Few things excite me more than morel mushrooms. Hunting them is a rite of spring where I come from. My hometown, Shelbyville, Illinois, holds a mushroom festival Spores ‘n’ More, with a contest and auction. That’s serious mushrooming.
There’s something about that delicate nutty taste, the crispy-fried texture that makes my mouth water. Morels are the epitome of eating local, in season. If they were available every day, I wouldn't care so much.
Wild mushroom patches are carefully guarded secrets. Unfortunately, my family did not have a patch handed down, but Short, our neighbor, knew where to find them. Years ago he took his daughter and me on our first hunt. I was probably six. I remember leaving early with galoshes on my feet, bumping along the Henton Blacktop, stopping near a creek bottom and tramping off into the woods.
Short, like any morel devotee, knew where to look for the prized mushrooms—near fallen oak logs, in late April, right after a rain. I got lucky, stumbling across my first spongehead, literally kicking the top off it. He saved the precious cap for me. I brought it home to be fried up crispy for breakfast that next morning. Mom, like all morel aficionados, knew to soak raw mushrooms in saltwater to remove the dirt and bugs, then dip then in a milk or egg wash, coat with flour and fry in butter.
Of course Short felt obligated to share his cache with my mother. I’m sure some dickering went on, as to what she owed him. I’m sure he feigned nonchalance parting with his finds which were easier for him to come by than most. He had a keen eye for the things and enjoyed decades of hunting. In fact morels were mentioned in his obituary, the perfect epitaph.
Losing access to morels was a price paid moving to North Carolina, or so I thought. Not long after relocating to this state, Bill, a co-worker, brought in a bag of morels into the office. He’d found them along the Catawba River. He didn’t care for morels, so the bag was free for the taking.
“They’re poison,” one hooted. “They’ll kill you.”
I could barely contain myself. With no other takers, Bill was happy to award me his entire pot of gold. That evening I went about frying them for supper when our neighbor, Alice, happened by. When she saw wild mushrooms on the menu, she did all she could to convince me I would die if I ate them. She meant well, but that was thirty years ago.
Since then, Alice’s husband volunteered to scout for morels with his nine iron. I offered to fry him some to eat, but he never took me up on the offer.
Morels don’t speak to everybody.