I pulled the same stunt last year. Got all worked up by my online pals down in P-Town who were finding big, beautiful specimens of Morchella esculenta, the yellow morel, along the brushy banks of the Columbia and Willamette rivers.
Unfortunately, yellows are hardly present up here in the Puget trough, possibly because of the carnage inflicted by the Vashon Glacier 15,000 years ago, when its recession (oops, bad word) left soil deposits here that don’t agree with this particular species of morel. (That’s my theory, at least.) Instead, most of us Seattlites suffering from morel madness jump over the mountains to scour river channels and ridges east of the Cascades, where we find black morels.
But it’s still cold over there! As I discovered Wednesday. Lotsa snow left on Snoqualmie Pass, and the cottonwoods are just starting to bud out, looking redder than green at 70 mph on the Mass Pike…er…I-90. They say it’s time to hunt morels when the cottonwood leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear. Booshoo! (as we say in underage company). This is a mouse’s ear ^^. We’ve still got two weeks before this area produces.
Another indicator is our lovely wake-robin, the western trillium. These were just starting to bloom, only a few up that I saw. Spring is barely sproinging in these parts. The ground looks matted, like it just woke up after a rough night. Cold winds whistled up the river, sending yellow-rumped warblers into cartwheeling feats of treehopping.
All I found were a bunch of these here false morels, Verpa bohemica, a good warmup drill but hardly worth the drive. I picked ’em anyway. Maybe this would be the year I finally screw up the courage to eat the verpas. Some folks do. Some folks love ’em. Me? I don’t like the idea of ingesting anything spiked with rocket fuel. That’s right, false morels, snowbank morels, and other relatives of the true morels are known to contain a compound called monomethylhydrazine, a component of rocket fuel.
Apparently this compound has been implicated in a few deaths. There’s a story of a French chef keeling over dead in his kitchen simply because he was overtaken by the fumes of false morels sautéing in a pan. Some have suggested the harmful toxins are more prevalent in certain regions, that our western North American varieties don’t have the same levels as elsewhere. Others have said phooey altogether, that there will always be a few people who are allergic to wild foods and there’s nothing to be done for it so eat up. If you’re worried, they say, cook your false morels outside where ventilation isn’t a problem. My question: rocket fuel notwithstanding, can they be worse than a box of Fruity Pebbles?
By the way, you can tell a verpa from a true morel in two main ways: the cap margin of the verpa doesn’t connect to the stem, instead hanging unattached like a skirt; and if you slice it open lengthwise, you’ll see a bunch of cottony stuff inside, while true morels are completely hollow.
Meanwhile, my stash of verpas continues to taunt me. They’ve been sitting in a bowl on the kitchen counter for two days laughing at me. It’s like a bowlful of frightening clowns.
So here’s what I want to know: Do you eat false morels? Do you know someone who does—or won’t? Answer the poll at the top right of the page and pass it along to your friends.
Predators and Prey
During my scouting mission I saw two small herds of elk. They were feeding in hidden meadows along the flood plain and quickly retreated to heavier timber as I got closer. On my way out of the woods I came upon a probable cougar kill: just a couple of gnawed hooves left over and thatches of hair. I looked around, over my shoulder. A scene like this never fails to register with me. Creepy-crawlies down the spine, lodging in the pit of my stomach. The modern mind can rationalize its continued existence with statistics and probabilities all it wants; the reptilian brainstem still knows there are eyes beyond the ring of firelight, eyes and sharp teeth and claws.
Reminds me of Doug Peacock’s great aphorism of the wild: “It ain’t wilderness unless there’s a critter out there that can kill you and eat you.”
That’s cold comfort in your sleeping bag at night—but I wouldn’t have it any other way.