THREELINKS — This past Sunday, as temperatures rose into the balmy 80s, Anthony Davidson and his father, Armel, went morel hunting.
Morels are edible mushrooms with crinkly, wrinkly caps that look like sponges. They sprout through the drab litter of last year's fallen leaves, so it takes a good eye to spot them.
Hunting morels in April is as much a springtime rite for many rural Kentuckians as Keeneland is for lovers of Thoroughbred racing.
"I remember going with Mom and Dad and Papaw Davidson, and Dad's three sisters," said Anthony, a Lexington resident who offers financial management and investment planning to clients. The season to find morels "only lasts for two or three weeks a year, so you have a real small window of opportunity to get out there and find them.
"When you see things start getting green ... and everything is fresh and new, then you know it's time to get out there and start looking," Anthony added. "It's a unique, nostalgic feeling, too, because it's something I know my family has done for over 100 years, for sure."
Armel, a retired factory worker, said his father would take him and his older sister mushroom hunting.
"There was an old apple orchard real close to where we lived and, every year, Daddy would know the time of year to go to this old orchard, and we'd usually find quite a few there," Armel recalled. "From that time on, I was really hooked on mushroom hunting. I still love it. Mushroom hunting was one of the special times of the year."
Mushrooms have specific habitat preferences and only grow when their needs are met. Veteran hunters say you can find morels near dead or dying elm trees. The Davidsons say the number of morels they find varies from year to year. Armel said he has found as many as 75 in one patch, but that was more than 10 years ago. The family's normal hunting spots yielded no mushrooms at all last year.
"My sister found over 60 three years ago," Anthony Davidson said.
Anthony, Armel and a first-time mushroom hunter spent three hours looking for morels on private land near the Jackson-Rockcastle County line. The Davidsons scanned the ground along a burbling creek and the edges of woodlands with poplar, oak and sycamore trees. Tiger swallowtail butterflies flitted up and down the creekside, and wildflowers such as yellow trout lilies and red trillium brought small splashes of color to the dusty brown duff of the forest floor.
Morel hunting was not as strenuous as looking for ginseng, another wild plant that the Davidsons seek in late summer. Ginseng hunting can mean scouring steep hillsides and ravines that will leave your feet, calves and hips aching. By contrast, this morel hunt was a leisurely walk in the woods.
"It's good exercise," Armel said, "and you don't know what you're going to see. Deer. Turkey. Snakes."
Sunday's haul totaled nine morels, which the Davidsons found to be disappointing. About half of those were found in a sweet spot near the rocky bottom of a wooded knob. And one morel was indeed found near an elm.
Once Armel had pinched and twisted each little mushroom from the ground, he put his finds in a red-mesh onion bag.
"The theory is that you should put them in a mesh bag so the spores fall out (to the forest floor) and more will come back in the future," Anthony said. "That's what I've always heard."
Back home, Mabel Davidson — Armel's wife and Anthony's mother — washed the mushrooms in water. Then, taking a knife, she sliced and halved each mushroom lengthwise. She washed them again in a water-and-salt solution to rid them of any insects or other little critters that might be hiding in the morel wrinkles. Normally she would let the morels soak for a while but, for the convenience of a guest, she accelerated the process.
She then put the mushrooms in a resealable plastic sandwich bag filled with about a cup of cornmeal and flour mix, and shook the bag until each was well-covered.
She then fried them in olive oil in an iron skillet and added two tablespoons of butter, plus salt and pepper, as they sizzled. As they turned golden brown, she turned each piece over with a fork to fry on the other side. It took about 5-10 minutes to fry them all.
Morels are sometimes called "dry-land fish," and the cornmeal breading added to their resemblance in taste to fried fish. Mabel said she and Armel typically eat them with a side salad. She estimates that she's prepared them this way for 40 years.
"No other mushroom tastes like they do," Armel said.