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Watoga Trail Report

Portobello mushroom. Photo courtesy of Gerd Altman of Pixabay

Ken Springer
Watoga Park Foundation

Portobello
What’s in a name?
Apparently, a lot!

Not so long ago, a particular segment of the commercial mushroom business needed a boost in the marketplace. Then along came the concept of “rebranding,” and the rest is culinary history.

This story is about how the foods we choose to eat can depend on what we name them, or more appropriately, what we rename them.

I became aware of the story behind the portobello mushroom about 15 years ago when I acquired a client in western Pennsylvania, who was growing mushrooms underground in former limestone mines.

Upon arriving, I took a tour of the entire operation, both underground and topside. I learned that the white button mushrooms found in the vegetable section of our grocery stores are Agaricus bisporus.

These are closely related to the wild variety of Agaricus called meadow mushrooms, or Agaricus campestris. They are found in the early fall in meadows, golf courses, cemeteries and yards. The flavor of the wild mushroom is identical to the commercial variety.

At the time, the white button mushrooms, Agaricus bisporus, were the bulk of the company’s product. However, this was rapidly changing with the demand for more exotic mushrooms like shiitake, enoki, oyster and portobello.

It was portobello that caught my interest because I had read that the portobello, or portabella as it is sometimes spelled, was nothing more than a change of color as a result of maturation in the common button mushroom.

And indeed, my host quickly confirmed that what I had read was true. He went on to add that when the Agaricus bisporus is in the button stage, it is white and, as such, was preferred by consumers.

Historically, commercial mushroom producers in the U.S. would pick the young buttons before they turned brown to meet customer demands. What the customer didn’t know was that as the mushroom matured, it became more flavorful.

The white buttons, when left to mature, soon begin turning brown and are known at that stage as the cremini mushroom.  When the cremini cap is fully open, the gills turn from pink to brown. At this point they are known as portobellos, an identity confined to Italy and other parts of Europe until just a couple of decades ago.

Once Americans traveling abroad discovered that a delicious mushroom dish they enjoyed in an Italian ristorante was nothing more than a mature white button mushroom, the demand for portobellos skyrocketed.

Mushroom growers in the states were quick to capitalize on the budding desires of the American consumer for portobellos and other exotic varieties of mushrooms.

Overnight, this brown mushroom that had formerly been relegated to the canned mushrooms labeled as “stems and pieces,” became a household word. And, in surveys conducted at the time, the exotic sounding name was key to the growing demand for portobellos.

What’s in a name?

The word “rebranding” came into use in the same year as the word “saltshaker” – 1895. The phrase was generally employed in product marketing. It didn’t enter the lexicon of popular culture until fairly recently.

Young people have given the term rebranding new life at a personal level, even referring to their brand as a reflection of their unique identity as a human. What they wear, their taste in music, and how they choose to look is part of their own brand.  

Commercial rebranding involves more than just the name and logo of the product. Sometimes rebranding is a marketing strategy used to distance itself from problems associated with the product.

Quaker Oats recently “rebranded” Aunt Jemima’s syrup and pancake mix by changing the 130-year-old logo, depicting a black woman wearing a kerchief, with a portrait of a modern black woman. Because, as was often pointed out, the old image smacked of slavery and racial stereotyping.

Catch of the day special – broiled slimehead with sautéed portobellos

The rebranding of most natural foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains and seafood is generally done because the item’s original name is off-putting to consumers.

If you are a fan of the delicate flavor of orange roughy, you may be interested to know that this fish was ignored by fisherman for many years and only became popular after a name change.

The fish garnered very little interest from consumers when it was known by its original name, slimehead. So-called because the head of the fish contains pockets of mucous; not a fact that would make customers drool when considering it as a candidate for dinner at a seafood restaurant.

But when sold under the name of orange roughy and accompanied by an aggressive campaign to market this “new” fish to restaurants and consumers, things changed for the better for fishermen and worse for the slimehead.

Orange roughy, aka slimehead, rapidly entered the pantheon of highly desirable seafood for foodies and average consumers alike, right alongside the once hapless Patagonian toothfish, now known as the Chilean sea bass.

Perhaps the “toothy” image of the fish was a negative on the seafood menu. Or maybe the idea of biting into a fish that was capable of biting back was unsettling to the diner. Either way, the name change made the Chilean sea bass a favorite for chefs and discriminating consumers.

The sudden popularity of the newly renamed Chilean sea bass and the orange roughy had the unfortunate but predictable result of overfishing. Aggressive marketing and the resultant consumer demand threatened both fishes by depleting their populations.

The same thing happened to another fish found in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean south of Massachusetts, though not because of a name change. More popularly known as redfish, the red drum became a star of Low Country and Louisiana cooking during the 1980s.

The demand for dishes such as blackened redfish caused their numbers to plummet. The redfish rebounded within a decade when strict limitations were placed on size and daily bag limits. 

Prunes, now known as dried plums. K. Springer photo

Dried plums are the new prunes

There are many examples of the rebranding of food items having resulted in increased popularity. However, my favorite has to be the marketing genius who came up with the idea of creating a new moniker for an old fruit.

The prune, oy vey, the bathroom humor those wrinkled fruits do inspire:

“What do you get when you cross holy water with prune juice?”

Answer: “A religious movement.”

“What’s the definition of a pessimist?”

Answer: “Someone who puts prunes on their All Bran.”

The prune, despite its many health benefits, is known for only one of those benefits. Need I say more? Yet, I am going to.
The date, a dried fruit often confused with the prune, conjures up the slightly erotic 70s pop song Midnight at the Oasis by Maria Muldaur, a sultry Italian singer.

Whereas, the prune brings back memories of grandma setting a small bowl of prunes beside grandpa’s plate of ham and eggs each morning because – well, it keeps him “regular.”

Prunes are identified with … Well, let’s face it; they do not have a sexy image.

Giving prunes a new name describing what they actually are, dried plums, is a shameless marketing ploy to change the “only old people eat prunes” image.

And, do you know what?  Sales of dried plums went up!

Prunes have been figuratively pried out of the wrinkled hands of us oldsters and placed into those of the younger health-conscious crowd who love those dried plums. And probably not realizing that dried plums are just plain old prunes at a higher price. 

I freely admit to eating a prune or two on occasion. “Occasion” meaning every morning with my oatmeal since I turned 70. I am not likely, though, to suggest to my golden-age friends that they buy a package of dried plums the next time that they go to the grocery store.

I wouldn’t want them to think that I was selling out to the trendiness of popular culture. After all, those of us of a certain generation must be concerned with not appearing to make concessions to the gimmickry of mass advertising.

Anyway, most of my friends have probably been drinking prune juice ever since they realized the daily efficacy of those precious little wrinkled fruits.

Kenneth L. Springer,
formerly known as Ken Springer.
ken1949bongo@gmail.com

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