No guns required for this hunt
– Column –
Spring is one of my favorite times of year. I love how fresh and crisp everything is, after the drab remnants of dwindling grubby snow banks melt as the days become warmer.
I totally understand the concept of the color spring green. One day, the trees slowly start to bud from their dormant resting state and suddenly, overnight it seems, everything has leafed out into this fresh, crisp, brilliant, new green trees display in glorious splendor. I love how birds start singing at 5 a.m., before it is even light outside, their ecstatic warbling and chirping refl ecting joy at the dawning of a new day.
I love driving around seeing all the beautiful flowers that exemplify spring. I’m so envious of anyone who has flowerbeds filled with daffodils, hyacinth, jonquils, paper white narcissus, grape hyacinth, crocus and tulips, just to name a few favorites.
This gives way to lilac bushes, whose delicate multi-flowered blooms emanate a heavenly fragrance easily identifying the time of year. Flowering lilacs in Wisconsin, also signifies the start of morel season.
We lived in Illinois, when I was in middle school, and I had mentioned to my friends how excited I was for an impending morel hunt. (We always came up to Wisconsin for this.) Several of my classmates asked if I was allowed to carry a gun. I just stared at them in stunned disbelief.
Being city kids, they had never heard of morels and had no clue what they were. Morels are, perhaps, the most delicious mushroom ever created. The genus name is Morchella Escullente, described as distinctive fungi with a honeycomb appearance, because of the network of ridges, with pits composing their caps.
I just really wish they hadn’t used the words fungi or pits in the description. For those unfamiliar with this delectable delicacy, those terms make them sound less than appealing. Raised as a mushroom hunter, it never occurred to me that anyone might not be familiar with them. So no, no gun is required…the mushrooms don’t even put up a fight.
I think the adventure of the hunt is almost more fun than the discovery. I remember going at a very young age, probably as soon as I was old enough to walk without assistance. Morel seeking is not for the faint of heart. It’s an arduous workout, as well as a test of patience, endurance, and a healthy dose of coordination and agility. Sadly, all qualities I do not possess.
But, what fun! Who doesn’t want to spend a day tramping through the woods, scampering up and down steeply sloped hills, which would challenge even the most adept mountain goats, searching for these coveted morsels? Not to mention stepping over, or in my case when I was younger, crawling underneath barbed wire fences. (This is one of the areas where lack of coordination comes in…I still sport a scar on the back of my arm.) Because everyone knows the best place to find mushrooms, is in a hilly pasture filled with curious cattle that feel compelled to follow humans, big or small, the entire time. My only complaint about that situation, is cows don’t care if they’re stepping on your food. More than one inconsiderate bovine trampled perfectly beautiful specimens before the mushrooms could be harvested.
Sometimes, the scent of a morel was so strong it made the nose almost hurt. Once a person has smelled a morel on the wind, it sparks the beginning of a life-long love for the sport. The scent is a key component to finding these elusive little devils, as they delight in hiding in dead leaves and tall dry grass, under thorny brambles, poisonous sumac trees, dead elm trees, blackberry thickets and trees that have been struck by lightning, which throws the spore along the ground.
Morels have been found in all 50 states, but the Midwest is the prime location for this species of mushroom. The season varies, but typically lasts for no more than four to five weeks. The morel is considered a gourmet delicacy, and people who grow and sell them, have easily procured anywhere between $25 to $80 PER POUND, depending on the season.
First of all, that crushes my soul. If one has the good fortune to possess such bounty, why in the world sell it, when eating them makes more sense?
Some years were more lucrative than others. I recall several seasons finding enough to fill paper grocery bags to the brim. I either carried an empty ice cream pail or empty plastic bread bag to carry my haul. One year, there was a bumper crop, so we spread the mushrooms out on newspapers placed on the floor, as well as running a thread through the stems and hanging them upside down, to dry them.
When we wanted some for a meal, we would just soak them in water to rehydrate them. A favorite meal was fried morels, pork ‘n’ beans, and bread and butter.
The morel mushroom craze has even sparked a three-day celebration in May, that pays homage to this limited commodity. The Muscoda Morel Mushroom Festival, complete with a mushroom parade and sautéed morels available for purchase, is definitely worth checking out.
And you don’t even need to bring a gun.