Mushrooms From Ashes

Matt McAllister
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Morel mushrooms; oddly shaped little things, almost alien. Esoteric enough to be the precious secret of scattered chefs and fanatics across the globe. Where do they come from? How do you pick them? Why are they so expensive? Do they infiltrate your very dreams at night? They can.

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Morels can grow almost anywhere, but they grow most- and best, the Spring after a wildfire. To find morels, you start by hunting for fires. Not just any fire, and not just anywhere within a fire. If you want to be successful, you need to find the right soil, the right tree species, the right ground moisture, the right temperature. Prepare to drive some questionable roads and hike some unforgiving terrain.

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When you have found suitable ground, it is time to set up camp. You will be tempted to do it hastily- the morels are waiting! But catch yourself- take the time you need. Rain, whipping wind, pummeling hail, sneaky mosquitoes, and brazen bears make frequent visits. Build a sufficient camp, and you will thank yourself later.

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There they are! On the sunniest hill, at the lowest elevation... The first baby morels to emerge. Clean, perfect, aromatic, and all yours! This is the conica variety, first to arrive. As your knife slices through those hollow stems, the addiction trickles up your fingers and settles deep into your bones, to stay forever.

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With time, you get the knack for it. More and more frequently you clamber up that hill or over that barricade of wind fallen trees with a sense that a motherload awaits. by now, you are right more than you are wrong. The bugs drone around your head, thunderclouds play games of tag with you, and the morels grow bigger.

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The mushrooms are growing fast and the weather has not been warm. You had hoped to sun dry, but... c'est la vie. It is time to employ your log carpentry abilities and find another way to dehydrate these mushrooms. They will store safely without risk of spoilage once dry.

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Wood fire heat, a clay stove, and meticulous temperature and humidity checks. There is no real rest after a twelve hour picking day here. It is a good thing that the sun doesn't stay set for long.

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The month of June wears on. Your aches accumulate. Pants wear thin at the knees and groin from endless squats and kneeling. Maybe you leave your boots to dry by the fire...a little too close, and now you are sporting open toe footwear. Duct tape did not help. Other pickers seem to have taken all the morels near the roads, and so you walk deeper. Ever deeper.

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Is it a thrill? Is it a nightmare? What was life before this? You just don't know anymore. What you know is that the season will end; there will be days for lasagna and apple crisp and other forgotten comforts. But today there are morels out there, somewhere. You blow your nose into a scrap of tissue. It is full of soot. You fill your baskets with blonde, grey, and green morels- the late season varieties.

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In a moment of optimism, you note to yourself that these late season mushrooms are many times larger and somewhat denser than the early conica. You can fill a basket from one hefty ring around an old scorched spruce. They are beautiful too- the greys are dry and velvety, and the greens seem to almost radiate a gem-like glow. Or maybe the heat is getting to your head. You should have packed more water.

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The thing about endings is that you don't often see them coming. They sneak up on you like a cliff just ahead while you trudge forward through a dense undergrowth. One day you simply stop finding very many morels. You re-check ground that once rewarded you heavily, and find only a few. The exhaustion you have been warding off for weeks finally takes hold, and you indulge yourself by eating all the best food you have left. Camp packs up quickly, and with a sense of serenity that you almost forgot what to do with. Tomorrow will be a very different kind of day!

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The drive home couldn't be more opposite to the drive in. Gear is packed sloppily, and filthy clothes have the vehicle quite pungent inside. Talk is of hot tubs, mattresses, and absurdly large sandwiches. The trailer is full of dried morels, and it feels like all the time in the world before you have to worry about selling them. Or about anything. You would be hard pressed to find someone more deserving of a rest.

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A few months later, you have some friends over and cook them a dish of re-hydrated morels. You serve them with a peculiar little buzz of pride about you. Someone asks if you still enjoy the mushrooms after spending so much time around them. You laugh and tell them that actually you still do. Someone says the flavor of them is complex and hard to describe. You agree casually, and flash through a cacophony of remembered smells, sounds, tastes, disappointments, and triumphs. With a little sardonic smile, you tell them they're a thousand miles away from describing it.