Mushrooms are serious business at A Night in Old San Antonio.
When Donald Ewing and Wayne Hartman became co-chairmen of the fried mushroom booth four years ago, they knew some changes had to be made.
People loved the fried button caps with a spicy breading and some cream gravy on the side, but servings of the hot, crispy treats were not getting into their hands quickly enough.
So, Ewing, who had worked at the booth for six years already, and Hartman, who also had a one or two years’ experience under his belt, began to streamline the assembly process. Almost immediately, people were getting their mushrooms quicker than ever, and after four years, sales had doubled.
They determined that it takes 20 people each shift to make sure the process runs smoothly, which means 160 volunteers over the course of the event. That’s a lot of people, so Ewing starts recruiting in February.
I joined the list a little late in the process, and when I showed up early Tuesday evening, people were quickly signing in, washing hands and reporting to stations. Though the gates hadn’t opened, a few customers from other booths wanted their ‘shrooms, and it was the perfect time to get the process down pat. There was little formality to the procedure. A few of us saw where work needed to be done, and with a little instruction, we began.
I dredged fresh mushrooms in a soupy egg batter that managed to get all over the place, including up my arms and on my shirt, despite wearing an apron. I then moved them on to a bowl where fellow worker Phil Stanley rolled them in a breading mix pungent with lemon pepper, black pepper, garlic powder and onion powder. Excess batter was then shaken off by Victor Castillo, who then piled them into a fry basket. Kelly Forster was in charge of the frying, making sure they stayed in the hot oil for “4 minutes and 20 seconds exactly,” the time it took for them to get a rich golden brown.
“We go from fridge to fryer in less than two minutes,” says Ewing with great satisfaction.
After the mushrooms had drained, they were poured out on a table where another round of volunteers quickly scooped them into paper trays and moved them to the front, where the ticket takers topped them with cream gravy if desired. New this year was ranch dressing as an alternate topping. That was what I opted for when I tried these juicy little morsels with a beer after my shift.
Not rocket science, certainly, but everything moved quickly and surely throughout the shift. We got the job done with minimal fuss. That meant a constant stream of satisfied customers who didn’t have to wait in a long line. What could be better than that? Within a couple of hours, we had moved through about half of the 60 boxes of button caps that had been stocked for the evening. Over the course of NIOSA, the chairmen plan to use more than 200 of the 10-pound boxes. Last year was the first time more than 1 ton of mushrooms had been sold, Ewing said. That’s a lot of mushrooms, when you consider how light each one is.
This was Stanley’s first NIOSA, and he was ready to party, but like the rest of us, he made sure the work got done. Castillo had worked the booth last year; like most of the people I’ve met at NIOSA food booths over the years, he got involved through a friend who had been volunteering.
Rose Moran got involved the same way about 20 years ago. She started working at the beer booth and soon became its chairman. Three years ago, however, she was placed in charge of the entire International Area, which features Maria’s Tortillas as well as the mushroom booth.
“I love it,” she says. “My husband thinks I’m crazy and my friends think I’m crazy. But it just amazes me how much everybody pitches in.”
The mushroom booth is, far and away, the best seller in her area and is “one of the top two or three booths in NIOSA,” she says.
That’s great news for the San Antonio Conservation Society, which uses funds from the event for historic preservation.
“The bottom line is, we’re all here for the cause,” Moran says.
Photos by Bonnie Walker and John Griffin.