Oh, yeah! This is what it’s all about.
In late April and early May, one of the most beautiful and tasty mushrooms anywhere in the world rears its head in the Heartland. Like gold nuggets, morel mushrooms are hard to find in the wild. And, don’t expect anyone to give you a hint about where to find them – even if you fall on your knees pleading. Even close friends disappear, don’t take calls, or seem to be unavailable around that critical three-week time frame. I doubt that even bribes work. I think that the morel man reverts to his primordial state when he suspects that a mess of mushrooms might be growing near his cave.
Did I say mess? Well, yes. Mushrooms are always found and eaten in a mess. You might hear, “I found a huge mess the other day. Don’t know how many, but the wife and I had four or five smaller messes out of the whole thing. Mmmm . . . sure was a good mess.”
It’s particularly disheartening to strike up casual conversations after mushroom season is over and discover that everyone seemed to have their fair share of several messes but you. Sometimes you hear, “Oh yeah, my neighbor found maybe 5 pounds. He had so many that he gave me half of them. And boy, were they something else. They were the big yellow ones, too” It’s always hurts to hear that the best meal in the world was a historical event that, somehow, you missed. But’s that’s life in morel country.
For some odd reason, I forgot all about the morel hunt this year. I think I happened to be preoccupied with other things in my life – like my daughter’s wedding, my new blogging habits, etc. But I heard that the morel crop wasn’t too good this year . . heh-heh-heh. About 2 weeks ago, my wife reminded me that we missed the mushroom thing, but that Maldaner’s Restaurant still had a limited amount of their infamous “morel mushroom pie” on their menu. Not missing a beat, I made reservations for early that night, and we were lucky enough that they still had some available. At $ 14.00 a sliver, Chef Michael Higgins makes the most incredible morel pie in the world. I don’t know how he does it, but it’s wonderful – and worth every cent.
Things were a little different last year for me. I had gone for several years on a morel draught. My frustration level was at a peak and I needed a morel fix. I found it in a Morel Mushroom Festival in Wyoming, Illinois. This was a different kind of mushroom festival. You didn’t have to hunt your own mushrooms in the woods. What you got to do instead was to bring your mushrooms to sell if you chose – or your money to buy!
I was definitely a buyer.
After a 2 hour ride to a bit north of Peoria, we arrived. There were all sorts of morel memorabilia including carved walking sticks, jewelry, T-shirts, and cookbooks. We were there for the auction, but it dawned on us after we got there that they wouldn’t be taking credit cards – or checks. This was going to be a cash-only auction where the seller would walk onto the stage with no more than 6 carefully weighed 1/2 lb. clear baggies of mushrooms for all to see. He would then tell a short story about when they were picked and other flowery phrases about why his or hers were so very, very good. After the price per 1/2 lb. bag was determined by highest bid, the buyer could take one or many until all were sold. But as soon as they were sold, cash was to be paid directly to the seller, not to an auctioneer.
My wife and I scrambled to come up with $ 90 between us, but we didn’t expect that to go very far when high-end Chicago restauranteurs were some of the competing bidders. Luckily, my wife and I are long-time antique dealers, who are used to haggling. We were able to get a couple of bags during the regular auction and then did a side deal near the end with a worried seller. We came out just fine. We were able to bring home a mother-lode of 4 lbs.
Morels are best when eaten fresh. Frozen is not so good. For the next several days, we ate morel omelets, morel soup, morel Quiche, sautéed morels on hamburgers, and morel pie (good, but Maldaner’s is better). We fried them in cracker crumbs, flour, plain, you name it. As you might guess, we soon had our fill of mushrooms , when I looked to see that we still had over a pound left. I couldn’t throw them away. That would have been blasphemy.
I called up a client of mine, who was the former owner of a very good restaurant here in Springfield. He stills loves to cook on a volunteer basis for various non-profit events. He appreciates good food, especially real good food. I suspected that I had found my donee. When I delivered the morels to him, he was stunned. “Yeah,” I said. “Suellen and I went up near Peoria this year, up near my old stomping rounds, and got us a hell of a mess. Can’t eat ’em all. Whaddya, think?”
I think I sold him on the fact that my wife and I really have a knack out in the woods.