Saturday, May 13, 2006

My favorite mushroom story

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If you recognize the mushrooms pictured, it's a good chance you know exactly what a treat a plate of these woodland delicacies can be; sliced thick, sauteed in just a tiny bit of butter, served up with fresh caught trout and tender spears of asparagus, preferably the wild-picked variety.

If you don't, then count yourself alongside an old friend of ours, who shall simply be known here as Mark. Some of our mutual friends decided that part of Mark's mission on earth was to give his friends an endless supply of great "Mark stories." He never let us down in that regard. My husband first met Mark when he was still living in Stevens Point, where both of them were working poor college student jobs at a private institute for kids with developmental disabilities. Both Mark and my husband followed this institute to LaCrosse, where I later joined them, working in the same place.

Mark was a confirmed bachelor in every sense of the word. A visit to Mark's house in a town even smaller than the one where we live was always an adventure of sorts. Being as much, if not more so, an outdoorsman as my husband, one never quite knew what to expect, especially in his garage. At one point, Mark and my husband, both historical re-enactors, got the idea in their heads to try brain-tanning a deer hide. Mark had a hide and the brains, literally, to get them started: or so he'd thought. Heading into that garage, he reached into his fishing boat, extracting a curled up deer hide with the hair still attached. He threw it onto the garage floor, flipping it hide side out, revealing, to my horror, hordes of squirming maggots! I have a pretty strong stomach for such things, but it was a struggle. Not for Mark. He simply grabbed a carton of salt--why would that be so handy in his garage?--sprinkled it liberally onto the hide, picked up a wriggler and commented philosophically, "You know, some people would be grossed out by this, but in the end, we're all going to be eaten by these guys--plus, they make great bait!"

As if that weren't enough, Mark reached into a small refrigerator, where he claimed to have the deer brains set aside for this project. As the door opened, I had a lolling deer head peering out at me, tongue frozen in time!

Yes, Mark provided us with many an entertaining, if gross, story. One May morning at work, he was talking over coffee about this "disgusting mushroom" he'd pulled out of his compost pile. He said, "It looked like brains, I didn't dare touch it, I was afraid it would drip toxins all over me!"

"Brains?" I asked hopefully. Others sitting with us showed equal interest in his find. A coworker said, "Mark, those are really good!"

He didn't believe me, and the next day appeared at work with an empty coffee can, no doubt pulled from his endless supply in that incredible garage, containing a clump of soil and a perfect specimen of morel mushroom. He still refused to take a chance on eating one, so we invited him for dinner, provided he bring a few more of them along.

That evening, a gracious bachelor used to Dinty Moore straight from the can, enjoyed a home-cooked meal, watching with some trepidation as I consumed a healthy serving of sauteed morel.

It was all I remembered; rich, earthy, the flavor of the woods itself.

I didn't die. I didn't even get ill. Instead I was transported straight to a cool woodland glen, hearing the birds. He had to give it a try.

From that point forward, Mark became THE expert on morel mushrooms. Didn't matter. I knew who his teacher had been.

A couple years later, graduate school took Mark to Tennessee, but not before leaving us with several more stories, as well as a few new ones when he stopped for a visit one year after moving away. It's morel season here in Wisconsin, and hopefully we'll be enjoying our private stock once again very soon. I won't tell you where our reserve is located. No one tells. I will tell you, that every year when we enjoy their heady flavor, we always take a moment to think of our friend Mark, mushroom expert and provider of great stories to tell. If by chance you find this post and read it Mark, email us, okay? We need a few new stories! Stop by!


At 3:33 PM, Blogger knitsteel said...

My husband just cooked my first morels for me tonight. They were good, although not quite the sensory experience that you described.

At 2:55 PM, Blogger Jane Swanson said...

My husband JUST came home from turkey hunting with his pockets full of morels!! His gracious hosts scrambled some eggs and sauted some morels for his breakfast and he was on cloud nine!
Small world, eh?

At 10:22 AM, Blogger Endment said...

wonderful - hope you share more stories soon...
Would love to find some morels in our woods...


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