Now that the snow is nearly all melted, the drifts of hail from last week are finally gone, and the earth is beginning to warm up, it’s nearly impossible for an optimistic gardener like myself to stop myself from hurling my soft winter-whitened body out across the yard to my garden—cold and muddy and forlorn as it is—to poke a few seeds into the mud.
I actually planted a few seeds a couple of weeks ago, Gentle Reader, and have a few dainty radish leaves poking out of the mud for my reward. What hardy little things–we’ve had a couple of snowstorms since, and a hailstorm, but the radishes just yawn and continue to reach up to the sun.
I so want to sink my teeth into a crisp, sharp radish from my own garden, or to make a salad out of greens grown by me, not by some huge farm in southern California, and then shipped here and kept in the grocer’s cooler for days on end. (Talk about forlorn!)
But it’s a bit early for most things I like to plant, so I’ll wait a little longer before doing my crazy mad joyous pell-mell dash out to the garden. “Hold my calls!” I’ll shriek at my children, one blissfully sunny day, very soon.
“I can’t wait any longer–I’m gonna go plant my garden!” I’ll then think twice–stopping abruptly and doing an about-face–and grab the same children, bewildered looks on their faces, sleep still in their eyes, and drag them along to help Ten hands can do much more planting than two can, you see. (In theory.)
Anyway, I love growing my own food. In the absence of ideal growing conditions, I love hunting for my own food, too. When our oldest son, Matthew, was still at home, he got a hold of his Grandma’s favorite book, Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagas.
He read it cover to cover, and he had the wild foods bug for several years afterwards. He and his brother, Andrew, stalked the wild asparagus themselves, also the wild daylily tuber, the wild onion and garlic, and more. We were living in Iowa at the time, and the boys spent the better part of one springtime in the woods, digging up trout lily tubers, harvesting acorns and roasting and grinding them into flour, picking tender milkweed pods, pulling wild onions and garlic, and picking violets, all to make a grand and glorious, wild and delicious, puzzling and potentially deadly, feast for the fam.
Let me tell you, it takes real trust, not to mention sacrificial parental love, to eat a wild feast like that one, harvested out of the untamed wilds of Iowa, and then cooked by your ten- and twelve-year-old sons. My son Matthew was, and still is, an erudite scholar, so I knew—I figured—I dearly hoped–I prayed–that if he read the book carefully, we’d be safe from food poisoning or miserable deaths-by-improperly-identified-wild-foods.
And we were. Safe, I mean. We all survived the wild foods menu that we enjoyed that night, and several other nights, as well, without so much as a single tummy-ache. (Phew!) Not that there wasn’t a bit of anxiety on my part, mind you.
The really disappointing thing at that time is that we never found a single morel mushroom in Iowa, during all the hours we spent exploring the woodsy areas around our home in Story City. We found lots of other wild foods, but for delectability and pure eating pleasure, it’s hard to beat a simmering skillet full of buttery wild mushrooms. Yum. Also, the thrill of finding them, earthy spongy nuggets nestled among rotting leaves, is really hard to describe, but it’s really sweet. I just love a good treasure hunt, and that’s what a morel mushroom foray feels like to me.
I have fabulous memories of mushroom hunting expeditions when I was a kid, growing up in Nelson. My dad and mom were wild foods enthusiasts of the highest order, and we’d go deep into the woods at just the right time and find armloads of the gorgeous fungi. Probably I’ll get called on this but I do remember, on one occasion, that we lugged black garbage bags, bulging with morels, to the car. I also remember patiently picking ticks off my screaming little sister Anne, all the way home, and flicking them out the window. Ticks and mushrooms just tended to go together, but if you had to go so deep into the woods to find morels that you’d be covered with ticks on your way out, so be it, said I.
Small price to pay for culinary bliss.
We’d then invite friends over to eat mushrooms until we nearly burst. That kind of stomach distention is only worth it with very special foods. Mushrooms are one of them—also, good chocolate, cherry pie with ice cream, homemade bread toasted and heavily buttered, chicken pot-pie, and anything (but anything) my mom makes.
Since we moved back into the Milford area, (sigh) we’ve not had a bit of luck finding mushrooms, either. I know they must be here, someplace, but mushroom hunters guard their secrets very, very carefully. Nobody tells. Presumably, wild mushroom aficionados go to their graves with the secret of the whereabouts of their mushroom-hunting grounds buried deep in their gluttonous hearts. Not that I can blame them.
A couple years ago we were at Ponca State Park in northern Nebraska, enjoying a few days camping in the woods there, during what I hoped to be prime mushroom season. I excitedly had explained to the kids about what to look for in the woods. My dad had made the same little explanation to me when I was a girl. Morel mushrooms, I explained patiently, as if my supper was in jeopardy (which it was, actually) pop up where there’s lots of damp, rotting vegetation, especially rotting trees. They like darkish and dampish and woodsy environs.
My hopes were high: I just had this feeling that there were scads of mushrooms in the park! I could practically smell the spores in the air. The weather was perfect, warming up nicely. There were acres and acres of darkish, dampish, and, yes, woodsy areas to explore, and we were on a vacation trip, so we had the time. We’d eat mushrooms with every meal! I loaded the kiddos up with plastic bags, got Bryan (who was not as excited about a mushroom foray as one might hope) down for a nap, grabbed my camera to document our success, and headed out. It would be a marvelous haul!
Well—a marvelous haul, it was not to be. Though we hiked on nearly every woodsy trail in the park over the next few days, keeping our eyes peeled the entire time, we found not even a hint of a single mushroom. Not a stem. Not even a baby mushroom signaling the advent of mushroom season. The kids gave up on the hunt and amused themselves in other ways, though I obsessively kept a Wal-Mart bag tucked in my jacket pocket the rest of the week, just in case.One needs to be prepared, always, for treasure.
The day before we were scheduled to leave, the kids and I went for a walk down by the river, though it niggled me a bit not to be up in the hills, looking for mushrooms in the darkish, dampish, rotting vegetation. Maybe they had popped up overnight—hey, it could happen. Walking along the Missouri River is a pleasure, and we were ambling along when we spotted a tiny, older lady stooping over, picking something up among the clumps of grassy, sandy earth, and placing it in a bulging Wal-Mart bag of her own.
I teased the kids. “Watch that little lady’s bag be full of mushrooms,” I said to the girls. “I’ll tell you what—I’ll kick her in the shin, and you girls grab the bag and we’ll make a run for it!”
Now, Gentle Readers, you know that I was joking. There would be no kicking of shins, no grabbing of bags full of mushrooms, not only because we don’t do that sort of thing, but simply because there could not possibly be mushrooms in that bag. Haven’t we already covered—several times over—where one finds mushrooms? Had we not been over every square woodsy, dark and damp inch of that park? Sadly, there–were–no–mushrooms, in Ponca State Park.
Ergo, there could not be mushrooms in that bag. That’s why my comment was so funny, so ridiculous, and so preposterous! Everybody—including you, now, Gentle Reader–knows one finds mushrooms in the woods, nestled among dead leaves and rotting vegetation! In the dampish, darkish, etc., you know the drill. One certainly does not find wild mushrooms in newly-mowed grass, on a sandy plain, near a river, out in the sunshine, for pete’s sake! Mushrooms don’t grow in light, airy, sandy places! Everybody knows that.
Just imagine here, if I was telling you this story in person, a very long, very humble pause, with accompanying meaningful, yet pitiful expressions. Got it? C’mon . . . I’m waiting.
Okay. Now I’ll continue.
We approached the little old lady, bent over nearly double in her work. She resembled a crone (just a note: I just looked up the word ‘crone’ and my dictionary says “a woman aged over 40.” Well!! The effrontery of the English language!). A very charming little crone, that is.
She looked up sweetly at us as we approached. “I’ll bet you wonder what I’m putting into my bag,” she cackled, without a word from us.
Was she a mind reader? And yes, we were wondering, at that. Pinecones? Pebbles? Pennies? Aluminum cans? Well, no.
She opened the bag and showed us what was in her bag. It was full of morel mushrooms. Bulging, Gentle Reader, with those treasured, hoped-for, eagerly-sought-after-by-us nuggets of rapturous delight. Am I overstating? No.
As Bethie and Amalia stared, unbelieving, at the bag stuffed full of mushrooms, the little lady continued to educate us on the hunting of “sand morels,” to be distinguished from “woods morels.” Hmph. (Who knew?) Meanwhile, feigning interest, I studied her shins, trying to decide which one looked weakest. Neither one looked very sturdy, as a matter of fact.
“I don’t even like mushrooms, myself,” she said, to our continuing astonishment. “They’re too rich for me. But I have friends in the nursing home who love them, so every spring I come out here and pick them up and take them to my friends. In the nursing home. The ones who can no longer leave the home. They’re old. My friends, not the mushrooms.”
Finally I found my voice and stammered out my confusion. Didn’t morel mushrooms only grow only in the darkish . . . woodsy . . . areas . . . ? Had my dear ol’ Dad been steering me wrong all these years . . . ? Jenny—yes, we made friends and were on a first-name basis nearly immediately—laughed. “Oh, yes, the big ones grow in the woods—but that’ll be next week!”
She cackled merrily for awhile, like this was actually funny. “It’s a bit early for the woodsy morels here at the park. But this here is a good place to find sand morels!”
I looked down at the grass. Un-be-lievable. We’d walked over this grass several times during the week, never once seeing a mushroom. Of course, now that Jenny had clued us in, we looked carefully and found a few, but she had done a pretty good job of picking them, and there were mainly just empty stems sticking up.
After Jenny moved along, dragging her over-filled bag to her car, I muttered, petulantly, to the girls “I’ll betcha she sells them on ebay. Betcha she gets thirty dollars a pound for them. There’s no nursing home in Ponca, is there?”
Now, for a humbling postscript: the next day, we stopped at the local coffee shop in Ponca to grab some coffee before we headed for home. Who do you suppose stopped by? You guessed it—our new friend Jenny—and she had in her hands a large Cool-Whip container.
“On your way to the nursing home, Jenny?” One of the regulars asked her.
Okay, okay, I never really did bear any malice towards Jenny. What an angel, to spend her days picking up morel mushrooms for her friends. But I wouldn’t have minded if she’d left a few behind for us . . .
And, now, Gentle Reader, my unashamed plea: if you happen to know a dark and dampish, woodsy and moist area in which you’ve just happened to notice the growth of morel mushrooms in the past, and if they just happen to be offensively rich to you, or if you think mushrooms are yucky (they are fungus, after all . . . I mean who in their right minds eats fungus?) and you’d like those little buggers cleaned up, you know who to call . . . no, not Jenny! . . . ME!
I’m in the book.
- Book Report: The Wild Table
- Companion planting: your new best friend