Robert Brady of Notes from Pure Land Mountain gives news of the shiitake mushroom harvest at home in Japan. Here in Front Royal we have our own celebration of the flavorful fungi every May. It is now a major tourist draw, officially known as the "Virginia Wine & Mushroom Festival," bringing in as many as 15,000 people to Main Street, but it had much humbler beginnings.
Like many great ideas, this one started with a few guys sitting around drinking beer, or so I am told. The major spring celebration in our area has always been Winchester's Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival, which is truly a big deal, shutting down the entire city for the weekend and attended by upwards of a quarter million people. Front Royal, about 25 miles south of Winchester, had nothing to compare. Smaller, more blue collar, and until a dozen years ago, blessed with a rayon fiber factory that featured all the best odors of a chemical plant and a paper mill combined, we have always been the unwanted step-child of the Northern Shenandoah in comparison to Winchester. In the 1800's we used to be known as "Hell Town," a name which no longer applies except on a particularly bad Saturday night. The gentlemen who were drinking beer, community leaders all, decided that what was needed was a good way to thumb our collective noses at our presumed betters in Winchester and their precious festival. Someone noted that a number of folks had started growing shiitake mushrooms for the D.C. restaurant market. They decided that if Winchester could celebrate apple blossoms, we could honor the humble mushroom. They planned a parade featuring a man in a mushroom costume, called a few vendors, talked to some mushroom growers and got the thing going. It was, frankly, a joke that got out of hand. When people began showing up in larger groups, and mushroom growers became scarcer, it turned into what is now essentially a wine festival and street craft fair. It is a good time, and good business for the community and the many fine local wineries. Nonetheless I miss the anarchic ad hoc days of the earlier festivals and hold on to my Shiitake Madness! t-shirt in their memory.