Casper Cox is a forager. He and a small group of friends entrusted with the locations of his secret bounties, trudge through local woodlands just as the trees wake from their winter slumber. He and his band of shroomers canvass the forest floor in tireless pursuit of the elusive, enigmatic morel - an edible mushroom that emerges from the depths of the Earth in the springtime and makes Cox and company's mouths water with culinary desire.
"I've hunted morels for about 20 years," explains Cox, a Chattanooga naturalist and graphic artist who learned the art of hunting morels from his friend, Earl Rothberger. "Earl took me out and guided me close to a lone morel. After scanning the leaves for several minutes, I finally gave up, and Earl pointed it out to me. There it was - about three inches high with a wrinkled, honeycomb cap. It was like finding an Easter egg, and that's how it all started for me. Now I see them in my dreams."
Cox is a self-described mycophile - a person who enjoys hunting and consuming edible mushrooms, and he's not alone. Thousands of people of all ages and socioeconomic classes wander outside each year to seek out mushrooms. Cox has participated in fungi forays in Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina with both organized mushroom clubs and everyday fungi folks who hunt shrooms from time to time for the simple pleasure of being outdoors and experiencing something a little different.
Throughout Appalachia, morels are known by names such as dry land fish, molly moochers, hickory chicks, pine cone mushrooms, peckerheads and merkels - a name derived from the word, miracle. Indeed, it is a somewhat miraculous feat to find a morel.
"Morel hunting season here begins when the redbuds start blooming," Cox says. "There's nothing better than walking around in the woods in the early spring when the sun is shining and the trees and plants start pushing out green. And that's when morels fruit."
Cox explains that mushrooms - or toadstools - are actually the spore-bearing fruit bodies of underground fungi known as the mycelium. They have an important role in nature's ecosystem in that they digest their hosts while releasing rich nutrients into the surrounding soil. Their odd shapes, colors and textures and the fact that mushrooms seem to magically emerge overnight add to their mystique and feed the hunting fervor.
Although there are about a dozen species of morels (Genus: Morchella) indigenous to North America, only four or five are common in the Tennessee Valley.
"The very-difficult-to-see Black morels pop up first," Cox says. "They are about three to five inches high. Then the smaller Deliciosas - some people call them Tulip morels. Around Chattanooga, the big Yellow morels are the last to emerge. They are five to seven inches high and their caps are as big as my fist. We sometimes see Verpas and Half Frees here, as well."
WHEN TO GO
According to Casper Cox, morels usually shoot up around Chattanooga in March - around the time the Eastern redbud trees start blooming. The season ends when dogwood blossoms drop off branches like confetti.
WHAT TO TAKE WITH YOU
> Mesh bag or basket
> Small knife
> Walking stick
> Cell phone
> GPS device
> Insect repellant
> Mushroom field guide
> Tree field guide
> Experienced morel hunter
HOW TO DRESS
> Long pants
> Long-sleeved shirt
> Hiking boots
WHERE TO LOOK
> Around dead trees, specifically dead or dying elm trees and tulip poplars
> In old apple orchards
> In mature woodlands where soil is moist and ground is carpeted with dead leaves
> Old home sites
> Where you found morels the year before
> Near other morels
Mother Nature blessed most morels with an earthen-tone camouflage that makes them hard to spot amid the brown hues of leaves littering the ground from the fall. The caps are shaped a little like pine cones.
The locations of prime morel hunting grounds are closely guarded secrets among experienced morel hunters, but there are a few tips to help novices find these culinary treasures. First, look in mature deciduous forests, especially under dead or dying elm, poplar, sycamore, ash, apple and pear trees. Scan areas with rich, moist soil. And morels tend to grow in patches, so when you find one, squat down low and look around - there's bound to be more. Before you go on a foray, get permission from property owners and study photos of both true morels and false morels - a poisonous impostor with similar physical characteristics.
"If you split true morels lengthwise, you'll notice that the true morel is hollow on the inside," says Cox. "There's an old saying: If it ain't hollow, don't swallow. If there is any doubt whatsoever, don't eat it."
For morel lovers, the taste is well worth the effort. The flavor is best described as woodsy, earthy, organic and meaty - as if the morel absorbed all of the rich flavors of its woodland surroundings. Morels should be cooked before being eaten and although the Internet is filled with dozens of mouthwatering morel recipes, most mushroom enthusiasts prefer to simply sauté them with a sliver of butter.
For those suffering from mushroom fever, time is of the essence. Morel hunting season only lasts about two or three weeks. It ends about the time the dogwoods begin dropping their white blossoms. Perhaps the activity taps into some innate prehistoric desire to hunt and gather food from nature. Then again, maybe its appeal is simply because it's fun. Be warned - the quest to find these fascinating fungi and cook them up is addictive. Once you start searching for morels, you'll never stop.
SIMPLE SAUTEED MORELS
Since some mushrooms are poisonous, eating wild morels carries a serious skull-and-crossbones warning. First, make sure that you have correctly identified morels. Second, never eat raw morels. Finally, consume only a small portion of cooked morels the first time you try them to ensure that you are not allergic to them.
"Morels have such rich, robust flavor and such an interesting appearance," says Susan Moses, chef and co-owner of 212 Market. "We use them in seasonal dishes, and understandably, they are very popular with our customers. Morels are beautiful on the plate and go with anything - vegetables, fish, chicken and all sorts of meats."
For first-time tasters, Chef Moses suggests simply sautéing them.
Lift the morels out of the water bath and pat them dry. Cut large morels in halves or quarters. In a frying pan, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter over high heat. Add morels and stir continuously for 3 to 5 minutes. If desired, glaze with a splash of white wine. Transfer morels to a plate and sprinkle with sea salt and a grinding of black pepper. Enjoy!