Fran Troxler: Morel mushroom hunting season is back again

May. 17, 2013 @ 10:57 PM

A phone call from one of our daughter’s Wearwood classmates a couple of Sundays ago has caused me to look at the woods near my home through different eyes — the eyes of a Morel mushroom picker!

Jennifer called to ask if she and her family may have permission to come up to our house and enter the adjacent woods to go Morel picking. I said, “What picking?” And she repeated herself.

Since that Sunday afternoon, I have learned a bit more about Morel mushrooms but a lot more about Jennifer’s uncle and his brother, Dewey and Johnny Jr. Manis of Boyds Creek and about the things they have grown up picking or hunting.

Here is what I know about Morels. They grow in a lot of areas around the United States and are particularly prolific in the northern middle states (Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin). The ground needs to be at least 50 degrees in temperature for them to start growing. They come in different colors (yellow and black seem to be predominant). You will usually find them around elm, poplar, and apple trees.

It is best to pick them and put them into a mesh bag. As I understand, they release spores into the air, so you don’t want to pick them and put them into a closed up bag. If so, those wonderful spores for reproduction will just die in that bag. No, you want them to spread and spread!

According to Dewey and Johnny Jr., you can eat them fresh, dry them, freeze them … much the same as with fresh vegetables. Dewey says he loves them in an omelet but also makes mushroom chowder and puts them into most everything he cooks.

Since I have never been Morel picking (or any mushroom picking, for that matter), I told the brothers that I do not think I will go picking on my own. I would be so afraid that I would pick and eat some poisonous mushroom thinking it was OK and wind up dead.

No, the boys tell me that if the stem is hollow, then the Morel is fine.If  it is not, then do not eat it. It sounds a lot like “Red on black is a friend of Jack’s, but black on red will kill you dead.”

Still, even with their advice, I am not going to risk it. Dewey and Johnny Jr. have promised me an afternoon of Morel picking next week. Morel picking 10l, that’s what I am calling it.

The Morel mushrooms took our conversation on to other incredible edibles these brothers have gathered over the years. Dewey happens to like “poke” and “turtle” the best while Johnny, Jr. leans toward fresh ramps and fish. Dewey’s favorite way of cooking his poke is poke patties. The ingredients and preparation are much as the same as for salmon patties — just use poke instead of salmon.

They also went on to tell me that unless you pressure cook the turtle meat and cut it into small pieces, it’s going to be tough and pretty chewy to eat. I will remember that when I cook my next turtle!

Last year the brothers were in a store in Maryville and found frozen rabbit, processed and packaged in China, and the price for the rabbit was $10. All three of us shook our heads at this. We thought anything from China was supposed to be cheaper. $10 for a Chinese rabbit seems pretty steep when we can still eat our own here at home — and our rabbits are fresh — not processed and frozen on the other side of the world.

Morel mushroom season should last a few more weeks here in Tennessee, and according to these seasoned mushroom gatherers, after a spring rain is an excellent time for picking. Both Dewey and Johnny Jr. agreed that you can just about watch a Morel grow during and after a good rain.

It really rained this past weekend, and therefore, I hope to go Morel picking in the next day or two. If I get plenty, who knows, maybe with the help of these two men, we will put together a meal of rabbit, turkey, Morel mushrooms, poke, and even maybe throw in some ramps (yep, thanks to Johnny Jr., I know what ramps are, too.) And believe me, it all sounds pretty darn good!

How do we say “Bon Appetit” in East Tennessee? Dig in?

— Fran Troxler lives and works in Wears Valley. Her column will appear every other week. She is the owner of East Tennessee Realty Group. Email to Fran@EastTnExperts.com.