For centuries, my Appalachian ancestors have gone to the woods to hunt for deer, pick wild asparagus and blackberries, and fish for trout in streams. But of all the hillbilly delicacies to be found gratis in the great Virginia outdoors, the most precious is also the least lovely. I’m talking about those little moist gnome brains that peek up through the rotting leaves every spring, the ones the city slickers call morchellas, or morels. We just call them mushrooms, and this is their ever-so-fleeting season.
I still remember the hand-woven mushroom-gatherin’ pouch called “Ol’ Nellie” that my great-grandmother made out of birch bark, the one she lovingly treated with pork fat left over from making chitlins. (OK, not really. But why do Southern food writers always sound like that? In reality, we put the mushrooms in a plastic Sunbeam bread bag or whatever we have lying around.)
Getting them home and into your stomach is simple. But finding the little bastards is not. Some people, like my dad, are just better at it than others. Not only does he know where to look—near poplars and grapevines—but I can be right next to him and he’ll find a bagful while I stand there dumbfounded. Sometimes I ask him to call out when he sees one so I can refind it, which is just sad by any father-son measurement standard.
Even if you should find a great patch, like the one there’s no way I am going to tell you about, you have to protect it the way you would your family’s moonshine still. (If your family had one. Which, if anyone asks, mine definitely doesn’t.) But the hills have eyes, so to get to one of our spots we all stand along the dirt fire road and listen for cars. When the coast is clear, we run as fast as we can into the hollow so we’ll be sure not to be seen.
I remember specific mushrooms from my youth, like one I found at the base of a stump after my brother knocked me down in a fight. My head landed right next to it. And at every family reunion we all whisper about the legendary great white morel my mom found on Black Oak Hill in the 1960s. It was so big she saw it from the car, and it covered a whole slice of white bread. Perhaps the most memorable, though, was the one my brother found growing out of the side of a dead opossum. He was standing over it when my dad wisely said, “Let’s leave that one alone.” That’s how good morels are: you have to pause for a beat before you decide not to pick one growing out of a dead animal.
Though I’ve had mushrooms prepared only one way—my mom fries them up in Crisco—I’m told there are many ways to cook them. They are a delicacy in Europe. Dried morels sell for about $200 a pound. I’m sure my grandfather, who stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day to liberate France, is not happy up in heaven that in return the French are ruining good mushrooms by burying them in sauce and spooning them over snails. He loved them so much he recited poetry at the start of every new season: “Spring is sprung/The grass is riz/I wonder where the mushrooms is.” Take that, Baudelaire.
One of the many fixations that kept my ruminative brain occupied during a scary illness three years ago was whether I would make it back home for spring mushroom season. I was lucky and returned: temporarily weaker, forever wiser. I found a few that day, but what I remember is how good it felt to just walk through the forest with the warm sun on my face, a bread bag in my back pocket, and surrounded by generations of kin, past and present. But mostly I was thankful nobody saw where we snuck into the woods.