Late winter weekends doused in rain. Cool temperatures that continued long after the Carolinas should have been blushing with sun. Storms that threatened even Easter weekend. Those normally would have been weather events that soured my mood, but not this year. This year, I read them as the perfect ingredients for the magical springtime arrival of the morel mushroom.
Too early, I began walking the floodplain forests, not seeing the prince of mushrooms yet, but admiring the “tea-kettle, tea-kettle” call of Carolina wrens and the liquid song of male cardinals.
Slowly, the tell-tale signs began to appear one by one: The unfurling of the mayapple’s umbrella leaves, the first fiddleheads of emerging ferns, the spattering of lavender blossoms across the redbud’s branches.
I trained my eyes on the leaf litter, scanning for the morel’s wrinkled cap. But though I was too early see any, that almost-daily walk in the woods meant I was on hand for other sightings: Box turtles, the male decked out in mating colors of bright orange. Shy woodland flowers such as wind anemone, bloodroot, and pawpaw all making their debut. And a herd of whitetail deer, upwind of me and unconcerned about my presence.
And then, one afternoon on a half-hearted foray with my children, I was stooped over, examining a patch of violets when my son yelled out from a nearby thicket: “Mama! Mama!” He came out bearing fat yellow morels, Morchella esculenta, in each hand. My daughter and I jumped to join him, and in no time, we hit a morel mother lode: Nests of the mushrooms beneath the spreading boughs of tulip poplar and ash trees, so many we filled two canvas bags before an hour was out, the mushrooms’ musky perfume wafting upward each time we opened the sacks.
The utter grace of this gift made the three of us laugh, me all the more because I alone in my family like eating mushrooms. For the kids and my husband, the lure of foraging for morels is just the thrill of the hunt, the moment when thrashing through poison ivy and watching for snakes results in a precious find. Each time I draw in my breath in surprise, and freeze, as if the pitted caps of the delicious mushrooms might scurry away from me like rabbits.
The mushrooms filled paper bags in our refrigerator, and we ran the dehydrator for hours to dry morels for later use. I threw some on a homemade white pizza, but most I enjoyed straight: Rolled in flour with salt and pepper and fried in butter, a simple preparation that lets the mushrooms’ wild, deep flavor shine.
Morels are the pinnacle of my foraging year. But the truth is, the two weeks I found mushrooms were only the final lines of a story I and my family had been enjoying for weeks – the story of unfurling spring, of our own corner of creation born yet again, all around us.