Editor’s Note: Most readers are probably unaware of the long-standing rivalry between Crystal Bridges culinary and trails & grounds teams regarding morel mushrooms. Morels are the foodies’ pot of gold—the Easter eggs of the culinary world: popping up for a brief but magical period in the spring. They can be found, hidden among the leaf mould on the forest floor, but only where conditions are just right. Since Crystal Bridges’ inception, Eleven’s chefs have sought morels on the museum grounds and badgered the trails and grounds crew for tips as to their location. The T&G gang, however, are mum on the subject.
One year, Case Dighero, Crystal Bridges’ Director of Culinary Programs and Events, asked Trails and Grounds Manager Clay Bakker to be his guide to the “honey holes” on the museum grounds where the mushrooms could be found. Case claims that, rather than help him find morels, Clay led him on a “wild goose chase,” deliberately steering him astray!
This spring, it’s Game On, as Case’s story reveals…
I quietly laced up my boots, rolled up my sleeves, pulled my hat down over my eyes, and grabbed a brown paper sack from beneath my desk before sneaking out of my office, through an empty corridor, and around a corner. I pushed open a side door to the museum, and found myself bathed in the bright sunlight of spring as brilliant, white dogwood buds waivered in the gentle breeze, still wet from a small rain storm that swept through just hours before dawn…all the signs were perfect for the hunt.
I started my pursuit for the elusive Ozark morels in a small ravine, slowly walking from one small bluff to the other, looking up each slope from my feet to eye level, but to no avail. Still, I was mesmerized by the foliage, including white sycamores, scrub brushes, and the occasional cluster of fiddlehead ferns poking their curled heads up out of the black dirt.
After about 15 minutes, something caught my eye…a small, conical shape pushing up from a pile of brown leaves. “Awww…I see you…” my pulse quickened, as I bent down to get a closer look. The small mushroom was perfect, beige and gray in color, bending slightly to the right. I pulled the specimen out of the dirt from the base of her stem, careful to keep the head intact. Then I saw two more within inches of the first, and I knew I was on the right track to have a good day.
The small window of time for finding morels is about 10 to 14 days every year, and it is only when the temperature, humidity, and conditions are perfect, that those of us that covet the elusive morel, are able to actually find and harvest the elusive morel. In fact, some people from the Trails and Grounds department of Crystal Bridges are downright cryptic and deceptive when it comes to the location of morels on the property, selfishly keeping the treasures to themselves.
From Clay Bakker, Trails and Grounds Manager, in an email to Case Dighero
Back in 2009 when I first started working with Scott [Eccleston] as a contractor on the property, I made my first discovery of morel mushrooms. I ended up finding these little delights from one end of the 100 acres to the other. Then, when we came back to the site and built a crew and subsequently staffed the whole museum it became apparent there were many of us who would be seeking these gems. In order to avoid conflict, we decided to apportion off sections of the property. We committed to stay out of each other’s domain so there would be enough morels for everybody.
A few days ago, in the area that I had adopted, I found several beautiful specimens that I took a picture of (at the top of this blog post). I left them there to get a bit larger for the next few days and checked on them on a daily basis like a doting parent. Then yesterday I was aghast to discover they had been stolen! “How could this happen?” I thought to myself. “We all have our own areas and everybody has stuck to the rules for so many years??”
Well if you check out the photo below, you will be able to make out the boot print of the actual thief. I tracked the print throughout the Honey Hole. I will be on the “case” of identifying this marauder at all costs. In the meantime I’m also pretty sure I saw beaver tracks in that area so I will be setting numerous beaver spring-traps. These are said to be able to break a grown man’s ankle so I hope my marauder doesn’t stumble into them.
(Editor’s note: as I am aware Clay is a peaceful and critter-loving groundskeeper, I am certain he would do no such thing! I do believe this is merely a thinly veiled warning to our culinary director to steer clear of Clay’s morel patch in the future!)
A Peaceful Conclusion
Gentle reader: It now appears that things have been peacefully resolved. Case has been welcomed into the museum’s Morel Club with no loss of limbs. In fact, he shared his bounty, as well as his coveted Chicken Fried Morel recipe, (below) as a peace offering.
Submerge morels in cold water, pat dry. While the mushrooms are resting and drying comfortably, bring a pot of vegetable oil up to 375 degrees. Combine AP flour with salt, pepper, chopped parsley, basil, and thyme…then whisk together a couple eggs with milk, minced garlic, and Asian chili sauce. Roll morels in flour mixture
…then egg and milk mixture
…then back to flour mixture
…fry until golden brown…
…then allow to rest (for the last time) a few minutes on a towel…finish with a squeeze of lime, dust with good Parmesan, then devour like it’s your LAST SUPPER!