IRVINE — "I found one!" Jen Collins called out from the top of the ridge. Her fellow mushroom hunters groaned and giggled.
By family tradition, Collins' older sister, Joan Murphy, is supposed to find the first tasty morel mushroom each spring when they hike into the woods to search for them. But within a few minutes, Murphy had found one, too.
Collins and Murphy are fifth-generation 'shroom hunters. They have walked these hills each spring since their father, Dennis Stacy, brought them and their five siblings here as teenagers more than 40 years ago. Now, they hunt mushrooms with their children and grandchildren, and many other Estill County families do the same.
"We know when it's spring we go mushroom hunting," Collins said. "It's just a way of life."
This local tradition prompted Irvine to start the Mountain Mushroom Festival in 1991. About 20,000 people are expected April 26-27 for the 24th annual festival, which will include a mushroom market and cooking demonstrations.
The festival also incorporates another local specialty: Kentucky agates. The gemstones are found only in Estill and parts of five surrounding counties. There will be public agate hunts along creek beds April 22-24 and an agate, gem and mineral show in town April 22-27.
Festival activities include a pancake breakfast, tractor and car shows, a parade and the annual Fungus 5k race. Festival admission is free. (More information: mountainmushroomfestival.org.)
"We're trying to educate, and promote our cultural heritage," said Francine Bonny, the festival's chairman. "We want to highlight what is unique about our home and share it with visitors."
Morel, or Morchella, mushrooms are difficult to cultivate, but grow wild in deciduous forests around the world. They can be found across Kentucky and surrounding states. The mushrooms start popping up in late March or early April, when overnight temperatures have warmed and there has been enough rain to dampen the soil.
A morel looks like a sponge or honeycomb and is hollow. Old-timers called them "dry-land fish" because they taste a little fishy. Hunters must take care not to confuse them with "false morels" — mushrooms that look more like brains than sponges and are poisonous.
Estill County hunters rarely find more than one or two morels growing together. The mushrooms range in color from black to golden and are often only one-to-three inches long. It takes skill and experience to see them poking up among the dead leaves and wildflowers on the forest floor.
The sisters took me mushroom hunting last Thursday, along with Collins' son, Michael Collins Jr., president of the Estill County Chamber of Commerce, and Bonny, the festival chairman.
We drove up into the hills outside Irvine to their favorite spot, then hiked down one ridge and up another. Every few minutes, each hunter would stop to carefully scan the forest, poking a walking stick at fallen leaves when they thought they saw something — a mushroom or a snake.
When a morel was found, it was picked with a pinch of the stem. Hunters take care to protect the roots so they will produce more mushrooms. They carry picked mushrooms in a net shoulder bag on the theory that loose spores will fall off as they walk, increasing the chances of more mushrooms in the forest in the future.
When the hunters found leaves that looked disturbed, it often meant wild turkey had been there. "Deer and turkey both like mushrooms," Collins said. "So you have to beat them to 'em."
After a couple of hours, the hunters had found 28 small morels. That explains why they sell for about $40 a pound at the festival's mushroom market. I hadn't found a single one. I'm sure it was because I was too busy taking pictures. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.
The sisters were kind enough to give me a handful of their morels, plus cooking instructions. When I got home, I cleaned and sliced them in half, soaked them in saltwater, rolled them in cornmeal and a little flour and fried them in butter. Delicious!
The next time I go mushroom hunting, I will leave my cameras at home. I want to focus on dinner.