Edible Nation

Morel Mania

By Eugenia Bone | Photo By Jim Klousia 0

I have traveled all over the country in order to pick morel mushrooms. If I ever did the math, I would probably find out I was paying a lot more by hunting them than if I just bought them from a store. But then I’d miss out on the profound pleasures of the quiet hunt and the lusty pleasure of a stocked pantry. 

Morels, which are the fruiting bodies of various species of fungi in the Morchella genus, are native to temperate forests—forests that endure a winter snow—across the northern hemisphere (though introduced morels grow in the southern hemisphere as well). They flush in the spring under dead trees, dying trees, and living trees. But people have found them growing in the weirdest places, like landscaping woodchips, fireplaces, even in cracks in a sheetrock wall. If you ask a mycologist where morels grow, he’ll tell you, “Wherever they want.”

My first morel hunt was with the New York Mycological Society, my local mushroom club. The club hunts an abandoned apple orchard that looks like one gigantic tick-infested bramble patch. Lots of people turn out for the foray, so not only is it arduous to find the morels, but there is a lot of competition, too. Indeed, after hours of crawling under the thickets and poison ivy to check the base of the decaying trees, I finally spotted one large brown morel. And then I saw her. Apple cheeked and undaunted by the prickers, her gray bun pulled askew by snapping branches crawled an elderly lady from the opposite direction toward the very morel I’d spotted. I deferred to her, of course, as if the mushroom between us were a seat on the bus.

I was definitely bummed out to be going home empty handed. And adding insult to injury, that very woman who had picked my only morel was taking a little open-mouthed snooze in the back seat of my car, her basket of morels hugged tight in her arms, while I coped with the traffic over the George Washington Bridge. It was clear that I needed an environment that offered a bigger payload, and so in the ensuing years I hunted morels in the Midwest, in the Sierra Nevadas, and on a forest fire burn in Montana. Each spot was beautiful and dramatic in its own way, and each yielded a bounty of morels.

I attended the Illinois State Morel Mushroom Hunting Championship hunt, which took place in a dying elm forest near the windy city of Henry, a small central Illinois town on the Illinois River. I hooked up with Al Nighsonger, a biker type fellow with all the trimmings: leather jacket, jackboots, a long grey ponytail, and his wife, Dee, a former Iraq war Air Force gunner in a soldier’s cap. Al led me along, a sixteen-ounce can of Busch beer in one hand, smoking cigarettes the whole time, pointing with his lit butt at one tree or another. In the Midwest morels may be found in abundance under dying elm trees. And due to Dutch elm disease, a fungal blight, there are a lot of dying elms.

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