Pursuing the Elusive Morel

George and I didn’t set out to look for mushrooms when we went walking in the woods last weekend.

We often tromp around on the overgrown horse trail behind our pasture because it’s a good place to exercise the dog and get away from the television and phone. Every now and then we stumble upon something interesting.  Once, years ago, it was the rotting corpse of a coyote deep inside a blackberry thicket.  Back in February, when bucks shed their antlers, we found a pristine eight-point rack.

Near that spot last Saturday, I stopped to look around.  Maybe I’d luck into some more antlers.  What I found was even better.  My first-ever genuine morel mushroom!

As hard as it might be to believe, I’d never actually seen a morel growing in the wild.  But I’d heard tales of them for years from friends who sneak around every spring furtively hunting the prized “land fish.”  This morel was dull yellow and about five inches tall.  I immediately plucked it out of the ground.  Big mistake, I later learned.  Experienced ’shroomers know to snap or cut the mushroom’s stem so as to leave the roots to propagate.

We immediately got down on our hands and knees to search for more, for I’d heard that where there’s one morel, there’s likely to be many.  Not this time.  We found only eight, all of them so piddling as to hardly be worth the trouble of carrying them home.

But carry them home we did.  George put them to soak in a bowl of salt water.  I began searching for recipes on the Internet and quickly discovered that cooking morels pretty much all boils down to the same basic formula.  The salt water soak removes exterior dirt and kills the tiny bugs that tend to live inside the mushrooms.  Once they’re clean, you gently pat them dry and set about beating an egg or two.  Dip the mushrooms in the egg and then roll them in whatever you wish—bread crumbs, parmesan cheese, crushed potato chips, flour, cornmeal or any combination of those things.

Then fry ’em.

You can do it in olive oil and pretend this is health food.  Or use Crisco or butter.  We never seriously considered any of those options.  If you’re going to dip something in egg and roll it in flour, you might as well go whole-hog and fry it in bacon grease.  Which we did.  And almost burned the skin off our tongues scarfing down the mushrooms before they were cool.

“Wow…” I said as I popped mushroom number seven into my mouth, “these are delicious.”

George was quick to point out that if we were to fry cardboard toilet paper tubes in bacon grease, they would be delicious.  True.  But these tasty tidbits were enough to send me back into the woods the very next day hunting more morels.  I dumped some oranges out of their net sack and took it with me, having learned from my online study that not only does such a sack work better than plastic by letting air circulate around the mushrooms, it also allows their spores to spread all around the forest floor.  And I stuck a small knife in my pocket so that I could cut the mushrooms instead of yanking at them.

All of which turned out to be for naught.  After more than an hour in the woods, I’d found no mushrooms.  Zero. Zip. Nada.  Maybe it was too late in the growing season.  Maybe the ground was too wet or too dry.  Or maybe I just didn’t have an experienced enough eye to spot them.  But you can bet that next spring, I’ll be scouting around in that very same neck of the woods.  And I’ll find me a sackful of morels.

Just don’t ask where my hunting grounds are.  Even an eight-point buck couldn’t drag that secret out of me.

(May 1, 2011)

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