cloudy, chance of morels

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(photos by jo)

May weather in the Pacific Northwest is seldom a sure thing, and it seldom stays put for long. Some days we’ll see sunshine and reach 75 degrees (if we’re lucky); others we’ll have driving rain and wind gusts that recall winter storms more readily than showery spring. And then it will change, at the drop of a hat (or the lowering of a North Face hood.) West of the Cascades, May can sometimes feel like a sneak preview of summer—a trial version, limited precipitation, thirty days free of charge. But then, of course, it can just as likely be dreary, wet, cold, miserable, a cruel reprise of those darker days that many are glad to have put behind them. May is mercurial; the weather does what it may and hews to no season. Our skies clear up or cloud over in the time it takes for you to decide how to dress for the weather.

But enough about all that crap. As the writer Charles Dudley Warner classically put it, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Well, a couple weeks ago, a small group of us Washingtonians decided to go out and do something about the fabulous sunshine we’d been seeing, and that something was a mushroom hunt.

It's real food

It’s real food

Around these parts, May coincides with the emergence of the black morel (Morchelle elata), possibly the most delectable and nigh-undetectable fungus in existence—a phallic, aromatic, honeycombed gift from the forest gods. Quite the claim, right? “But what about truffles?” you sniff, snobbily. “They grow underground. You can’t even see that shit. And varieties from the Pacific Northwest retail for $100 a pound.” Now, I know truffles have a certain cachet among food snobs, commanding exorbitant prices and inspiring fanatical devotion to their procurement—supposedly they taste good enough to go crazy about—but they’re just, I don’t know, so much work. You have to rake around the bases of Douglas fir, tearing up the undergrowth in search of them; or you can train a dog or a pig to sniff them out for you, but you have to train it well enough so that it doesn’t actually dig up the truffles and eat them, without your permission, because that would be such a waste, $25 bucks or more down the gullet, and…yeah. Too much hassle. Maybe someday I might get into it, but for now, I’m more than happy hunting for morels.

On a recent, sunny Saturday I went east of the mountains with my friends Joanna, Will, and Simone for my very first foray into morel foraging. (I am a quick convert, as you’ve likely surmised.) The stands of ponderosa and lodgepole pine groaned and swayed in the breeze, shading the forest floor and its fungal inhabitants, and we wended through their scaly trunks with our backs hunched and our eyes intent. We didn’t make a killing, but we didn’t leave empty-handed, either. Joanna and Will and I camped out on a ridge and cooked fresh morels for dinner, an experience that, in the words of Joanna, “probably just changed my life right there.” As the mushrooms sautéed in butter, the aroma wafting off reminded me of nothing so much as Top Ramen seasoning, in the style of beef—a heady mix of fat, fungus, and monosodium glutamate. To bite into one was to imbibe a veritable trifecta of flavor.

More than anything else, I enjoyed poking around the forest on a warm spring day, observing up close the workings of the undergrowth and seeing a vaguely familiar landscape with brand new eyes. The fact that our trip happened to double as a scavenger hunt for this most laudable of mushrooms made it all the merrier.

Jo gets a noseful

Jo gets a noseful

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