Joe Steele, a Man of Morels
I have spent countless hours in the woods in search of this elusive beast we call the Morel mushroom. The coveted creme de la creme of wild fungi that seems to motivate people, who do not consider themselves foragers, to scour the woods with a fine toothed comb every spring. Maybe it’s the fact that they are hard to find that presents people an alluring challenge. Maybe its the fact that they can fetch a whopping $50 per pound at a local farmer’s market. Whatever the reason, one thing is clear. When the first warm weather hits in spring, Hoosiers take to the woods.
Most, like myself, will have marginal, if any, success. I became enamored with foraging for many different types of wild fruits, vegetables, nuts, greens, and more for the simple reason that I got tired of leaving the woods empty handed after hours of unsuccessful searching for Morels. This isn’t just my own sad story. Many, if not most, of those folks that give Morel foraging a go will experience this disappointment. Yet we keep going back thinking our luck will change. Sometimes it does, but not always for the better.
There is a lot of conflicting information about when, where and how to find Morels. I have often found nice sections of woods with, what would seem to be, perfect conditions but no Morels to be found. Even places were there were dozens the year before may not produce a single mushroom under comparable conditions.
Really good morel mushroom hunters are just as fascinating, mysterious and hard to find as the coveted prize they seek. And just like the morel, they will rarely ever reveal any of their secrets. So just like a good Morel honey hole, when you find a good mushroom hunter, you keep going back to him.
To me that’s Joe Steele. When Morel season comes in his Facebook wall becomes inundated with picture proof his Morchellan trophies. When you ask locals for foraging advice they just shrug and say, “you oughtta ask Joe.” Whether the season comes in right on time or a month early like it did in 2012, you can bet he’ll have found the first ones of the season and you can likewise bet that, when the weather warms up, he’ll claim the last ones too.
After promising that I wouldn’t make him take me mushroom hunting or make him show me any secret spots, I finally got him to crack and start talking about Morel hunting, how he approaches it and what it means to him.
Warning: the following interview acknowledges the existence of genitalia and turtle orgies.
The Weed Eater: So, why did you start foraging mushrooms?
Joe: Some of my earliest memories are of hunting morels on my family’s property in Brown County, Indiana. My grandfather was born and raised in the area that is now Hoover Road and we would forage as well as hunt squirrels there. So, I started just to spend time with my dad and his dad and from there an addictive hobby was born.
The Weed Eater: Do you still hunt? Got any good recipes to share?
Joe: I haven’t hunted since high school. I got a great shot on a doe that year from a ways off and hit it just above the heart breaking its back. Walking up to a struggling, suffering animal spouting blood and breath through the hole really turned me off. I finished it off with a slug in the head, but I lost my taste for hunting then. Now, the last few years I have seriously considered getting back into it.
The Weed Eater: What is your earliest memory of eating a wild food?
Joe: My earliest memory of eating wild food would be eating clover in the yard. I have no idea on the technical terms of any of this, but before clovers would bloom, I would love to eat the shoots. They were tart and delicious. In my childhood yard, we had three varieties of apple trees, a cherry tree and a huge garden. So though it wasn’t exactly wild food, my yard was always a snack bar.
The Weed Eater: Yeah, I used to eat the little yellow flowers from sorrel plants I found in the school yard and at home. They were addictively tangy. So, just morels or do you eat any other wild foods?
Joe: During morel season, my wife and kids collect fiddleheads and wild onions. My wife sautéed them and served them as a side for our morel covered steaks. I also make homemade wine and around the fourth of July, there are multiple berry patches that give me gallons and gallons of blackberries and raspberries. Many of these patches, I located while morel hunting in the spring. I have collected chanterelles, but have not eaten them yet.
The Weed Eater: My kids love to go on berry picks with me but I can’t seem to get them interested in morel hunting. Is this something that your children are involved in? If so, what did you do to spark that interest and / or how did they make their own personal connection with morel hunting or even nature at large?
Joe: My kids love to go with me, but more for the fun in the woods. They climb trees, make forts, pick flowers and just enjoy nature. I usually take them on the easy hikes that lead to a known successful tree. That way we can hike, have fun, then I can say, “Now start looking, I think we are close to them.” Then they have that feeling of success when they trip over one!
The Weed Eater: Do you look for any certain types of conditions to search for morels? Type of terrain, canopy, soil conditions, etc?
Joe: These are some age old secrets, some from my grandpa and others just picked up over the years…
Once you start seeing dogwoods bloom, dandelions in the yard and mayapples in the woods, it’s time to hunt. I look for the weather. The ground temperature needs to be at or above 50 degrees for a few days in a row. Once you have that, go look. Last year, 2012, we had four days of 80+ heat the second week of March. For the first time, I found big yellers in March. Traditionally, for me, I find the first blacks around April Fool’s Day. Then that first week of April, I’m looking for blacks and early grays. Mid April, it is mainly greys, some big ole blacks and some early yellers. The end of April and the first week of May is when it is hot and I try to be out every day. Into May, you can only hope to find the random HUGE monster yeller.
Like I mentioned, ground temp sets it off, so early in the season, look on ridges and south-east facing hillsides, as these areas get the southern sun. An easy way to figure it out is to go foraging early in the morning. The area covered in light has the best chance of early morels. Once season gets going, you’re going to find them in valleys next to streams. Towards the end, go down further in hard to reach valleys and in pine thickets, as they are the coolest places.
As for trees, you need to study in the off season. If you do not know your trees, then you could wander in the woods your whole life and never find a morel. I still spend many hours in the woods with nothing to show for it… You will have to identify trees by their bark as there is very little canopy early in the season. Dead elms are the favorite of morels. Other trees that have a great relationship with morels are: tulip poplar, ash and old apple orchards.
Morchella are an underground web and the mushroom is merely the fruit on the limb. I don’t know the technical relationship, but it is my understanding that the aforementioned trees have something in them that the fungi can live symbiotically helping each other break down nutrients.
The Weed Eater: What are some things that foragers can do to help future harvests?
Joe: As I mentioned, Morchella are an underground fungus and the morels are simply the fruit on the limb. If you pull the morel from the ground, there is great chance you will break that limb, thus cutting off what could be feet or hundreds of yards of the fungi. I have always been taught to cut them off at the base, as this will not damage the extremities.
This may be rather controversial, but the following bit is well regarded as fact, but from my experience it is a bunch of hog wash…
The logic goes that morels being the fruit, means they bear the spores. If you find a morel late in its life, chances are the spores have been spread. But chances are you will find morels in all stages of their life, so it is important to carry them out of the woods with a mesh bag or onion sack as this allows any spores still with the morels to spread and fall as you are walking around.
For years, I used bread sacks or Wal-Mart bags. I have gone to many honey holes every year of my life and still can return the next year and will find them, regardless of how I carry them out. And spreading the spores has never led me to see new places to find morels. I’ve soaked my morels and poured the water in the same spot and have never had morels grow there.
So believe what you want, but I will say this: This year a buddy put on a huge morel fest in Bean Blossom (Indiana). He hired three of the most widely acclaimed morel specialists in the world to speak. All three contradicted each other over morel habitat, life cycle, spores, etc…
The Weed Eater: Do you feel there is any spiritual connection between you and mushroom foraging?
Joe: It is hard not to feel a spiritual connection. For one, it is a hobby I started with my father and grandfather. I found my first morels with them. When I am getting excited for the season, it is hard not to think about those two men. Plus, any time I spend in the woods, I feel a spiritual connection. Every season I have seen something remarkable, including huge buck skulls, bald eagles, fossils, glorious geodes, rare ducks, turtle orgies, puddles full of tadpoles, whistling pines, suicidal squirrels, and many others I can’t conjure. The woods are quiet and many places I go my cell phone won’t work, so it’s just me and God’s barely touched earth.
Then add to that, the rarity of finding a mess of morels. You hike and hike forever, then seemingly out of no where for no good reason, you walk upon a honey hole. It gives me chills.
The Weed Eater: Morel mushroom foraging is extremely popular around here. Even though there are thousands of wild edibles in our region, morels seem to carry a mystique that brings people to the woods consistently every year where other wild plants do not. What do you think is the difference? Are they just that tasty or is it something deeper?
Joe: For me, it is the difficulty and rarity of morels that is so attractive. Morels are only available for a very small window in early spring. Once they arrive, they are only fresh for less than a week. And they are scarce. There are 2000 acres behind my house that I often search and I have only found three honey holes of morels. Each of these spots are smaller than an in-ground pool. It is a huge challenge, both mentally and physically to find them.
Also, Morels are easily distinguishable to other mushrooms. There is little chance my kid will ever pick another type of mushroom and mistake it for a morel. (Yes, Verpas, but they aren’t so bad.) So I think that lends to its popularity. Add to that the great taste and the challenge, and I think that is why it is so popular.
For me, this is the year I start finding ginseng!
The Weed Eater: You mentioned verpas. People sometimes call this the false morel. My dad and his redneck buddies called them peckerheads. (not so ironically Verpa means erection in Latin). Some regard it as edible and some do not. I remember eating them as a kid and making no real distinction between them and morels. What are your thoughts on these mushrooms? Do you ever eat them?
Joe: I think Verpas are different than peckerheads, or their PC name, half-frees. Verpas have a cap that is like an umbrella and connect at the stem instead of being hollow like in morels. Peckerheads are morels that are just 90% shaft with a small head. They are almost always blacks, where verpas can come in differing shades. (I could be totally wrong, but that is how I have seen it.) I don’t like peckerheads. They dry out quickly and easily disintegrate when handling. Plus, the cap is the tasty part and with peckerheads, that is what they are at a loss for.
The Weed Eater: What is the best meal you’ve ever eaten and or prepared using morels?
Joe: The start of my fishing season usually coincides with the tail end of morel season, mid to early May. As the season comes to a close all that is left in the woods are the MONSTER yellers. There was a year I thought morels were done so I went bass fishing. I caught a nice mess, then decided to hit one last valley and hit a lick. Got home, breaded and fried everything in the same cast iron skillet. I may have been half drunk from a day of fishing, but that was the best morel meal I have had.
The Weed Eater: Any other recipes or tricks we should try?
Joe: My wife loves to simply sauté morels in butter with a little salt and pepper and pour them over her steaks. I love them cleaned, (cut down the middle to release bugs and dirt), dipped in a whipped egg bath, then rolled in Andy’s Cajun fish breading and then deep fried. The big yellers stay moist on the inside and then awesomely crunchy on the outside. I have buddies who put them in their vegetable stew stock or make cream of morel soup. I’m simple and like em fried!
Joe Steele is a hell of an impressive mushroom hunter. I am really grateful that he took the time to answer my questions with such enthusiasm, especially after I promised him I was buying the brews down at the Power House Brewing Company and never made good… but I am seriously going to do that soon. I learned a lot from his answers and, though I missed out on Morels this year, I’m anticipating a better season next spring using his tips. I’ll also be quite interested in hearing how his ginseng hunts go!