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Diner: Mad for Mushrooms

The Madison family has the secret to a long life

By Lora Arudser · December 13th, 2006 · Diner
Carolyn and Bryan Madison have become Cincinnati's mushroom experts, among other attributes.
Matt Borgerding

Carolyn and Bryan Madison have become Cincinnati's mushroom experts, among other attributes.

It all started with that unassuming fungus with the funny name -- the shitake. Bryan Madison was researching the health aspects of the Asian mushroom when he worked for Proctor & Gamble. He says the fungi are full of antioxidants and immune-boosting compounds. The active compound, lentinan, has been used in the treatment of cancer and AIDS. Bryan doesn't tell me that -- I found it on the Web -- but he could. An analytical mind lurks under that wool Bavarian hat.

As we sit down in the window of his family's Findlay Market store, Bryan pushes away his inventory sheet and calculator. Meanwhile, Carolyn has hurried to the back of the store to get coffee for me before she settles down beside her husband of 45 years.

"Did you tell her about your educational background?" she prods her husband, obviously proud.

Carolyn says that for the first seven years of their marriage she worked as a teacher to put Bryan through graduate school. (He holds a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry.)

"He's a workaholic," she jokes. "His grandfather told him that, if you want to live a long life, don't ever stop working."

Bryan apparently took this advice seriously. He was so intrigued by the mushroom research he'd done that when he retired in 1995 he decided grow shitakes as a hobby at the family's 100-acre farm in Adams County.

It wasn't long before their son Matt got hooked. He wanted to quit his catering job immediately and grow mushrooms full time. (Carolyn pragmatically suggested that he keep his job for the first year to see how things went.)

Matt started hawking the family fungi in a 10-by-10-foot tent at Findlay Market. But he didn't stop there.

Jean-Robert de Cavel, chef de cuisine at the Maisonette at the time, recalls how he became their first restaurant customer: "They found me. Matt showed up at the back door of the Masionette."

He grew excited at the idea of fresh produce so close to his kitchen.

"You can't get any fresher than that," says de Cavel. "We became good customers of Madison Farm and good friends with the Madisons. Every time they have local products we use them."

In no time the Madisons were supplying shitakes to restaurants all over town. Bryan recalls with a laugh, "Carolyn and I used to make the deliveries. We ended up knowing more about the back door than the front door of restaurants!"

Bryan and his family found themselves perched on the crest of a food wave that would sweep the nation. People were beginning to ask questions about how their food was grown and develop a ravenous interest in healthy, organic and local foods. The family expanded their repertoire at the farm and soon gradated from selling produce in a tent during the summer to working from a storefront year-round.

Their original storefront location was damaged during the 2001 riots. As Carolyn tells the story, her lips transform into a line of determination. When they reopened the following weekend in a new storefront, she says, "We bought cases of lemons and put up a sign: 'If life gives you lemons make lemonade.' We gave a free lemon to each customer. It was our way of saying 'We're not going to let this drive us away.' "

Bryan says that the move brought about more than just a location change. They, along with their neighbor Dean Zaidan of Dean's Mediterranean Imports, offered a different, more tactile shopping experience. In the main house, shoppers and vendors reach over high counters to exchange cash for goods.

"We set up all the tables along the outer walls," Bryan gestures, "and got shopping baskets."

"So people could walk around and pick up what they wanted," Carolyn adds.

They feel it's more of a community experience, she says. People can touch the produce and hold it up to their nose as they brush up by fellow shoppers doing the same.

Carolyn and Bryan have had a prolific life -- three children, seven grandchildren, the Findlay Market and Glendale stores and now what Carolyn calls their "new baby" in Northside. They see the Northside store as an extension of their commitment to the community in general.

"What you see on a Saturday afternoon at Findlay you see in Northside all week," Bryan says.

He comes alive in the face of a new idea. His eyes gleam as he talks about plans for the Northside store.

"We want to do things that aren't done at other locations," he says. "We want to offer something a little different but what people are looking for."

They'll be working with local chef David Warda to implement some of these ideas in the spring.

Yin to Bryan's yang, Carolyn lights up when she talks about her family and friends.

"We were childhood sweethearts," she says. "We started dating when I was 14 and he was 15."

The depth of their affection is obvious when you see Bryan and Carolyn at local events holding hands and in the way one echoes the last word of the other's sentence. But it doesn't stop with the two of them. A former employee is out shopping and runs in when she sees Carolyn and Bryan just to say hi and give them a hug.

"That's the best part," Bryan says, smiling, "meeting people and making friends."

Mushrooms and hard work might play a hand in long life, but the Madisons seem to have the real secret to a long, happy life.

Madison's Markets are at 1801 Race St., Findlay Market, Over-the-Rhine, 513-723-0590; 4172 Hamilton Ave., Northside, 513-542-422; and 27 Village Square, Glendale, 513-772-3920.


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