It began in the days leading up to Mother’s Day. Last year we began a new tradition in our household. My wife’s favorite cartoon movie is the Pixar classic Ratatouille. At the time, my wife and I were exploring new foods and cooking techniques. I decided to surprise her with the dish of her favorite movie. I purchased fresh eggplant, zucchini, squash, tomatoes, and mushrooms. The dinner was a shocking hit with not only my wife, but also my son and daughter. This year the kids and I planned to make Ratatouille again; thus a tradition was a born.
A few weeks before Mother’s Day, I overheard a conversation at work between two life-long Northern Michiganders. They were chatting about morel mushrooms and sharing cooking ideas for the treasured flavor. Listening to their excited talk about mushroom burgers and morel salads, I got it in my head to find morels to add to our Ratatouille meal.
On a late April Saturday, the kids and I left just after dawn for a journey through the forest. Hearing the talk at work about old timers finding ‘100-200 morels in a weekend’, I left with visions of overflowing pillow cases. We journeyed into the forest, along a twisting two-track a few miles north of our house. It was a glorious spring day, and the leaves on the trees were only just starting to bud.
I have enough knowledge of Northern Michigan forests to know that very little grows beneath pine trees. So we kept driving until we were deep into a hardwood forest. After pulling the car off to the side, we set off in search of morels.
My daughter was the most excited about our little adventure. She ran ahead, eyes on the ground in hope of finding mushrooms. We meandered through the forest, climbing hills and crossing at least two streams. An hour and a half into the journey…nothing. Not one single morel. In fact, the only mushroom that we did find, the kids used their iPhone to discover was of the ‘Don’t Eat That!’ variety.
The kids were getting bored, and I was getting frustrated. What could we possibly be doing wrong? Was it too early in the season? Was this the wrong sort of forest?
It was time to return home. I promised the kids I would talk to the experts at my work. We still had a few weeks before Mother’s Day. It was time to find the car. Crap. Which did we come from? My eyes were so focused on the ground, I got turned around. We were lost.
“Don’t worry dad, I set a marker on my phone’s map before we left,” my son proclaimed. Thank god he has his mother’s sense. After a few minutes, he was able to lead us one and half miles back to the car.
So ended our first attempt at finding morels.
I returned to work the next Monday and grilled the old timers. They had plenty of advice. Wait until the Trillium are in bloom. Look for ash or poplar trees. I always find them around rotting trunks. They can be anywhere, old orchards, the side of the road, flower beds, just look. Well crap, that sounds easy. Looks like my kids and I just went out too early.
The morning of Mother’s Day, we tried again.
We found a large forest with a lot of ash and popular. We kept our attention to the ground. We walked slow, and circled nearly every large tree. And again we found nothing. Not one single mushroom.
“How are we supposed to be find a brown mushroom with all the brown leaves on the ground,” my son complained.
The boy had a point. I’d have to ask more questions. This year my wife had to settle for regular store bought mushrooms. I was disappointed, but no one else seemed to mind.
I returned to work again the Monday after Mother’s Day, resolved to get some answers on how to find morels.
“Are they still not out?” I asked.
“My brother found 50 yesterday in the forest behind his house,” one co-worker said.
“I already have a couple dozen,” another replied.
“I found one in my front yawn,” said a third.
“Where exactly are you looking?”
“No one gives up their morel spots,” I was told. “People don’t even tell their family, if they know of a good spot.”
This past weekend was the Morel Festival in Boyne City. I had planned on going on Saturday morning, but after too much beer on Friday night (and again on Saturday night) around the campfire with friends, I decided to stick near home.
On Sunday afternoon, after the worst of my 11-beer hangover dissipated, I decided to go for a run. My favorite trail is in the Offield Preserve, just east of Harbor Springs. I completed a half lap around the forest before my shin gave out. Each stride was pure agony. I was about 2 miles from home if I followed the rest of the trail, but I could shave a half mile off that distance if I made a beeline through the woods.
As I strolled through the forest, I found my eyes fixated on the ground before my feet. I was looking for morels.
The task was even harder than before, because the floor of the forest was carpeted in snow white trillium. What was even worse, the mosquitoes were out in force and Mother Nature was demanding a payment of blood for every step through the woods.
After trudging along for about 20 minutes, I heard something approaching from my left. An old couple appeared from the top of a hill. They blended into the forest, both dressed all in khaki and wearing wide brimmed hats with nets draping down over their face and neck. He carried a massive walking stick, at least 6′ tall and intricately carved. She lugged a large sack, nearly full.
After wasting hours in the forest over three days, finally my salvation arrived in the form of two mushroom wizards.
“Hi!” I shouted as they neared.
I smacked a horde of mosquitoes from my bare arms and legs as they ambled slowly towards me.
“Are you mushrooming?”
They smiled and nodded their heads. As they approached, I could sense these were the type that not only hiked the forest, but considered themselves part of it. Not only would they know exactly were to find morels, they probably had each mushroom field named with cute names like Gram Shirley’s Lea and Uncle Glen’s Glen.
They smiled and greeted me with hellos in thick Canadian accents.
“We saw you running past earlier. Taking a short cut?” The older woman asked.
“Shin splints,” I admitted. “I’m cheating and taking the short route through the woods.”
The old man said nothing and just stomped past, his feet lightly brushing aside the blades of the trillium flowers.
“Is that sack full of morels?” I asked the lady as she passed.
“They are. We’ve gotten a good haul this year.”
“Can I ask, where exactly are you finding them?”
The old man chuckled. “Everywhere. You just need to know how to look.”
“I’ve been at this three times, and haven’t found a one.”
“It takes a certain eye,” the woman said. “My daughter can spot them from 10 yards away, while my son has never seen one.”
“Can you show me?” I asked as they made their way down a ravine.
The old man laughed. “No.”
I feel real bad about the obscene gestures I flashed at their backs.
I exited the woods 30 minutes later. Still no morels. The funny part is, I don’t even like mushrooms.