Dry land fish...

A trio of otherworldly-looking wild morel mushrooms, obtainable in the mountain forests of West Virginia and Southwest Virginia, They bear no resemblance to store-bought culinary varieties.

Who isn’t ready for spring after the long hard winter we just had? As mountain people living here in the Appalachian Mountains we have many customs and traditions associated with a much awaited spring. Several of these traditions deal with food of course, and most of us know about the wonderful ramp, the wild leek that grows in our mountains that many of us seek out as a spring tonic.

No less a traditional and wild spring food is the elusive morel mushroom. The morel is a member of the genus Morchella and is a wild edible mushroom. Morels are easily recognizable by the honeycombed top of the mushroom that has a series of pits and ridges. Novice morel hunters are usually concerned about picking the wrong kind of mushroom and eating something that is poisonous. Morels really don’t look much like anything else, so chances for a mix up are slim.

Hunting and eating morels are a traditional rite of spring that many of us look forward to, and finding them may be as much fun as eating them. Walking the woods and fields on a glorious spring day, to feel the sun on your back and hear the chorus of songbirds (and maybe a turkey gobble), well, it may not get any better than that.

I wanted to get the word on morels from a real expert, so I spoke to Jack Cales from Summers County, West Virginia. Mr. Cales has seen his share of springs come and go and told me he has been hunting morels for most his life. “My earliest memory of hunting for muggins is when I was about seven years old”. Muggins? That’s right; muggins is what he called them. “We always called them muggins, I don’t know where that name came from,” he said. That is another thing about morels; they have many different and colorful names. In some areas you will hear them called molly moochers, muggins, miracles, or dryland shrimp and hickory chickens.

Jack Cales told me that his parents just basically took him and his siblings to the woods and started looking for morels. “Now there are certain places that are better than others,” he told me. “A stand of poplar trees may be the best, but also around wild cherry trees and close to an old apple tree could be good.” he said. Jack also noted that his family’s good places to find morels, the real honey holes, were kept secret from others and these patches were handed down through the generations.

Jack wanted me to know that there is proper way to harvest the morel once it is found. “Don’t pull it up by the root, pinch it off at the ground and leave the bottom of the mushroom in the ground. This way another mushroom can grow there,” he explained. He also told me that it is important that the mushroom hunter use a mesh type bag like an onion sack or a potato sack to carry his mushrooms in. He said that if you use a bag with holes in it the seeds (spores) will fall off the mushrooms in the bag and scatter onto the forest floor. This will ensure that you have future harvests.

As far as preparing and cooking morels, Jack told me that he rinses his take of mushrooms, and soaks them in water for a while in the refrigerator. Morels usually are home to some tiny insects and this will evict them. When the time comes to cook, Jack told me he usually makes an egg batter with corn meal, rolls the morels in this and then fries them. “Some people use flour, there are many ways to fix them,” he said. One thing Jack did point out is that the morels have to be cooked, you cannot eat them raw.

Rolled in flour, cornmeal, fried in bacon grease or sautéed in butter, they are delicious and like your first “mess” of ramps, feasting on morels is just another way to celebrate that spring is here. Get out there and look for some muggiwns, you might even hear a turkey gobble.

—  Contact Case at Larryocase3 @gmail.com

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