Stalking the Wild Morel

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Daniel Layton


When my little brother was two or three, he picked something out of the yard and ate it. We had no idea what. "A yellow stick," he told our mother, who worried it was some kind of poisonous mushroom. I remember her holding him on a wooden swing, smoothing his hair while she waited for the Ipecac she had given him to make him puke.

Our parents sometimes cooked with mushrooms, and I refused to eat them. So did my brother, after I told him, with kid gross-out cadence, that—eeew—they were a fungus. But I grew up and developed a taste for shiitakes and porcinis, and last year I discovered the delight of finding fungi—huitlacoche, on Silver Queen sweet corn. Delicious.

This winter, while visiting a farm in Carmel, California, I inoculated logs with maitake spores, and I came back to Washington ready for spring and a chance to forage. Finding wild anything is a thrill: generic "fruit" on the old computer game Oregon Trail, beach plums, blueberries, pawpaws. It's like hunting, with all of the sport and none of the blood. Mushrooms, in their musky mystery, are prize game.

Morel season starts in April in the mid-Atlantic, and with an Audubon Society field guide, I headed for the woods. I had just seen scrumptious, wrinkly, honeycombed morels at Whole Foods for $30 a pound, and I was determined to find my own. As it turns out, not so easy.

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Daniel Layton

Morels tend to grow near tulip trees, which I can spot thanks to a little training from my botanist boyfriend, Daniel. It's best to scan the ground at the base of the trees and around their drip lines, where water spills off the outermost leaves, like the edges of an umbrella.

Low-lying areas are good bets moisture-wise, and rain plus heat create optimum conditions. We kept all of that in mind, staring at the forest floor until our eyes crossed, but came up empty-handed both in a nearby park, Great Falls, and out toward the Shenandoah Valley.

Maybe it was too early. So we went out a third time, in late April, back around the Great Falls trails. Still, nothing. After a while, Daniel, crouched, called me over to see a tiger swallowtail butterfly. When I came within a few steps, he started sputtering and pointing. At my feet, a yellow morel! We high-fived so hard my hand stung.

Where you find one morel there are probably more, and I spotted another, a silent little sentinel, three inches high. Luckily, morels are distinguishable from their supposed look-alikes, deadly galerinas. In a second trove we found eight or nine morels, and I carefully arranged them in the pouch you get by lifting the hem of your shirt. We were making dinner at our friends' house that night, tacos, but we didn't dare drown the morels in salsa and guacamole. We brushed off the dirt, cut them lengthwise, and sautéed them in butter with a small handful of thinly sliced white onion.

Morel-crazed, we joined the Mycological Association of Washington and went on a foray one Saturday morning in suburbia. The group had withheld the exact location until a week before, then emphasized the etiquette of not raiding it. As we gathered at a picnic area, mushroom nerds chattered and slung strapped baskets around their shoulders. From there small groups set off, ours led by a soft-spoken older man who surprised us with a story about a different kind of mushroom, the laughing Jim.

We didn't see any of those that day, but in the woods we collected another dozen morels. Some had been nibbled by slugs or squirrels, but so it goes. Tromping around I also found two fragile, young oyster mushrooms, an entire deer skeleton, and a pair of old-lady sunglasses.

At home I sliced the morels and oysters, lengthwise again, and a tiny, orange centipede ran out of one. I let him go and sautéed the mushrooms alone in butter this time, taking care —thanks, Julia Child—not to crowd them in the pan. Having found so few made that fairly simple, and I served them, lightly salted, atop a simple risotto. I ate several forkfuls of morels and risotto together, but I saved a few mushrooms for last.

They were worth savoring. I closed my eyes, closed my mouth, and held my breath. For the next week, I tried to recall their sweet, earthy flavor every time my hands itched. I'd avoided poisonous mushrooms, but not poison ivy.

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Sara Lipka is a journalist with a local food habit. Since 2003 she has written about college students for The Chronicle of Higher Education, in Washington, D.C. Last year she lived and worked on a farm in Virginia, and this year she is starting a school garden in Maryland. More

Sara Lipka is a journalist with a local food habit. Since 2003 she has written about college students as a staff reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, in Washington, D.C. Last year she was an intern for The Farm at Sunnyside, in Washington, Virginia, and this year she is starting a vegetable garden at the Bullis School in Potomac, Maryland.

Sara formerly interned at The Atlantic and has since interviewed authors about Roe v. Wade, libido, and settling. She graduated from Duke University summa cum laude in 2001, then spent a year in Chile as a Fulbright fellow, researching political theater.

An avid cook, Sara usually travels with a tiny bottle of truffle salt and keeps trying to concoct new combinations of ingredients. She has worked as a papergirl, camp counselor, umpire, and cashier at the Cosmic Cantina, in Durham, North Carolina, where she never got sick of the guacamole.

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