Fantastic fungi

Jessica Hobson, right, Amber Tuller and Cristina Ramos, left, prepare beer battered Mushrooms and onion rings Sunday during the Mushroom Mardi Gras.

Morgan Hill’s population nearly doubled at times during Memorial Day weekend, thanks to the food, arts, crafts, entertainment and games – not to mention sunny weather with temperatures in the 70s – served up on a platter by the 34th annual Mushroom Mardi Gras festival.

Taking place Saturday and Sunday on the southern end of downtown Morgan Hill centered around the Community and Cultural Center, the festival celebrated the mainstay of mushrooms as a longtime local crop while raising scholarships funds for local high school students.

An estimated 70,000 people flooded the Mushroom Mardi Gras over the course of Saturday and Sunday, according to Mushroom Mardi Gras event director Sunday Minnich.

“We didn’t have any problems at all. It was a very mellow crowd,” Minnich said. “And the weather cooperated.”

Morgan Hill police reported they did not respond to any significant calls for service or incidents related to the festival.

Through vendor fees, food and drink sales and other fundraising efforts, Morgan Hill’s fungi-centric festival this year gave away about $46,000 in scholarships to Morgan Hill students who plan to attend college, Minnich said. The festival also raised about $5,000 in “mini-grants” for local elementary and middle schools, plus about $20,000 in donations to nonprofit organizations and clubs that participate in the festival.

The Mushroom Mardi Gras was started in response to California Proposition 13, which limited property tax revenues for basic services, according to the festival website. Morgan Hill’s fire chief at the time, Brad Spencer (who still serves on the MMG board of directors), was instrumental in starting the first event in 1980, which raised a profit of $400,000 which was divided among local nonprofits and new fire equipment.

At this year’s festival, on Saturday afternoon, Morgan Hill Unified School District Trustee Ron Woolf, together with MHUSD Superintendent Wes Smith, presented the scholarships to the 40 or so recipients, at the CCC amphitheater main stage.

Woolf, also on the board of directors for the Mushroom Mardi Gras, called the 2013 fundraising effort a “banner year” with more scholarships awarded than any previous year. Smith added that scholarships exceeded last year’s total by about $10,000.

Smith urged the crowd to continue eating, drinking and buying merchandise as the expenditures contribute to next year’s Mushroom Mardi Gras fundraising.

“The money you spend here goes directly to these students,” Smith said, pointing at the line of scholarship recipients in front of the stage.

The Mushroom Mardi Gras annually brings tens of thousands of people to Morgan Hill, largely from out of town. This year’s crowd was about the same size as last year’s, Minnich said.

Dan and Sylvia Lozano recently moved to Salinas from Bakersfield, and were attending their first Mushroom Mardi Gras Saturday. They immediately praised the temperate weather.

“We’re excited to be here because it’s so nice – in Bakersfield you’d be dying right now,” Dan Lozano, 55, said.

The couple attended the Castroville Artichoke Festival the previous weekend, but they described the Morgan Hill food festival as more entertaining.

“There’s more vendors, more shopping” at the mushroom festival, Sylvia Lozano said. “You could spend the whole day here. We’re planning to bring our friends next year.”

Friends Jess Matthews, 30, and Amy Killelea, 31 – both of Los Altos – also attended for the first time Saturday.

“There’s amazing food, good drinks, good music,” Killelea said.

Two different food courts – one in the Depot Street Caltrain lot and one in the CCC parking lot – offered a variety of mushroom dishes prepared in numerous ways such as fried, scampi and stuffed. Plenty of dishes not featuring mushrooms were also available.

On Depot Street, greeting festival visitors that crossed into the Mardi Gras from the Butterfield Boulevard side of the grounds, was an informational mushroom booth run by the Morgan Hill Rotary Club and the Western Mushroom Marketing Association. The booth included a display about how mushrooms are grown, free samples of local mushrooms, recipes and experts to answer questions.

There are seven mushroom farms in Santa Clara County, and together they grow 800,000 pounds of crimini and portabella mushrooms per week, according to Emily Bettencourt of Countryside Mushroom Farm in Gilroy.

“The unique thing about mushrooms is you cannot drive by a field of mushrooms. So this (booth) is a way of showing mushrooms to the public,” Bettencourt said.

Vendors at the Mushroom Mardi Gras Saturday were hocking everything from handmade jewelry, art and home decorations, to trendy clothing (for babies to adults), sunglasses, outdoor decorations, wind chimes and toys and games for children. Some bigger industries are also represented among the booths, including solar power systems, automobiles, insurance and banking.

Vendors were raffling at least two vehicles Saturday – a Shelby Cobra and a Harley Davidson motorcycle.

Local nonprofit and political organizations, along with area churches were also represented among the vendors, while live entertainment emanating from two different stages could be heard throughout the festival grounds.

San Jose friends Brandy H. and Stephanie B. (they declined to provide their full last names) said their sons (a total of three between the two of them) were enjoying armfuls of promotional toys and games that were complimentary from some of the vendors.

Stephanie, with her 6-year-old and 4-year-old sons, said she used to live in Morgan Hill and called the Mardi Gras “one of my favorite” food and art festivals in the area.

Sacramento artist Chris Efstratis attended the Mushroom Mardi Gras for the first time to sell his art, but he has traveled the California art festival circuit full-time for about 10 years. Efstratis produces colorful, playful ceramic sculptures and paintings.

He describes his art as “funk, figurative, colorful, abstract and Piccasoesque.”

Unique about his booth is that he produced all the art himself, whereas many other art vendors at the Mushroom Mardi Gras were selling items purchased elsewhere.

“I’m just out trying to sell some art, and market myself,” Efstratis said Saturday morning. “I’ve sold a couple, but you never know until the show’s over.”

The Live Oak Emerald Regime marching band was one of the local organizations who benefited from individual fundraising efforts during the Mushroom Mardi Gras. The organization made about $3,700 in parking fees by selling overflow parking spaces on two private lots on Church Street, whose owners generously donated the use of their property for the cause, according to Emerald Regime co-vice-president Kimberly Ross.

“It went better than we expected” despite losing another private lot, closer to the festival grounds, that the band has used in previous years for the same purpose, Ross said. “That’s $3,700 our band wouldn’t have had.”

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