Archive for April, 2011

All About This Shit

April 18, 2011

(I can’t figure out how to change the font on this piece, although I have tried several times.  For those of you who can see it and decide to read it, thank you.)

I’ve been hunting morels (successfully!) for a little more than 10 days now.  At first I managed to maintain some emotional detachment.  With three years of hunting behind me, I know a few things about morels.  One is to strike the right note of humility since you can never be sure if you’ll find them or how long the season will last.  By now I’ve found my fever is under weigh, having slipped its last practical moorings.  The only thing that seems real to me is being out in the woods as sunlight dances across the forest’s floor while I search endlessly for mushrooms.

It’s crazy how it’s taken up occupation in my mind, flooding into my dreams, my conscious thoughts, my schemes.  The other night I set my haul in a stainless steel bowl.  No more than 2 or 3 inches high and most of them much smaller, they were a jumble of polished river stones or ocean shells, their surfaces still damp from the earth.  With a palette of ochres, greys, and ivories, their lighter colored gills carved out intricate veined patterns, casting off the light from the bowl.   Their tracings of shadow and light reminded me of another dappled creation of nature that gives me immense pleasure to look at – my cat Clarabelle.  Because I can’t haul out my mushrooms every so often and appreciate them without the unfortunate side effect of mauling them, I’ve taken to cooing “my little mushroom” to Clarabelle.  To me it’s axiomatic – anything I think is beautiful reminds me of my cat.

My excitement caught fire when my friend Rachel took me a new spot 30 miles from where I’ve been hunting.  I hadn’t thought we’d find anything, mostly because I thought it might be a little early, and then once we got there, the floor didn’t seem right.  But there’s always something new to learn about morels, one more reason to love them, and Rachel found the first one, a small white.  After an hour or so, we left with a ½ pound and the indelible memory of the spring forest’s wonders. 

The first ¼ pound I found April 6th went into a frittata; the second ½ pound gathered a few days later was shared with Andy, Rachel and Isaac – local beef stew and garden asparagus and morels tossed with egg noodles.  Yum!  The first full pound I picked I decided to sell to a local restaurant.

I don’t worry about selling my morels, but I do spend time deliberating whom I’ll contact.  Last year I sold ½ pound to my landlady, not having to leave the property to complete the transaction.  My foodie friends would pay or barter as would the 2 upscale markets and my one or two extremely rich acquaintances.  Once I decide to sell to a restaurant, deciding which restaurant is a matter of happenstance.  This month Rachel sold some of her lamb to one, so I decided to call that number first.  I’ve recommended this spot to out-of-towners because I’ve been there enough to sense there’s always something on the menu worth ordering.  The cooks there don’t fail as often as some others. 

From my vague knowledge of the local restaurant scene, this new guy seems to be publicly grooming himself as one of the area’s several Local Food heroes.  I recall a picture that accompanied a food mag’s article where his arms are crossed, a study in a chef’s cockiness.  Still, he was laughing which made him a little less irritating than those who move through Charlottesville in their chef whites.  Seriously!  Chef whites are intended to be worn only in the kitchen to ensure hygiene, not to stroll around town in.  I saw one chef sporting them in the Monticello garden.

This guy answered the phone when I called (I no longer leave messages when I’m selling morels; I just go down the list until someone tells me “yes”) and immediately expressed interest.  Good sign.  I explained how I was pricing, that these were the first morels; that if the season went well, I could drop the price, but that $25 a pound was what I was asking.

“Let me check that price point on the internet,” he said.

 I was a little bewildered.  I didn’t know of a site where local foragers posted on the internet.

“I’m checking the prices in the Pacific Northwest,” he told me.  “Hold on just a second.”

Wasn’t this about using local produce?

I don’t know if he got a response to his price query, or maybe realized he was going at this bargaining the wrong way, but he didn’t take long to agree to the sale.  “You say the season’s just beginning?” he asked before we ended the call. 

I told him it was bound to get better with temperatures moderating and rain in the forecast. 

“Do me a favor and keep me in the loop, okay?  ‘Cuz I’m all about this shit.”

Something about this got under my skin.  Here was a guy who wouldn’t have even known morels were popping if I hadn’t told him, and he’s “all about it.”  “No,” I wanted to reply.  “Until your hamstrings are aching from trudging up slopes and you fall to sleep with images of morels in your mind’s eye, you’re not all about this.”

Later I told Rachel that this guy took himself a little seriously.  She agreed, adding, “I have a soft spot for people who take themselves seriously, having been one of them myself.”

It’s true:  there are much worse things to take seriously, and it’s easy to mock the newly passionate converts.  But what to me is the essence of something like morels isn’t to be worn like the newest fashions.  Morels have nothing to do with Facebook and Twitter.  You can’t “like” them with a simple keystroke.  Finding morels requires a total engagement with the natural world that is the point of eating, whether it’s local or otherwise – an engagement that humbles in what it reveals about how little we know of the world and blesses us with beauty and nourishment in spite of our shortcomings. 

Because I’m older and wiser, I’ll do my best to give this guy, and all those other local food acolytes, some time and space to learn.  Morels might be created perfectly, but the rest of us need much longer growing seasons.