By Bruce Stambaugh
This time of year, where two or more are gathered together in the world’s largest Amish population, there is certain to be a conversation about mushrooms.
Not just any old mushrooms either. We’re talking morel mushrooms, commonly referred to as sponge mushrooms. They can be gray, yellow, brown and even black. Regardless of hue, they’re all good as far as I’m concerned.
After all, once you taste your first morel, you’ll realize they are better than ice cream. That might be because they are harder to find than ice cream. You can’t just go to your local grocery story and buy a pound of nicely packaged morels. Finding them takes effort.
Instead of talking about finding mushrooms, a friend, my son and I put our words into action. We went in search of the elusive, edible fungus. Everyone has their favorite spot to hunt mushrooms. Usually, it boils down to where they were found in previous years. In our case, we headed up a steep hill and into the woods. For the record, it’s a morel sin to ask exactly what woods.
We walked carefully over the spoil bank where my foody son picked wild garlic, across a lane, and down a slope to a deer stand that guarded a placid, clear stream. However, at some point prior to our arrival, the creek had been angry. Rocky, silted debris littered the grassy flats where I had found the largest mushrooms last year. Pretty pink lady’s slippers took their place.
We gingerly made our way through the tangles of downed trees, briars and undergrowth. We headed back up hill, into large sandstone boulders covered with delicately textured lichens and mosses. The last of the spring beauties still blossomed here and there in the sunlit woods, still without its canopy.
The woods grew thicker, the trees taller, and the forest floor more densely laden with last year’s leaves. Emerald patches of new life broke the brownish camouflage. May Apples, lovely lily of the valley and occasional flowering trilliums made refreshing appearances.
I wandered ahead of the others until a pair of unidentified birds winged overhead. Without binoculars, I struggled to identify them against the late afternoon sun. The birds flew off, one after the other.
I looked down, and there against an ancient and fallen, moss-covered elm was my first morel of the season. Before I bent to pick it, I looked all around for others. Mushrooms seldom sprout solo. But this decent gray was the exception.
I hollered to my partners, who were out of sight but within earshot. My shout was promptly returned. They were less than 100 feet away, on hands and knees carefully scouring for mushrooms.
I circled around and joined them. I sat on the leafy debris carpet, straining to find more. Soon I spotted one, but when I reached to pick it my son shouted again. My hand was about to crush another mushroom. That’s how hard these little fellows were to see.
As the even sun faded, woodpeckers still hammered out their territories. After three hours, we heeded their reverberating warnings and retraced our steps. In all that time, we had covered less than a mile.
But the season’s first mess of mushrooms was in hand. Not many, but enough for a luscious meal of the hearty, flavorful morels. Just one taste of these sautéed morsels made all the effort worth it. I tell myself that every spring when the talk of hunting mushrooms in Ohio begins anew.