On Halloween the year, Mt. Pisgah held its annual Mushroom Festival. Thousands of people came to dance, eat, judge scarecrows and ultimately, celebrate mushrooms. It got me thinking about a piece I wrote some years back about morels, or perhaps more specifically my childhood in Oregon and morels. Here’s an excerpt:
Thirty-five years back, there was a narrow gravel road a couple miles long heading up the mountain from Highway 138 outside of Ruch in southern Oregon. It led to an old logging road, which ran along the ridge above the place we called “the Homestead,” the pioneer stake of my aunt’s family. When I was a kid, I picked my way through the ruins of their long ago burned cabin and happily carried away the remnants of settlers’ lives—brown and blue glass bottles, rusted food tins, pieces of broken tools, and, best of all, the hand-forged square nails that poked out of the ashes, links to a mysterious past. Ultimately though, the cabin’s treasures were an amusement, an add-on to the true adventure. We—my three siblings and our parents—came to the Homestead in search of morel mushrooms.
While there is no small amount of disagreement among mushroom experts as to what is or isn’t a true morel, people who care about such things generally agree that at least two major groups exist in the Pacific Northwest: those with ribs that darken to gray or black with age and those whose ribs are cream to tan at maturity. At the Homestead in early March, we were on the hunt for the tan variety: “Naturals” as they are known in current hunting circles. These morels didn’t get more than a couple of inches tall and ranged in color from toasty, sawdust brown to pale gray. The ridges were lighter than the pits and like all morels, the cap was hollow, the bottom fully attached to the stem, which was usually colored like the cap but much lighter. But most importantly for us, among the more than 190 species and subspecific taxa of the genus Morchella, the cone-shaped treasure of my childhood, Morchella Esculenta, is arguably the most delicious of all wild mushrooms that grow in the U.S.
Barring a major change in environment, morels come back. In Oregon and Washington, they come back to logging skids and stands of oak and forest fire burn sites. But they don’t stay long. Each year after the first warm rains, my father would begin to check his indicator spots and eventually come home to announce, “I found mushrooms today.” The hunt was on. From that first sighting until the last dark, dry caps of the high mountains shriveled away, we went from hillside to forest in search of morels. The Homestead was always first.
As soon as we made the turn off the old highway, one of us was put in charge of leaning out of the car window to listen for the logging trucks that came barreling fully loaded down the hillside. As soon as we arrived, my two brothers and I would scatter into the woods—my little sister sticking closer to my mom. Our knowledge of the landscape precluded any fear of being alone. Moving with my head down, I looked for devil’s puffballs, shooting stars, lambs ears, bleeding hearts—all evidence that this spring’s mix of sun and rain and temperature, warm and wet but not too much of either, was perfect. All of us were looking for the same thing: the mother lode of mushrooms, and with it bragging rights for the day.
I’ve discovered morels sprinkled under giant oaks, snuggled under tick-laden manzanita, perched along the edge of logging roads, squished under the branches of fallen trees, in droves, in patches and alone. I’ve seen morels, for example, stretching down an entire hillside. I have gathered them in handfuls and armloads, filled bread sacks, hauled garbage bags, stuffed metal-framed backpacks. I’ve been loaded down with so many that the weight of the haul threatened to topple me as I skidded down steep hillsides. When the mushroom gods were smiling, we would carry out 30 or 40 pounds of mushrooms.
I have also walked for miles and come away with one sad reward, battered and disintegrating at the bottom of a plastic bag.
No matter the number, once home sliced them in half lengthwise and soaked them in salted water, we spread them on towels and patted them dry. My mother dredged them in salt and pepper spiced flour, fried them in butter in a cast iron skillet, and dropped them onto a paper towel to drain. We ate them standing at the stove, sucking air to cool them as we shifted them around on our tongues. There was no such thing as full
When I was in junior high, the logging road became a paved road that led to the driveway of a new house. When the gouges in the land from the new construction were left to winter over, we would walk along the churned up dirt, knowing that some morels thrive in such upheaval. More houses were built. It was difficult to find an inconspicuous place to park. Dogs announced our arrival. One time to many, we came back to notes on the windshield from California transplants warning us of legal action if we continued to encroach on their property. We moved our efforts up the old highway a mile or so to the O’Brien’s place. Their farm was the easiest access point to the federal land beyond it.
For as long as they lasted, morels made their way into our meals: sauteéd with onions and venison; floating in creamy soups; stuffed in peppers. When there were too many to eat in a couple of days, my mom dried them and put them in gallon jars in the pantry to add to soups and stews, no longer a centerpiece but a sly addition. To my way of thinking, it’s best to reject dried morels. They are no closer to the real thing than raisins are to grapes. Better to live without than to suffer the reconstituted version in heavy wine sauces and gourmet soups, waiting in vain for the flavors of the mountain to come forth.
When the O’Brien’s got too old and sold their property, permission to cross their land went with them. “Those new owners don’t know what a mushroom is,” my father grumbled, “but they know they don’t want us to have them.” He tried to make arrangements with other people whose land butted up against the hunting grounds. A few were okay with hikers, but none would agree to people taking “their” mushrooms. Eventually, we parked on the old highway just out of sight of the old O’ Brien place and, as soon the coast seemed clear, sprinted across the road, over the barbed wire fence and up the hill to the BLM land.
At some point, the meals of my childhood became four-star menu descriptions: “Tonight we are serving wild venison with morels in a blackberry reduction sauce.” Commercial harvesting of wild edible mushrooms, in particular matsutake, hit its stride and from hundreds of miles away, I read of thousand dollar harvests and murders over hunting grounds.
My father still kept track of the season, now watching the hillsides of his own land, waiting for the smell of the dirt and the oak leaves warming. He and my sister head out each spring. This past Easter, I was lucky enough to be there when the mushrooms gods were smiling. Two hours after we spotted the first gem, we were gathered around the stove snagging the crisp-fried morsels with little pockets dripping with butter just as fast as they came out of the skillet. When I got back to Eugene (with my split of the remaining mushrooms) I saw morels at Market of Choice for $49.00 lb. My sister and I figured that our Easter feast had topped $200 without ever leaving the stove and we each went home with about the same. I didn’t even consider selling them.