Ever since I met the mushroom man Phil Ross at last month's Dinner Discussion, I've had mushrooms on the brain. I've been lurking around the Far West Fungi stand at farmers' markets, wanting so badly to get my grubby hands on some meaty morels, but not quite ready to pay the $24/lb price. And so for the past few weeks I've contented myself with the more affordable oyster and shitake mushrooms.
Never in my wildest foraging dreams did I imagine what lay in wait when I agreed to a last minute adventure up to Ashland, Oregon with my feral friend Neep Dandelion. The days were meandering and improvised--setting out in the late morning from friends' magical tree-house cabin, wandering in and out of the Ashland Food Co-op on a regular basis, stopping for a midday espresso or to contemplate a ginkgo tree, finding an unexpected treasure at one of the town's several used bookstores, placing a rock gingerly atop a river-dwelling cairn.
On one such day, which turned out to be a fateful one, we decided after bicycling around town more or less aimlessly to take a "real" bike ride. "Real" turned out to mean the hardest ride of my life. Part of it may have been that I hadn't been expecting to embark on a 28-mile (roundtrip) journey, twelve of them constituting a steady uphill climb, and so set out with a half-swilled gingerade kombucha, a half-filled water bottle, a stomach fueled by three sad sticks of marinated tofu and bean sprout salad, and a canvas bag of random sundries swinging clumsily from my shoulders.
The two miles out of Ashland led into increasingly rural country, with silky cows, deer, and sheep grazing on waving grasses shaded by oak trees and a creek babbling sleepily alongside us. My heart sighed in pastoral contentment. But then we entered the winding incline of Dead Indian Highway, and by the Mile 6 marker the sun's mad beating against my brow had caused me to fling my sweaty helmet off my head and fasten it onto my bag's thick straps, the bag itself clinging clammily to my hot back like a wailing papoose. The kombucha was long gone and the plastic-flavored water was dwindling dangerously.
Still, we kept on, turning off the main highway up an even steeper road ("Oh!" my legs and lungs groaned, while my pride kept them mute) in search of our destination: an alpine forest once inhabited by grizzlies. My stamina began to wane, and Neep would wait while I walked my bike awhile and stretched. At one point, he disappeared around a bend and then altogether. He had hopped off his bike to take a dip in a creek, leaving it in plain sight where I would surely see it and then join him. But it was on the left side of the road, while I pedaled painfully and slowly up the right side, my eyes fixed determinedly on the dirt directly before me.
Upwards and onwards I forced my body, trying to catch up to him (I thought) and wondering why I wasn't crying from fatigue and frustrated muscles, then deciding it was because there was no one there to see and pity my private ordeal. I would lay the bike down when I hit my limit and half collapse onto my back in the loose roadside gravel, looking up into the trees and sky for tranquility, stretching a bit until I got another small burst of energy to keep on. The view grew more breathtaking even as my own breaths became harder to take.
I knew that as feral and errant as my friend was, he wouldn't leave me alone for such a long time, so I imagined he had reached the trailhead to the mountain summit and had fallen asleep while waiting for me. The road became narrower and muddy, and the old-growth fir trees loomed more darkly around me, lit up here and there by gray-green moss and mustard-yellow lichen. The air grew colder, and there were occasional patches of snow stretched upon matted piles of dead pine needles. I thought of other times I had kept going through hunger, exhaustion, and raw pain and reminded myself to be tough.
I had downshifted into bare survival mode, eyes glazed, mind numb, body hunched over the handlebars, when I heard a commotion behind me. Neep Dandelion! Eyes wild, whiskers waggling, hands waving: "There you are!" We spilled out our stories in disbelief and relief, agreeing that there was no way we would have kept going so high up the mountain had we been together to talk ourselves out of it, that it was much farther than we had anticipated, that we had run out of water and now what should we---but wait!
That's a morel!
A morel? Really?
And he ran over to crouch by the burnt-brown beauty that was poking itself out so frankly among blades of grass and soggy fallen pine cones. A deep euphoria gathered and swelled in me as my eye traveled over its sturdy, almost rubbery form, in and out of its exquisite nooks and crannies.
Where there is one morel, there most surely are others, and as our eyes became attuned to the tell-tale craggy cone shapes, we spotted more and more along the roadside. Like the proverbial woman in the wheelchair whose ailment gets miraculously blessed away by the evangelical preacher, I jumped up and down in instantaneous rapture, all thoughts of dehydration and total-body meltdown dissolved under the whitewater force of my morel mania. Whooooohoooo!
Using a stick and a plastic fork saved from our co-op snack, we poked the prized mushrooms from their root-like mycelia (to let new ones spring back up for other lucky pilgrims to find), working our way steadily uphill, tossing what began to pile up as pounds, yes pounds, of morels into my canvas bag (and now was I finally glad that I had schlepped it all the way up there). We celebrated the boon by splitting our last remaining bit of sustenance, a juicy navel orange that had been lying at the bottom of my now-magical bag. After reaching the summit trailhead, we considered hiking another mile to the peak, elevation 5,922 feet, but decided that this monster lode of morels had been the real summit after all and turned back for home.
The downhill ride was windy-cold but easy on the legs, and it wasn't long before we rushed into the tree-house cabin to share our amazing discovery with our hosts and their resident flaxen-haired forest sprite, a mischievous fellow whose preferred garb is a compact pair of tan Carhartt overalls with pale green patches on the knees.
They were as excited as we were, and over the next few days, we proceeded to have morels at every meal:
- morels fried in bacon fat
- morels sauteed in butter with asparagus and scalloped potatoes
- morels scrambled with eggs and bacon
- morels dry fried with salt
- morels scrambled with eggs and potatoes
[then back to S.F. with the last batch]
- morels on focaccia-bread toaster-oven pizza
- morels dry fried with salt (again)
- morels minced into bucatini pasta with basil, capers, and parmesan
There were ants, and who knows what else, hiding out in the labyrinthine gnome hats and hollow stems of the mushrooms, and though we tapped each morel against the cutting board several times to oust its feisty inhabitants, a few gritty bites at each meal told me I was getting a little extra protein with my fungi.
I had hoped this excessive bounty would so saturate me in the taste and texture of the forest floor as to purge what might be a hard-to-satisfy craving, expensive in terms of money or time, not to mention the limits of geography and season. And I know that there is no repeating that providential moment when nature extended its hand with a gift that revived me at the end of one of my most grueling physical experiences in recent memory. But oh, the morels have unleashed the forager's hunger for more. I must have more morels, more morels a must, morels more more, more more more!
As though to taunt me when I changed my wild foods calendar from May to June, the page went from ramps to (gasp!) morels.
There was a time when I thought that kale gave the highest of highs. Then I went on a morel bender and shall never be the same again. But this is a blog about vegetables. The third kingdom, that range of edibles wedged mysteriously between the animal and plant worlds, must remain an occasional guest in our civilized society of carotenes and chlorophyll, where seeds and roots propagate life in predictable byways revealed in the daylight of rational science. Let us leave the spores and mycelia, the hyphae and hallucinogens, where they lie in the shadowy realms beyond even that of the weird vegetable. Let The Great Morel Home Page take up the burden that we lay down here.