Day of the Molly Moochers

A poet, a wizard, and a food writer walk into the woods…. It may sound like the start of a joke, but it turned out to be the start of a beautiful day for hunting the perfect edible moment.

Shafts of afternoon sunlight dapple the forest floor. The air is heavy with the odors of humus and mineral, with the cycle of germination and decomposition, with the detachment from time. With anticipation. My two companions and I are each attending to tasks that will result in a mid-afternoon, mid-forest feast. Jim has retrieved the bottle of white burgundy we hid a few hours earlier under a rock to keep cool and to lighten our packs. Small cups await it on a table fashioned from a large piece of shale. He’s deliberate and thoughtful as he pours, speaking sotto voce about his latest project: translating novels of author and poet Franz Werfel from German to English.

The campfire is ready for the sauté pan. I melt butter; add roughly chopped green onions, trimmed asparagus, shavings of lemon peel, salt and pepper. Reed sits on the leafy floor, tenderly brushing away the bits of earth that cling to our bounty of morels, occasionally stopping to sweep his mane of long hair out of his face. He moves in and out of subjects with a mind powered by a Ferrari engine: Flavor-tripping with synsepalum dulcificum, the West African miracle fruit…the history of the surrounding land…the makeshift bread-baking stove he builds near his campfire to enjoy fresh bread with stuffed baked morels in the woods…the “spirit detector” he built for a friend…the backpack amplifiers he and his circle of experimental musicians use to play electronic music in the middle of—well, here. If Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead guitarist), Nikola Tesla (master of electromagnetics), and Gandalf (mentor to Hobbits one and all) contributed to a gene pool, Reed might be the result.

He slices up several of the cleaned morels; I add them to the sauté to thoroughly soften and soak up the butter sauce. When the morels’ juices have fused with the rest of the ingredients, I remove the pan from the fire, stir in a spoonful of crème fraiche, and divide our lunch among three plates. We raise our cups of wine to toast the day, then all is quiet save for a few superlatives punctuating the babble of flora and fauna.

It’s fitting that my first morel hunt would be with a poet and a wizard. After all, with their fleeting presence and hidden dwellings, morels—a.k.a. morchella, sponge mushrooms, sheep’s stomach, merls, merkels, hickory chickens, and molly moochers—hold a poetic mystique for chefs, diners, and foragers alike.

My call to the wild began with an e-mail from Reed, better known as Qubais (pronounced koo-base) Reed Ghazala, a 58-year-old resident of Pleasant Ridge and bona fide electronic wizard who is lauded as the father of circuit bending (see “The Circuit Bender,” by Brent Donaldson, Cincinnati Magazine, October 2010), a technique of musical engineering that centers on experimental electronic instruments. Reed—who has designed such instruments for musicians the world over, including The Rolling Stones, Peter Gabriel, and Tom Waits—extended an invitation to join him and his merry band of free-spirited neo-pagans collectively known as Pink Moon to hunt morels. Tom Waits was mentioned as a possible participant. His missive was hard to resist:

…All the rain will make this a fantastic year. Flora and fauna will all be exploding into life. EVERY ’shroom report I get is stupendous. Could be a bumper crop in our valley this time. Will be a great hunt, in a real rainforest wonderland. Can’t wait.

Pink Moon is the folkloric name given to April’s full moon. It falls shortly after the spring equinox, marking the end of winter, and for a dozen or so of Reed’s close friends, the celebration of morel season. Within the fungi kingdom’s tens of thousands of species, morels rank second only to truffles as the most highly coveted of the edible sort, inspiring cooks with their meaty texture and earthy, musty, nutty flavor. A harbinger of spring, they first appear as trees begin to bud, when “oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear,” as the old saying goes, and wildflowers such as Dutchman’s Breeches, trillium, and ground phlox begin to bloom. Morels are discriminating; provisory; requiring a confluence of variables (air and ground temperatures, rain level, soil structure) to unite for an optimal bounty to emerge in a very short, three-week growing season. It’s this brief tentative appearance that shrouds the hunt for morels in mystery and promotes secrecy among their hunters.

…As is the tradition, if you’re hunting with me, I ask you to take the merl oath. Drag this animated gif into your browser icon, and place your hand on the throbbing morel. Speak out loud the oath of secrecy: “Morchella, Morchella, Fungi Supreme. My tongue is tied where you are seen.”

I’m totally down with this. More e-mails follow: photos of morels, photos of circuit bending instruments, weather reports, the latest Pink Moon logo—a trippy illustration merging a pink moon and a blue peace sign and white doves and…

…This year [it’s] Peter Max. My theme artist is always someone I’d like to see at Pink Moon, but whose art alone I gotta settle for. With a twist here and a title there I Moonify these works, retaining the artist’s style as best as I can. My purpose here is to include their presence in our celebration, forwarding their sensibilities into a synchronous contemporary experience.

Though Reed has been morel foraging since the 1970s, it wasn’t until the late ’90s that he officially formed Pink Moon, a weekend retreat of activities focused around morels, wine, cooking, and the deep-forest jam. The first invitations were enclosed in 12-inch black tubes, the ends painted with the pink moon, a design that subsequently aroused suspicion at the post office for resembling a homemade bomb. Nowadays invitations arrive via e-mail with requests for “something cool” to add to the “Pink Moon Surprise Bags”—a pink feather, pink pencil, a stick of incense, and “odd objects that should never have been pink to begin with,” Jim adds. There are games, a waffle competition, and an annual secret guest contest. The winner receives one of Reed’s circuit bending instruments.

…The secret guest contest launches tonight! First clue is in the next e-mail. The idea is to try to guess who’s under the psychedelic sheet at Pink Moon brunch. This is usually a cardboard cutout of a human. But there’s also been a robot, a Gorgon, and George W. Bush. Observe clues as individual jigsaw puzzle pieces. Be prepared for arcane hints, strange orbitals, and eccentric parallels. Like Jim’s poetry.

When Jim Reidel isn’t translating German novels, he writes poetry. The published sort. Social commentary designed to “enlighten and trouble in the same breath.” He wears the mantle of a poet/scholar: pale skin; small, round, vintage-style black eyeglasses; a somewhat pinched expression of permanent reflection. Except for a 10-year hiccup, he and Reed have been friends since around the time they each attended Woodward High School together. He’s been a Pink Mooner for six years. “We’re round pegs in a square peg society,” he says of the group.

Things are getting auspiciouser and auspiciouser in the realm of the Pink Moon:

Morel report: Rain and heat every day until Pink Moon. YES! Perfect for morels.

Unfortunately, I’m going to miss the Pink Moon weekend scheduled for the end of April. Apparently, so is Tom Waits. (Too bad. It would have been cool to hear him screech-sing a version of “Filipino Box Spring Hog” in the deep woods.) Instead, we agree to meet the following Thursday. Reed sends directions to Red River Gorgeous Cabins: a traditional list of roads, mileage, and landmarks, plus a map drawn Ghazala-style. Meaning, one man’s spilled ink is another’s opportunity for a map.

It turns out to be a beautiful day for an adventure. I welcome the drive south, solitary except for the company of my iPod. The horizon turns shades of dark amethyst as I hit the Mountain Parkway and the foothills of Daniel Boone National Forest.

Bring boots, rain jacket, open knit bag for collecting (like a soft material onion bag so spores can escape), ingredients for a sauté (I will have pan, spatula, chopsticks), a loaf of bread to warm fireside. Tell me if you need a corkscrew.

I pull into the gravel driveway, and after a few minutes of connecting, Jim and Reed and I pile into a pickup truck and drive along several winding roads I’m instructed to forget. (No problem.) We park the truck off the side of the road, and hike into the woods.

Prolific in the Midwest, morels typically pop up around stream banks and near hardwoods—ash, elm, and sycamores in particular. They live in symbiotic relationships with older trees whose decaying root systems provide an available food source. Their alien features—a phallic, honeycombed cap atop a sturdy beige stalk—make them easily identifiable and a good introduction to mushroom foraging.

The forest’s beauty is imposing, its primeval charm intact. There are no trail signs, no facilities, just a magnificent canopy created by pine, maple, ash, hemlock, and poplar trees above, a mosaic carpet of their petals below. Backcountry skills are required to navigate it. We’ve hiked a half-mile in when I spot two distinctly elongated caps poking from a blanket of winter’s foliage, standing sentry near delicate crested dwarf iris. There’s a childlike buzz to the discovery—similar to hunting for Easter Eggs—that evokes a squeal of delight and a rush towards the duo. Reed tempers my zeal with instruction for careful removal. Don’t yank. Twist gently. Give thanks.

We continue on, following a stream banked by a steep forested slope and lichen-covered rock while I’m schooled in morel folklore (note to self: if you want to insult a woman in Germany, call her a morel); the importance of returning mushroom spores to their natural habitat (each cap contains millions of spores that become airborne, hence the mesh bag); and how to tell the difference between the real morels (pitted and ridged cap connected to a hollow stem) and the sometimes poisonous false morels (a wrinkly brain-like mass and webbed inner stem), which contain hydrazine toxins (rocket fuel). This means, of course: Do not pick a false morel.

I find another true morel on a bank, more tucked into the wet rot of a log. We leave some, as dictated by the “see three, take one” morel precept. Our gaze is so fixated on the ground, it’s occasionally necessary to stop and look skyward to get our bearing. By the time we reach our camp, we’ve collected nearly 20 beautiful specimens, begging to be cooked.

A poet, a wizard, and a food writer go to the woods to hunt morels. The poet hunts them to get away from the writing of poetry, to unblock what is blocked off in language by appreciating nature at ground level, by searching for patterns. He calls it “eye yoga” and describes it thusly:

The forest has no words. Just leaf litter, shadows, dappled light. And if you look too closely, the morels aren’t there. You have to step back, breathe, relax, center. Often there is more than one then.

The wizard goes to the woods with a library and a microscopic eye, because to him the world is so darn fascinating that he is ever ready to examine it. He knows to spread the spores as he travels, and believes that acclimating others to the woods is good for both people and the forest. He calls it “momentary oneness”:

The tribal thing that I am—that we all go back to—feels close. I am never more comfortable than when nestled in tree roots, journal at hand, small fire by my side. The springtime morel bloom signals renewal while gently clocking the cycles of our lives.

I went to the woods to hunt an elusive treasure, to chase a unique flavor. I went because I am consumed with curiosity about our relationship to food, and because—let’s face it—there was the possibility of hunting a spongy mushroom under a pink moon with Tom Waits.

A poet, a wizard, and a food writer go to the woods to hunt morels because morels represent possibility. The poet hunts inspiration. The wizard hunts the juncture where chance becomes intent. The food writer hunts the perfect edible moment.

Illustration by Serge Seidlitz
Originally published in the April 2012 issue.

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