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Writing for the
Ann Arbor Observer

RoonQuest morel hunt in Michigan

RoonQuest

The mushrooms that bloom
in the Spring, tra la

(The director's cut, with added content that didn't fit in the printed version.)

By Mike Gould
May 2007

Every year around the second or third weekend in May, eager bands of Ann Arborites head upstate in pursuit of morels. The wrinkled, hard-to-find mushrooms grow in our city, but northern Michigan is the real mother lode. So every year my wife, Salli, and I join a group of six or eight "roons," as morel hunters are known, at an undisclosed location up north.

Mike and Morels

It all started when Salli's friend in Charlevoix, Caron, invited us to go hunting with her family thirteen years ago. We got hooked and haven't missed a year since. Prime morel gathering sites are double-secret mystery spots, so I'll just say that the base for our RoonQuest is a campground within easy driving range of our favorite hilly foraging area.

This is camping for grown-ups (although a few kids have made appearances over the years). We sleep in tents, eat on picnic tables under a giant tarp, and bathe using solar showers—big plastic water bags that heat in the sun. Over the years we have weathered temperatures in the nineties, ice in our morning dishwater, and five days of pouring rain. Hey, this is Michigan: Gore-Tex and tarps for rain, jump in the river for hot, wear multiple layers for cold. No problem.

White morels

We usually get up at the crack of 8 or 9 (or 10, depending on how badly the bourbon was punished the night before), eat breakfast, and head for the hills. Gathering wild mushrooms to eat can be dangerous— there are many varieties, and some are poisonous—but morels are ideal for novices because they have such a distinctive appearance. The only thing that looks like them (the false morel) is easily discerned and usually won't kill you if you eat it by mistake.

We see them in black, gray, and white; the black ones are usually smaller and come out first, followed by the grays and then the whites (if you find only white morels, you know the season is mostly over). When we find one, we cut it off above ground level, leaving the belowground part to (we hope) survive and fruit again in the years to come. We carry our prizes in mesh bags called roon sacks; the mesh allows spores to fall from the morels as we walk the woods, hopefully sowing future crops.

Brown morels

We generally return to camp around noon to sort, count, photograph, and clean our harvest. Cleaning means splitting the morels in two and rinsing them in water to remove the bugs and dirt. Then we dry them with a salad spinner, bag them, and put them in the cooler for dinner. After lunch, some hit hammocks to read, some nap, some head back to the sites for more pickin' and grinnin'. It all depends on weather, how the 'shrooms are "running," and the various energy levels involved.

Things pick up again at the 5 p.m. happy hour. This involves olives, cheese, wine, nuts, crackers, oysters (smoked and raw), and martinis (Grey Goose, up, garnished with blue cheese, olive, caper berry, or some combination of these). And of course we have our favorite appetizer: morels dredged in dry Drake's batter and sautéed in butter until crisp. Then the grills are fired and the designated cooks swing into their appointed tasks. We all bring our culinary chops and big boxes of supplies. Caron's husband, Bobby, the consummate hunter/gatherer/fisherman, comes armed with frozen walleye, perch, and venison. He also regularly finds twice as many morels as anyone else. Sometimes you go into the woods and find nothing but morel stumps, and you know Bobby's been by.

Drier filled with misc. morels

Salli likes to make stuffed morels—big white ones stuffed with smaller black ones and crab meat. Bobby cooks oysters Rockefeller on the grill. I cook morel burgers: patties with sautéed morels and onions on top, covered with melted Swiss cheese. After dinner, dishes (real ones, and metal tableware) are washed with the aid of our new propane-fired water heater.

Then the campfire is stoked up and potables appear. Tales are told, songs are sung, toasts are declaimed, and bottles are emptied. By 11 or 12 the crowd is down to a few diehards, and the camp quiets, except for the occasional loon or owl call. Sometimes we make our own owl calls and lure barred owls into camp. Their call goes "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?"

And then we'll sing a few verses of our camp song:

"The RoonQuest Rag"

Gather up your roon sacks, throw 'em in the Jeep;
We're going to the North woods, goin' pretty deep.
Gonna head for the hills where the fungi's found,
Gonna hunt 'em by the hundred, gonna pick 'em by the pound.
Tromp those woods
Get the goods
At the RoonQuest pickin' grounds.

Wayne with a great white, Zita got a brown,
Sandi found a cute one growing on the ground.
Mike found a dry one over by the stump,
Salli got grays all growing in a clump.
Under the tree
Save some for me
At the RoonQuest pickin' grounds.

Tim found one, growing from a hill — it
Was just the right size, Marty cooked it in a skillet.
There's gotta be a million of 'em hiding in the forest
Where they pop right up when you squeeze 'em on the spor—es.
Grab a winner
Cook it up for dinner
At the RoonQuest pickin' grounds.

Caron copped a dozen, John's got a bunch,
Sherry found a big one just before lunch.
Black ones, white ones, fat or narrow,
Here comes Bobby with a full wheelbarrow.
Climb the path
Do the math,
At the RoonQuest pickin' grounds.

Back in camp, the tarps are flappin,
The cooler's full and the folks are nappin'.
Getting ready for the search for the wily morel — a
'Nuther day in the woods: Make Mine Morcella!
Can't be beat
Let's eat
At the RoonQuest pickin' grounds.

You can take 'em you can bake 'em you can blend 'em into shakes,
You can fry 'em you can dry 'em you can dredge 'em up in Drake's.
Stuff the black ones in the white ones, cook ' em in a pan,
Let's pack 'em in a walleye, just because we can.
From the small to the humungous
There's a fungus here among us
At the RoonQuest pickin' grounds.

©2007-2010, Mike Gould. All rights reserved.

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