Field Guide: Wagyu of the Woods

Hunting morel mushrooms in Indiana

By Iliana Regan

Editor’s note: A dispatch from the spring woods—and from a chef lauded for what Esquire’s Jeff Gordinier called a “funky, foraged, magic-realist vision of the Midwest,” whose wildcrafting workshops are booked until 2022—seemed like an appropriate way to bring our celebration of Middle America to life.

To get the ball rolling, and because Iliana was willing to write about a few of her favorite spring edibles, this is going to be an unusual three-part dispatch—morels today, in our usual 8 a.m. Wednesday slot, violets Thursday morning at 8, and garlic mustard on Friday. We’re also making those first three newsletters available to the public. After this week, our regularly scheduled newsletters, new and archived, will be accessible only to paying subscribers. I hope Iliana’s example inspires you to find a patch of woods while spring is still in bloom. Don’t eat anything you aren’t sure about. Thanks for joining Midwesterner.

Don’t bother trying to grow morel mushrooms at home.

I’ve made attempts over the years. I’ve bought spores and spread them over fertile concoctions of manure, sand, soil, and wood chips. Nothing. I’ve tried grinding dried morels and sprinkling the powder into the woods. No response.

To stockpile morels, the wagyu beef of mushrooms, available only for a short time each year, you have to go looking. For many people, it’s a family tradition, powerful enough to lure even those who don’t like the taste of mushrooms into the spring woods.

Where I am now, about thirty miles north of Indianapolis, the season is just beginning, though it kicks off as early as February in the Southern U.S. It will continue up into Canada, where it will end in June.

The weather must be right, with at least a few nights above fifty degrees and daytime highs in the sixties or low seventies. A little bit of rain helps. We hunt near creeks, cottonwoods, old oaks, dead elms, and abandoned apple orchards. The mushrooms turn up in unlikely spots—less often huddled at the base of a tree, as you might expect, than basking in a sunbeam nearby, sprouting from a vibrant patch of moss.

To spot morels is a skill in itself. Hardcore foragers will tell you to follow your nose to mushrooms, which is good advice, but you should start by training your eyes. Hunting morels in the woods is like looking at an autostereogram. Leaves, bark, walnut shells, and wily roots can all resemble the brainy, spongelike mushrooms. I kneel on the ground and look under and between the leaves, and it’s usually just when I give up that I find them. I try to remember the spots. They might come back in the same place next year, like the ever-reliable hen-of-the-woods… or they might not. They’re tricky.

Each spring, I dream of finding carpets of morels. My real-life harvest is always patchier. Last week, I found the mushroom pictured here, smaller than a dime, under a leaf as I crouched to pick violets. I left it under the brambles for another day.

Once you find eating-sized morels, you’ll understand why even a few are worth the hunt, and why they can sell for more than forty dollars a pound. They eat like a good ribeye. Sauté them in butter, hit them with salt and freshly ground pepper, and—some of you might judge me for saying this—serve them with a bottle of A1. Close your eyes and be transported to the soil, the woods, the very essence of spring in the Midwest.

Iliana Regan is the chef and owner of the Michelin-starred Elizabeth Restaurant in Chicago and the “eccentric bed and breakfast” Milkweed Inn, located in the Hiawatha National Forest on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She is the author of the memoir Burn the Place, longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award. You can find her in the woods.