Spring has finally sprung! For those who love a special little fungi, this may be a coveted time for a treasure hunt. A hunt for the sponge like Morel mushroom. Or Morchella for those who prefer a more scientific label. Growing up, searching for these unique little mushrooms, had little to do with Science, and everything to do with fun.
I grew up on a mountaintop in Northeast Tennessee. Our property was 11 acres, with a large yard to play in, plentiful gardens for strawberries and vegetables, a good-sized chicken house, my daddy’s building that held his tools & workbench, and a humble little red outhouse. But one of my favorite places to be was in the thick woods that encircled that mountain and separated us from the neighbors “down the hill”. Those woods were a magical place for my sister and I to play, explore, and get a hand on Science lesson without even realizing it.
My Mama loved Morel mushrooms. Each Spring, the three of us would take a walk into the woods searching for these peculiar little objects. To me they looked almost wicked. Perhaps something a witch had placed a curse on. They were wrinkly, brown, fragile, and fleshy to the touch. I didn’t understand why my mama was so enthralled with them. And the fact that she wanted to EAT them?! My little brain could not comprehend. But as my mama always did, she found a way to make the hunt fun, and a long lasting memory.
My sister and I would be the most happy about finally getting to go deep into the woods on a gorgeous Spring day. We would search for anything as long as we had the opportunity to spend an hour or two playing inside those woods. Mama taught us to step lightly and keep our eyes on the ground. It was actually rare for us to find more than a couple of Morels at a time, so she definitely didn’t want to waste one by stepping on it.
I don’t believe Mama ever knew the proper name for the Morels. The name she called them by was “Wood’s Fish”. As she explained to us, and as we learned first-hand by the smell, when the mushroom is fried, it gives off a light fishy smell. So I guess the mountain name was given as Wood’s Fish for that reason. My mama was a mountain girl through and through. Having a Cherokee ancestry, she had been taught to live off the land. Collecting things like Dandelion greens, Poke, and Wood’s Fish as a remedy of some sort, came natural to her.
On a boring Saturday, all Mama had to do was say the word, and my sister and I would head down into the woods on a treasure hunt of our own, searching for the little alien mushroom. What a thrill it was when we found one! Being so very gentle to pluck it from the moist, rich black dirt, and carry it home to our mama. Being so very careful of its delicate folds. Mama would rinse it in cool water, slice it length wise, dip it in an egg wash, then dredge in cornmeal. She would fry the slices in vegetable oil, salt and pepper them, and place on a paper towel when golden brown.
I remember tasting this Wood’s Fish once. I must have been about 5. Needless to say, my word for it was “Yuck!”. At that age I didn’t like fish, so the smell probably made up my mind before it hit my mouth. Somewhere along the way, on my soon to be a 57 year journey, I began loving mushrooms. I mean LOVE! But I have yet to try a Morel. I think I will check the Farmer’s Market this month, as that’s the closest I can get to my beloved woods. I also love fish now, so maybe I’ll actually like this Wood’s fish thingy. Or, I’ll do it just for the pure pleasure of the memory it will bring.