For those of us living in the Kickapoo Valley, the long-awaited morel mushroom season is here. A spring favorite, morels are a culinary delight enjoyed by many.
Readstown resident Marian Ahnen has been buying morel mushrooms for 30 years out of her home. When she moved to Readstown from Mt. Sterling in the 50s though, she and her husband didn’t even know the tasty fungus existed.
"My husband heard some people talking about them at the bar," Marian recalls. "And, he knew a place on Sugar Creek full of butternut trees, so we took our kids out there and found eight paper grocery bags full and took them back to the bar and sold them for a dollar a bag, you can imagine what they would go for now!"
Marian’s husband Norm started their business in the 80s. Beginning as fur buyers, the Ahnens would have some sellers come in with wild-harvested ginseng and eventually mushrooms. Marian continues to buy wild-crafted ginseng during the fall season.
"The first year, we only bought (morels) on one day. It was May 12," Marian said. "Men were coming in with black plastic garbage bags full of mushrooms, we bought 2,000 pounds—we only knew one buyer, we had to have been crazy. I'll never forget it."
Marian sells her morels to buyers primarily from Indiana, who place orders for roadside stands, grocery stores, restaurants and friends. Buyers travel to Readstown for anywhere between 25 to 400 pounds of the coveted spring fare. Although Marian has been buying for 30 years, Mother Nature still throws some curve balls with her fungi.
"I learn something new every year about them," Marian observed.
Morels are prized by gourmet cooks, particularly for French cuisine. Although they are versatile in cooking, the regional favorite way of consumption seems to be rolling them in flour and frying them in butter until they are crisp.
"Every Mother’s Day, my kids would have me fry up about two ice cream buckets full and they always smell so good," Marian remembers. "My husband would eat fried mushrooms and bread and butter for every meal."
Although we know them in the Kickapoo simply as morels, these mushrooms, which grow throughout the country and the world, go by many other names—such as dry land fish, hickory chickens (as they are known in Kentucky), merkels and molly moochers. Some even call them miracles, based on a story of how a mountain family was saved from starvation by eating morels.
This year, the season has started a bit late, according to Marian. She made her first purchase on Monday, May 12, just like the first year she and her husband bought morels.
"Usually there is about two really good weeks," Marian explains. "They're just beautiful now."
Recent studies have found that there are more than a dozen distinct groups of morels in North America. Studies also suggest that there are more than 60 species of the Morchella, or morel worldwide.
Humans are not the only ones who seek out these fungi for food. Black morels are known to be consumed by grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park, and local hunters have reported taking their dogs out on the search only to have them eat the mushrooms quicker than they can be picked.
Most commonly found under dead or dying elms in this area, morels are also known to be found under butternut, apple and cottonwood trees as well. It has also been found that morels may grow abundantly in forests, which have been burned by forest fires. The growth appears to be related to both the death of the trees and the removal of the organic material from the forest floor. Those hunting the wild mushroom covet these areas and it is also popular in Finland to practice a slash-and-burn method to encourage mushroom growth.
Although it is attempted, growing morels in a commercial mushroom growth setting is rarely successful and the industry relies heavily on the harvest of them in the wild.
Morels can be stored long term, with the most popular method being dried. You can also freeze morels after steaming or frying them. Canning is not recommended though, as the high pressure and temperature is said to destroy much of the nutty flavor.
Care is to be taken while gathering morels to avoid taking its counterpart, false morels. The false morel is a poisonous fungus that can cause severe gastrointestinal upset and loss of muscular coordination, if eaten in large quantities or over several days in a row. The name false morel is given to a number of Ascomycota fungi, which bare a resemblance to true morels. Key features of false morels in comparison to true morels are it is often a more wrinkled or "brainy" cap in comparison to the edible true morel type, which has more honeycomb or net like features than false morels. False morels will also contain a cotton-ball looking substance inside their stem, while regular true morels are hollow inside the stem. False morels are often brown or reddish in color.
True morels can also be problematic for some, as they contain small amounts of hydrazine toxins. These toxins are removed through cooking so it is advised to never consume them raw. Additionally, morels can also be found growing in old apple orchards that may have been treated in the past with the insecticide lead arsenate. This may lead to the morels accumulating levels of toxic lead and arsenic that are unhealthy for human consumption.
Cleaning morels for consumption is an important factor as well. Prompt cleaning helps prevent mold growth and dampness within the mushroom. Typically before cooking, it is common to cut the morel in half lengthwise and soak it to remove any insects or debris.
Ahnen also has her sellers clean their mushrooms before she will accept them for purchase.
"I have all of them pretty well trained to bring them to me clean," Marian noted. "Once they get the dirt in them its hard to get it out."
Marian explained this was a problem in that first year, when she and her husband purchased the two thousand pounds. Not having them cleaned by the sellers led the couple to sort through every single mushroom and prepare them for resale. These days, Marian has a polite sign hanging in her garage office that reminds the mushroom hunters to please bring them in free of debris.
"I'm scared to death of those wet mushrooms, they just don’t keep," Marian said of mushrooms coming in during particularly damp conditions.
A few hunters trickled into her home last weekend with clean mushrooms in bread sacks ready for sale. Many were longtime sellers to Marian Ahnen.
"It's kind of depressing to go to so many trees and not find a single one," one hunter bantered.
"A lady came in here with ten pounds she found under one tree," responded Marian.
"If only we could find those trees all day," the mushroom hunter replied.
Marian purchases mushrooms currently at $18 per pound, but she noted the price could vary anywhere between $16 to $20 per pound depending on the supply.
"When they're abundant the price goes down, but we always have a buyer, with the cost of gas, most buyers make the trip for large amounts, so if they can get them in here I can sell them," Marian observed.
Open Monday through Saturday, Marian puts in long hours from about 8 a.m. until 9 p.m. buying and selling morels, taking some time off on Sunday and not opening until 1 p.m., which allows her to go to church. Yet, it is a labor of love for Marian, who says she enjoys being able to meet and talk with the mushroom hunters.
"I'll keep doing it as long as I am able," Marian says. For those with morels to sell, Marian Ahnen’s residence and office is located at 209 South 4th Street in Readstown.