Looking for morels in all the wrong places

 They say this year is a bumper crop for morels. This wild mushroom, usually more elusive than love in a bar at 2 AM, is more abundant than usual due to our long, wet spring. From seasoned morel hunters, to rank amateurs, the woods are filled with people seeking this rare, and expensive, delicacy.

I went last week with a friend who falls into the “seasoned” category. Ben has fed me more than my share of his morel bounty, and as we went traipsing on our six mile hike in the Pinckney Recreation Area, he attempted to explain the mysterious synergy between morel spores and certain tree species. For example, there is some kind of cosmic connection between dying elm trees and morels that had us scanning the treeline for elms as a place to center our search.
My problem was not in identifying morels – I’ve seen enough of those to distinguish a true morchella from a false one – but in identifying elm trees. Ben patiently taught me to distinguish the lighter colored, mottled-textured elms, with their slightly spongy, cork-like bark, from all the other trees in the forest. So while Ben was busy filling his bag with fat morels, I was hesitantly fingering trees, shouting, “Hey Ben! I think I’ve found an elm!”
After about an hour I was fairly confident of my elm-identifying skills, to the point where I could identify one in the perfect, dying-but-not-dead state, with the bark peeling off just so. The problem was, none of these ripe mothers had given birth to any morels that I could see. Ben instructed me to look carefully, and most importantly, if I saw one morel, to STOP lest I step on others.
Sure enough, he called me over and showed me a morel he had found. Eagerly I took a step closer, crunching a second one much to Ben’s chagrin. Hours later, as we were wrapping up our long hike, our pathetic take remained at two morels – with one suffering my bootprint.
As we were nearly back to the car, I heard an excited shout from Ben. This time there was no difficulty spotting the morels, standing proudly in a field, impressively sized at five to six inches. We filled our bag, a decent way to finish what otherwise would have been merely a good walk in the woods. Thanks solely to Ben’s keen eye.
With all this new-found wisdom under my belt, a few days later, I returned to a different part of the Pinckney Recreation Area for more hunting, this time on my own. Bicyclists and runners shot by me on the path. Other morel hunters poked through the area. Two women in particular caught my eye, each smoking cigarettes and carrying beer cans in Styrofoam cozies. I half expected to see a bus filled with international tourists, holding guidebooks and cameras.
An hour later, I returned home, defeated. I’d found nothing but the trampled stem of what could have been a morel, or possibly a discarded banana peel. At least when I walked in the house, I was pleased to see that my wife had cut the grass.
“Look what I found under the apple tree!” she exclaimed. And there, in her hand, was a plump morel. I washed that puppy, sautéed in butter with a touch of salt (the classic way), and contemplated my luck.
With apologies to Waylon Jennings: apparently, I’ve been looking for morels in all the wrong places.
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Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. He has a blog at http://mayitpleasethepalate.blogspot.com which badly needs updating!
 

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