In the forests of Northern Michigan, springtime promises the warmth of sunshine, a welcome symphony of birdsong, the brilliance and scent of woodland flowers -- and an eagerly-awaited gastronomic treat.
Yes, I’m talking about morel mushrooms.
These humble fungi are one of the great culinary delights of the North Woods, with a flavor that’s hard to describe: a delicate spring earthiness, with the firm texture of rare roast beef. Sautéed in butter with a pinch of garlic and perhaps a hint of lemon (or paired with another spring crop: wild leeks or ramps, whose thick oniony leaves sprout up conveniently nearby) they’re an amazing taste experience.
Every spring, hundreds of devoted mushroom hunters head to the wooded slopes around Traverse City to search for these "truffles of the North," combing the hillsides for these well-camouflaged spongy mushrooms. For weeks, our rural backroads are lined with cars, campers and pickups whose owners are deep in the woods, scanning the ground as they crunch determinedly through last year's leaves. By day's end some will emerge toting huge bags of mushrooms, while others (like me) are content to find a dozen.
Since this is such a food-obsessed town, morels have already made their appearance on the menus of local restaurants this spring. Though purists insist that they’re best enjoyed with a minimum of extra seasonings and sauces, they lend themselves to a wide array of meat and pasta dishes.
Still, I’ll confess that I’m a little ambivalent about the whole thing.
Long ago, when I was a newcomer to this area and its annual rituals, I learned about morels from one of this area’s legendary mushroom hunters. His name was George Meredith, and he spent decades studying, photographing and even videotaping morels. But one of the lessons he constantly stressed was that the best reason for hunting them is that it gives you an excuse to get out and wander around aimlessly in the spring forest.
"There's no other time like it," he told me. “Spring is such a time of renewal in the woods. The sun is shining down through the trees, there are wildflowers everywhere. The woodpeckers are tapping away above you, and once in a while you'll see a scarlet tanager -- a bird that most people would never have a prayer of seeing at their birdfeeder, a bird so red that it makes a cardinal look dull. It's my mental spring cleaning."
George passed away last winter, and I’ve been thinking about him every time I go “tromping through the woods.” I’d be the first person to admit that I’m far better at eating morels than I am at finding them. (My daughter, on the other hand, will patiently pick them out of any dish they’re in but has an uncanny gift for spotting them.) But I’m always glad to go out and do a little morel-hunting, no matter how dismal my results are.
I know them all: the early black and gray varieties, the plentiful whites and the late-season yellow or butterscotch morels (known locally as "Bigfoot morels" because of their prodigious size). Morels are plentiful in the first flush of spring, particularly after a good rain, and though they'll grow in almost any wooded region of the country, they seem to have an affinity for our steep sandy hillsides. But they were designed with an astonishingly effective camouflage, blending so well with their surroundings that you can literally be standing next to one without being able to see it.
But it doesn't matter that I sometimes find more morels growing at the side of my driveway than I find in the woods, or that the grocery bag I optimistically carry into the forest to contain my hoped-for dozens of mushrooms usually returns with eight or nine. I've gotten exercise wandering among the spring shadows, surfing through seas of trilliums and listening to the wind in the branches overhead. As George said, it's mental spring cleaning.
Perhaps I should try my daughter's favored technique. She calls gently to the mushrooms as though they were playing hide and seek and need to be encouraged to themselves. What the heck, it seems to work.
A former newspaper writer, Mike Norton was the media relations manager at Traverse City Tourism. He loves to walk, bicycle and kayak in the three seasons when our water is usually in liquid form. For the rest of the year he prefers snowshoeing and skinny-skiing.