“Find the tree, find the morel,” says Sis Jenkins, a 40-ish woman who looks like Janis Joplin, had Janis Joplin lived into her 40s and dressed head-to-toe in camouflage. “You have to be fast and good with your eyes. And you have to have good luck.” Jenkins comes from a long line of foragers; she’s the perfect person to teach me a crash course in mushroom hunting. We’re in a yellow school bus in downstate Henry, winding our way toward the top-secret hunt site of the Illinois State Morel Mushroom Hunting Championships, when she tells me the secret: dead elm trees. Their decomposition triggers mycelium, a branching fungus that produces morels.
I have no idea what a dead elm tree looks like, or a live one, for that matter. I don’t expect to contend for the title. All I’m after are some free morels, those nutty-delicious gourmet mushrooms that I shell out 50 bucks for a pound at Whole Foods. Some mycological experts consider the Midwest the morel capital of North America, and every spring the honeycomb-capped treasures sprout throughout Illinois. But they’re around for only a few precious weeks, when pickers spring into action in search of Morchella esculenta and Morchella elata, respectively, cherished yellow and black varieties.
Many engage in these “Easter egg hunts for adults” not for glory or fun, but to sell to chefs, who salivate for the chance to showcase morels’ rich flavor. Joshua Linton, the chef at Ajasteak in River North, taps multiple morel sources, including a staff member’s brother who forages in Dubuque. Paul Virant of Vie often uses morels picked near his Western Springs restaurant.
In Henry, the hunt is the main draw for a weekend’s mushroom mania that features a mushroom auction, a mushroom museum, and a market full of mushroom-adorned walking sticks, hand-carved morel earrings, mushroom playing cards, T-shirts emblazoned with knee-slapping mushroom slogans (“You Had Me at Morel”). The framed photos of morels bathing in butter can only be described as “mushroom porn.”
The crew aboard our bus is equal parts aging hippies and extreme athletes. There’s Randy DeDecker, a quiet, ponytailed fellow who took the 2007 crown with a staggering 164 morels. To my right is Alex Babich, a confident 31-year-old whom everyone calls “The Mad Russian.” He’s tall and lean, wears a khaki bandanna on his head and carries a GPS device. Babich is so obsessed with morels that he follows them across the Midwest like a Deadhead trailing Jerry Garcia. He won Henry’s 20-inch wooden morel trophy in 2005.
After we arrive at the hunt site—part of Crooked Knee Golf Course—the event’s founder, a stocky bearded man named Tom Nauman, explains the official rules: You have two hours to forage over 280 acres . . . When you hear the siren, 30 minutes remain . . . After the final siren sounds, you’re penalized ten mushrooms for each minute you’re late . . . Anyone caught pooling ’shrooms will be disqualified. “And I suggest you stay at least an arm’s length away from your fellow competitors,” advises Nauman, who offers morel tours and morel-themed merchandise through his company, Morel Mania (morelmania.com). “But you might want to stay as far away as his mushroom stick.” In other words, poach someone else’s morels and you will be beaten.
Nauman says “Go” and 250 people run in every direction. I’m not sure which way to go, so I follow Babich. I keep pace for a minute; then he leaps a small creek and disappears into the brush like Rambo. After 20 minutes of wandering alone, poking at leaves with a branch, all I can think is: I wish I’d paid attention in Cub Scouts. I forgot my compass, so there’s a good chance I’ve been walking in circles. No morels. The only thing I do find is a rather ugly wild turkey, which emits a bloodcurdling gobble and hobbles away. It should be mentioned that I let out an embarrassing scream of my own.
I knew finding morels wasn’t going to be easy. In fact, several ’shroomers told me the maddening difficulty of spotting them is part of the appeal. People become addicted and can’t stop looking, like a gambler who keeps dropping one more quarter into the slot. Adding to the challenge: false morels, which resemble the real things but are poisonous. To spot true morels, I need to look for pits and ridges on the cap, as opposed to waves and wrinkles. Morels also should be completely hollow. But right now I’m concerned with disentangling myself from this briar patch.
Another half-hour goes by—still no morels—and finally I catch a glimpse of another human being: a guy in a hooded sweatshirt and a Bears hat just above me. “Have you found anything yet?” I yell, as I climb up the side of the ridge to meet him. He shrugs, and I keep walking. Several hours later, when he’s announced as the Grand Champion, I find out his name is Jason Marcum, of LeRoy, Illinois. “As soon as you walked away I found 50 under a tree,” he says. All told, Marcum gathered 172 morels. As for me, I’ll be stopping at Whole Foods on the way home.
Note: To sign up for a guided hunt in May with Tom Nauman, go to morelmania.com.
Illustration: Tonwen Jones, colagene.com