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Dallas Jones, Morel Forager, Interview 2006

Dallas Jones of Wayne County (Monticello), Kentucky, is one of the world's great humans - kind, smart, funny, and generous. Dallas Jones, KYNow he is also at the very cutting edge of cool, since he is a gifted forager for morel mushrooms, one of the world's most spectacular foods. Foraging, says Holly Hill Inn chef Ouita Michel, is completely "in" with leading chefs - so expect to see Dallas soon on television shows. Here is a lightly edited version of my full interview with Dallas.

RR: You have been finding morels every year, as long as I have known you. Even when no one else seems to know where any are, you seem to find them. If I don't ask you where you find your morels, will you talk with me about them a little bit?

DJ: Yeah, you can't tell anybody where your spots are. If you tell one person, the next day you'll go back there and there will be 40 people at your spot.

[Laughter]

RR: Growing up, I didn't know there were morels in places other than Kentucky.

DJ: Oh yes. There's morels lots of places. There's probably more in Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois than there are here. They pick them up by the bushel. Up in Indiana, they'll have them for sale by the side of the road.

RR: I just didn't know that. Dallas, you grew up in Wayne County, right?

DJ: That's right.

RR: And you've been picking morels how long?

DJ: I'm 72 years old, and I've been hunting and eating them... well, I probably started eating them when I was two or three, and I've been hunting them for more than 50 years. I love to hunt them.

RR: How do you like to cook them?

DJ: Clean them, slice them, roll in meal like you'd fry a fish. Fry them in lard. Or butter. I've always used lard. Still do.

I have a friend that I always give him some, and he fries them in butter. Some people do roll them in crackers, you know, crumbs. Dip in egg and then crackers.

I always soak them overnight. To get the bugs out of them. Seems like bugs like them as much as people do. Snails or little slugs, they eat them, they'll bore a hole in the stem. They'll be up in there; they have protection from the weather, and they get their meal too. So I soak them overnight, and putting salt in the water —that might help with the bugs.

To tell you the truth, I don't eat that many myself. I just love to hunt them. When I was young I got sick on them, or foundered or something, or eat too many, and never have liked them much since.

RR: Do you eat any?

DJ: Yeah, I'll eat a few, five or six maybe. Mostly I just hunt them and give them away. I have people I give them to. Everybody wants them.

RR: Without telling me just where you look, how do you know what kinds of places are good for morels?

DJ: I've been hunting them for years. Certain kinds of places... Like those timber cutters. If they disturb the ground where you've been finding the, or like with forest fire, timber cutting, and so on, you won't find any more in that spot for five or six years. There's three different kinds that I find.

RR: Three?? I didn't know that. I thought there was just one kind, but it looked different if it got old or something.

DJ: No, there's the little grey ones—they all look alike. I have found them as early as March 15. It all depends on the temperature. This year I found some the 26th of March. That was about the first ones here. Usually when the night temperature gets above 60, that's the time.

I really believe they come up at night in the dark. That's how they raise those little button mushrooms, completely in the dark.

After the little grey ones come, here, there's almost a creamy white colored one. They'll come up probably in the next week. I found one today.

Then after they come, the latter part of April, depending on the temperature and the showers, there's a kind of a sponge, round. The last ones are the biggest. They can be as big a two fists. Or five or six.

RR: Which ones taste the best?

DJ: I really like the sponge flavor.

RR: Do they all grow in the same kinds of places?

DJ: Well, the last one, the sponge, will come up more around fence rows, or apple orchards, old ones, and cedar thickets.

RR: Yes, I've always heard that about apple orchards. One time there were morels in the yard in the house where I grew up, under an old apple tree.

DJ: That's usually where you find the sponge. The little grey ones that are coming up now, I find those in the woods that have a lot of poplar trees or wild cherry. Wild cherry is usually the best place for me to find the ones I'm finding now. Whether that has a thing in the world to with it, I don't know. Where I found them today, I found them 45 or 50 years ago, in the same place.

For the next two weeks I'll go looking every day, I guess. I walked about four hours this morning. Tomorrow I'm going down to the Lake [Lake Cumberland]. I've got some good spots.

We lived up at [place name deleted], and there was some big flat woods. Uncle Hobart's farm—remember him? -- and the farm we lived on, it had a big flat woods, and you could get a five gallon bucket easy.

RR: So do you think flat woods are the best places? Do you ever find them on hillsides?

DJ: Yes, down at [place name deleted] in poplar groves.

RR: When I was little, we had them every year, if we were lucky. Then when I was about 12 they sort of disappeared. My mother thought they got killed off when farmers first started treating their corn fields with spray-on chemicals to keep down weeds and maybe fungus.

DJ: I would say those chemicals in corn fields... The woods I look in a lot are right beside where the farmers spray the fields. [Name deleted (to protect the secret morel location)] was spraying something to plant corn today, and he does that every year, and it don't seem to bother the mushrooms.

Usually if you find one, you'll find two. I don't know how that happens.

RR: Yes, I've always heard that, too. Do you know how they multiply?

DJ: No, I really don't know how it happens. The spore... I think those first ones come up, the spores off them drift and blow and make others come up. Sometimes I'll pick two or three big ones, and no more will come up. I've found out to leave the first ones and let them dry up. Sometimes when I've picked the only ones in a place, there won't be any more that year.

RR: So you're saying the mushroom that comes up scatters spores that turn into more mushrooms this year, not next year.

DJ: I don't know, exactly, but something like that.

RR: Huh. I don't know a thing about how they propagate themselves. I've heard they can't be cultivated, though.

DJ: Yes, they are cultivating them now. You can order kits.

RR: Well, I knew you could do that with shitake. They sell them at the Farmers Market here now. When we were little, Mother read books and learned about edible mushrooms. The morels are pretty easy to identify, but she had us eating buttons from a field on the farm.

DJ: [Name deleted] tells me about these big mushrooms, like a half moon. I like the little button mushrooms in the store. Just fry them in garlic butter, and eat them.

RR: Isn't it pretty safe, picking morels? I mean, there's nothing poison that looks even close to a morel, is there?

DJ: Oh yes. There's one that looks just like the morel, only the morel skirt grows at the stem. The poison one—only the stem grows out of the top. It still has the honeycomb [look].

RR: Wow. Do you see these when you go hunting?

DJ: Yeah. There's a place on [place name deleted]where I find them, and I usually find two or three of them every year. I don't even pick any of them in there. I just leave them.

RR: So you're expecting to be picking now for several more weeks.

DJ: Probably. A little rain helps, too. I have found them with a little skiff of snow.

RR: You're kidding!

RR: Has there ever been a year you couldn't find any?

DJ: Some years are better than others. Last year we had all the rain in spring, and I thought they would be good. But...

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