The article below, by Rona Roberts, first appeared in the May, 2006 issue of Nougat Magazine. (If you prefer facts instead of a family tale of mushroom lust that gets out of control, read more about morels. If you want to know about mushroom foraging in Kentucky, read the full interview with Dallas Jones.)
Morel mushrooms never made me slap my mama, but they did drive me to juvenile crime. Their savor made me steal from my big brother, Howard. See my full confession later in this story. My main defense: I was a minor and temporarily insane, so vulnerable to the seductions of fresh morels cooked in butter that I lost my eight-year old mind.
But first, meet the morels. Sautéed in fresh butter, their taste is in the same family as pan drippings from a great pork roast, perfectly fried fresh oysters, or the best turkey gravy you ever had. Morels taste brown, smooth, gold, rich. Their succulence fills the mouth, runs deep into the tongue and keeps going into an imaginary space as long and tall as taste can get. The taste of morels may belong to the umami family, first defined in Asia, and present in such intensely flavored foods as Parmesan cheese, soy sauce, asparagus, and tomatoes.
Although many Kentuckians call them 'dry land fish,' morels have no fishy flavor or texture, but there are cultural links between the two foods. For example, neither morel hunters nor people who like to fish will share just exactly where they land their catch. And size matters to both groups. Check out pictures of fungi so huge they are scary.
The main similarity between most Kentucky fish and most Kentucky morels is that both are foraged foods. We gather and eat them without having to do the work of cultivation.
According to Holly Hill Inn Chef Ouita Michel, "Foraging is really hip right now in celebrity chef circles. Kentucky has great gathered/foraged food stuffs: mushrooms, hickory nuts, black walnuts, ramps, sassafras, English nettles, mulberries, blackberries... " Of course! Isn't that why Esquire dubbed Kentucky the most stylish state?
My favorite forager, Dallas Jones, newly hip as well as legendarily kind and good-humored, hunts (and finds) morels in Wayne County. Dallas says in a good year he gathers three different types across several weeks in spring. "I have found them as early as March 15. I have even seen them in a little skiff of snow. It all depends on the temperature. This year I found some the 26th of March. Usually when the night temperature gets above 60 degrees—that's the time."
After little grey morels open the season in southern Kentucky, "There's a creamy white colored one," Dallas says. "Then the latter part of April, depending on the temperature and the showers, there's a kind of a sponge, a round thing. These last ones are the biggest. They can be as big as two fists, or five or six."
Dallas likes the taste of the last ones best, but he likes the hunt even more. "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."
Like many edible mushrooms, Dallas says, morels have an evil almost-twin. Foragers who want long lives must distinguish between true morels (Morchella species) and false morels (Gyromitra esculenta or Verpa species). According to Dallas, as well as Wikipedia and other online sources, the false morel can be deadly. It poisons the liver and central nervous system, particularly when eaten raw. If you are a new morel forager, try hard to work your way into the good graces of a seasoned morel hunter.
Speaking of grace, I will now complete my confession. I was eight. Howard was away at college. Someone found morels. Mother cooked them in home-churned butter and served them for supper. She wrapped a few in foil and put them in the freezer so Howard could have a taste on his next visit home.
After dinner no one noticed as I made repeated trips to the back porch. Three times, four times, maybe more, I undid that foil packet and fished out bites of morel.
As Howard's morels gradually cooled in their buttery juices, I begged my small self to stop eating, but I kept on until only a few slivers remained. I fluffed up the packaging so it still looked full, and never told a soul. I'm sorry, Howard. Umami made me do it.
Two Kentucky ways to cook morels:
Cut in half lengthwise and soak in salted water for an hour or more. Rinse off, roll in cornmeal. Pan fry (sauté) in butter or lard.
Cut in half lengthwise and soak in salted water for an hour or more. Rinse off and pat as dry as possible. Dip in a lightly beaten egg. Roll in crushed soda crackers (saltines.) Pan fry (sauté) in butter or lard.
Some innovators in Missouri apparently use bacon grease as their pan frying medium. I'm willing for them to Show Me.
See the full interview with Dallas Jones.
Read more about morels.