York because it's tomato season. I get really, really excited for mushrooms here in New York because that means spring is here (even though there are winter mushrooms, to be clear!). In New York, mushroom season is largely March to November, and some you're going to find, others you're not.

Mushrooms are like the cool kid in class—they're not trying to be seen, they’re not like flowers, that are in your face. A morel is not trying to be found. Cordyceps are the same.

I'm really one of those people that likes to read about them and learn about them and be able to look at one and know what it is. I love that shit.

So true, we often just know what they are from what’s written on a package at the grocery store. How do you feel mushrooms are misunderstood?

When I say to you, “why do you like flowers?” you're like, “duh, because they're amazing.” I want the same response about mushrooms. People think it's so alarming to like mushrooms—but they are fucking gorgeous. If you look at the gills of a mushroom, they look just like our fingerprints, which expand their reach. Do we not also expand our reach with our fingers? It's gorgeous. It is poetic. It’s beautiful, and it’s the same as us. Nobody ever asks why they like a flower or a pretty tree or a beautiful animal because everybody seems to get it. But for some reason with mushrooms, people are like “ew.” Slime mold for instance—not fungi, they’re protists which are different—they are beautiful. They're just stunning to look at and experience. I really feel like I relate to one like—I don't know if that sounds weird, but I feel like I'm part mushroom.

I recently took a mushroom cooking class and the teacher was saying how mushrooms more closely resemble human DNA than plant DNA.

Bingo. And like I said, look at the reach, right? To look at a gill of an oyster mushroom and look at your fingertips you're looking under a microscope... they are so similar.

What else do you wish people knew about mushrooms or fungi?

I wish people knew that they weren't icky, nasty, weird, creepy things. I wish that people could look at them like they look at flowers. I wish that people would give a properly cooked mushroom another chance. I feel like a lot of people had a weird, slimy canned mushroom on a pizza once and are like, ew, and I don’t like that either.

I wish people would take the time to learn about them in the same way that they learned about animals or plants.

And also to look at mushrooms as solution-based because that's what I really believe that they are. If you ask 100 people what vegetables are good for them, they’ve got it. Everybody's got kale, lettuce (unless, of course, you can have oxalates). But ask about mushrooms? People are like... uhhh, shiitake?

I would like to expand the availability of mushrooms, letting them be something of value enough to be cultivated. If more people start to eat these things, if more people start to make these things valuable, then they can become more accessible. They're really easy to grow. You don't need a whole farm. Got some logs? Let's go. Well, not every mushroom, but many.

Do you have a favorite mushroom?

I do! My favorite mushroom is Tremella fuciformis.

Oh, that’s in our blend! Why do you love it?*

Tremella is so hydrating and holds 500x its weight in water. It does something so remarkable that as a human... I've never done anything that remarkable. They're also so gorgeous, and I feel like they're one of the few mushrooms that also can really work for dessert.?

*we swear we didn’t plant this!

Tell me more.

In China, they utilize tremella as dessert. They combine it with Chinese dates and boil it with little sugar cubes. It gets so big and gorgeous and has such an interesting, cool texture. They're so beautiful and delicious. It’s easily my favorite mushroom. I mean, at least for today.

Do you have a favorite way at the moment to cook mushrooms?

I really like drying my mushrooms and making broth with them. I do seaweed (usually kombu), dried mushrooms, and smoked chilies so it's a smoked mushroom seaweed kind of broth. So rich, and so yummy. You have to be careful with the seaweed, though, because it can be a little overpowering. Drop a little miso in it when it's hot. It's fucking delicious. So that's one of my favorites. It's like if you're doing a bone broth for a vegan. It's really, really good.

I also like to use them like tea, since I like processes. Maybe that's just because I'm a cook, obviously.

You can't go wrong with butter, thyme, salt, wine, and mushrooms.

Ooh, a mushroom fruiting body broth is the new bone broth.

Is that sexy or scary? We don’t know.

True, and we could say the same thing about mushrooms in general. They could be delicious, or they could poison you.

I love it. I feel like I’m a mushroom. If fungi had an astrological sign, it would be a Scorpio. And I'm a Scorpio. So I'm like, you're basically my fam. I feel like we’re on the same page. A tomato: definitely a Leo. There are certain things that are like Leo vibes and a tomato is one of them. But mushrooms are like, “you don’t have to find me.”

Anything else you’d like to share about mushrooms?

If you've never given mushrooms a chance, you should. And you should also take the time to learn more about their planetary purpose—not just how tasty they are—and why they're here. And then maybe that will make you more excited to learn more, eat more, grow more, do more, support more, etc. It's happening. Fungi is part of it.

You can keep up with Sophia on Instagram, and check out Counter Space, her TV show on Vice!