By Ken Marsh
“There is something inscrutably satisfying about finding a good patch of morel mushrooms that travels far beyond their excellent flavor.”
– Jim Harrison, The Summer He Didn’t Die
In the way life’s most enduring passions ignite not in flashes of spontaneity but on slow-smoldering fuses my interest in wild mushrooms – morels first and, later, king boletes, oyster mushrooms, hedgehogs, and other edibles – developed gradually. The process included three phases: Awareness, where I acknowledged the existence and potential food value of wild mushrooms; research, in which information on regional varieties was actively sought and absorbed; and the hunt, or act of entering the field to seek, find, and gather feral delicacies sold in produce markets at prices rivaling those of certain precious metals.
Ultimately, it was the hunt that hooked me. Stalking morels would eventually become another perfect reason along with wing-shooting, fly-fishing, and berry picking to hike into the backcountry and lose myself in solitude. To be sure, it wasn’t always that way. Prior to my “awakening” the world of wild mushrooms seemed nebulous and not particularly stimulating.
I’d encountered them over the years in yards and fields around my home in Wasilla and in forests throughout Southcentral Alaska, often in late summer or fall while mowing the lawn or hunting grouse or moose. Rarely, a specimen emerging from the grass or alongside a trail caught my eye, a diminutive death star begging to be teed into space with a swift soccer kick (the explosion of fresh, white-fleshed puffball at the toe of my boot remains a source of aberrant pleasure). Beyond that, wild fungi existed only in my periphery and were dismissed as vague curiosities, probably toxic, and best avoided.
This is where a gifted author’s power to expand minds should not be underestimated. The inspiration behind my initial quest for morels in the burn a quarter century ago could be traced to my readings of the late poet and novelist Jim Harrison. Famous for his adoration of birding, fishing, French wines, and cooking Harrison pleasantly hypnotized me and many, many others with wry prose that reflected his appreciation for life’s greatest pleasures, both legitimate and illicit. An artist and impenitent hedonist, his blueprint for good living seemed a marvel worth emulating.
Like a fly-fisher casting over and again to a reticent trout Harrison, a Michigan native, eventually snagged my attention in his novels and nonfiction with reserved but recurring mention of morels. With brief asides like “When I come into an aspen glade in May and find several dozen morel mushrooms, I begin to concoct a meal, perhaps … chicken thighs sautéed with wild leeks and morels,” he made clear that in his heart – somewhere between sweetbreads en croute and fine Bordeaux – lay a rich, sacred country reserved for Morchella alone.
Others also noticed.
“Mr. Harrison has a peculiar passion for morels,” observed The New York Times in a 1994 profile, “Will Write for Food.” The savory fungi topped not only his wild food themes of roasted ruffed grouse and woodcock, but more sophisticated entrees that rolled on like a listing from Forrest Gump’s shrimping buddy Bubba Blue: Morels with chicken in puff pastry, porterhouse steaks covered in morels, morel-stuffed ravioli. …
Harrison’s penchant for morels worked subliminally on me until one winter evening in 1996, shortly after reading the article “Bird Hunting” in his collection Just Before Dark, I found myself wondering if morels might be found in Southcentral Alaska. The possibility warmed me as I envisioned pleasant hours spent ambling the hills for “a good patch.” I considered what fun a creative, if humble, weekend chef might experience slicing, seasoning, sautéing, and braising morels for placement in extravagant meals (my fondness for cooking began as a dough-snitching boy in my mother’s kitchen). I imagined the feel and smell of springtime air outside, so temperate and fresh, skies alive with the courtship huhuhuhuhuhuhu of winnowing snipe, and pretended to taste in my dining room the succulence of breaded morels stuffed with chevre, browned in Normandy butter, and eaten sizzling straight from the skillet.
That evening I read and dreamed, a couple fingers of scotch on ice backlit and glowing like gold atop my desk in the reading lamp’s beam. As a younger man I sometimes flattered myself by contemplating topics I thought profound. Looking back the subjects were mostly banal and epiphanies rare. Once, though, after much time spent pondering the question of God’s place in the universe, I awoke one morning to the abrupt realization that God is the universe. Years later when I learned that architect and creative genius Frank Lloyd Wright famously saw God and Nature as a single entity, I allowed that perhaps I hadn’t been too far off the mark.
Anyway, maybe it was just the whisky that night, heady and pungent with the essence of Highlands peat, but I like to think the universe looked down upon me and cracked a benevolent smile. By the time I slipped into bed my fascination with the hunting and gathering of wild mushrooms had officially begun.