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Published May 29, 2013, 11:40 PM

North Dakota family bonds, relaxes on annual spring mushroom hunt

ENDERLIN, N.D. - Time slips away in the trees, which block the gusty wind as well as the pressures of the outside world. The only sounds are an occasional bird call and the snapping of fallen branches as Calvin Anderson and Sadie and Jon Rudolph comb the thicket. An excited shout breaks the silence. “I found one!”

By: Sherri Richards, INFORUM

ENDERLIN, N.D. - Time slips away in the trees, which block the gusty wind as well as the pressures of the outside world. The only sounds are an occasional bird call and the snapping of fallen branches as Calvin Anderson and Sadie and Jon Rudolph comb the thicket.

An excited shout breaks the silence. “I found one!”

Peeking out from dry leaves and dirt is their prey for the day – a wild mushroom. A morel (pronounced muh-REL), to be more precise.

Out comes a retractable utility knife to slice the morel at its base. Into a canvas bag it drops. Heads down, Anderson, his daughter and son-in-law search nearby for more. “Did you find its buddy?” they’ll ask each other.

For nearly two decades, Calvin, an auto body mechanic who lives near Enderlin, has hunted morels, an edible mushroom noted for its rich, earthy flavor and sponge-like appearance. An American Indian name for the morel is “land fish,” Calvin says.

This is about the fifth year Sadie and Jon, of Fargo, have joined him on the spring forage.

For Sadie, a public relations specialist with Flint Communications, it’s a reason to go back home and spend time her father, as well as an unusual hobby.

“We have such busy lives we forget what it’s like to just come out and relax,” Sadie says. “For those two, three hours we’re out, it’s nice and peaceful.”

Plus, the harvest is delectable.

An accidental hobby

Calvin got into mushroom foraging almost by accident. One day he stumbled over an odd-looking mushroom in his yard. He looked it up in a book and figured it must be a morel, but didn’t dare eat it.

For several years, he kept a lookout for them until he finally got the nerve to try one.

“That’s pretty dandy eating,” he said.

He studied up on mushrooms to learn the differences and identify the poisonous. Now in the spring and fall he’ll look for oyster mushrooms and “‘inky caps.” He doesn’t bother with “LBMs” – little brown mushrooms so plentiful and similar it’s too tricky to tell edible from toxic.

But morels are more distinctive and rarer. The window for foraging them is about 10 days, typically right around Mother’s Day, Calvin says.

For years, Calvin kept a spring diary recording ground temperatures and bird sightings to figure out when the morels come out. “When the plums start to flower, that’s generally the time,” he says.

A warm-up followed by a cold spring rain is ideal, he says. An old saying is “thunder makes them pop.”

The key to finding them is just being observant, Calvin says.

“It’s like somebody tosses a diamond ring in the woods and says, ‘You find it,’” he says.

Fungi fun

On Saturday, Calvin, Sadie and Jon drove out to their favorite morel spot, dubbed “fungi hills,” in Calvin’s Chevy Astro van.

They wear long-sleeve flannel shirts and jeans, duct-taping their pants legs to their boots to keep out wood ticks.

Under his flannel, Calvin wears a shirt that says “Fungus Hunter, a morel obligation.” Below that it reads “I put the ‘fun’ in fungi.”

Calvin doesn’t tell many people where he hunts the morels, guarding the secret like he would a good fishing hole.

The trio walks through a pasture into the woods where the morels grow. There, they spread out, heads down, and circle the timber, climbing a barbed wire fence at one point.

The first morel of the year is always the hardest to spot, says Jon, a guitar instructor.

“Once you see that first one, your eye is almost trained,” Sadie says.

Sadie likes to look near fallen trees and stumps. Calvin says the morels grow in different places each year, sometimes on high ground, sometimes near or in water. That’s part of the challenge, he says, figuring out where they’re sprouting that particular year.

“They grow where they grow,” he says.

Calvin finds the first morel of the day, a small one. It’s light brown and hollow on the inside.

They walk for a while before finding another. Then they find several. The hunt continues in streaks like that.

It’s a little early in the season, they realize. Anderson also cuts some stinging nettle, which tastes like spinach but sweeter, he says. Jon finds an oyster mushroom, all white with an odor of black licorice.

When Jon comes across a morel, he greets it. “Hey, hi there,” he says before picking it.

Some of the morels they find have an orange tint, probably from being in the sun. Others are nearly black. Calvin says those are firmer and better eating.

Sadie says larger morels look like something out of “The Smurfs.”

When Calvin cuts one, he jokes there are probably Smurfs running all over the place now.

Good eating

There are “false morels,” look-alikes that are inedible.

Calvin notes that most poisonous mushrooms will simply upset the stomach, though there are deadly varieties.

When he first started picking mushrooms, Calvin made spore prints by placing a cut-off mushroom cap on a sheet of white paper and covering it with a glass. The cap leaves behind a pattern on the paper, which he compares to a reference book.

His preferred method of identifying mushrooms is to have a friend look it up as well. If they both come to the same conclusion independently, he’s confident it’s safe.

The spore print method doesn’t work with morels, but with their porous tops and trunk-like stems, it’s pretty clear which are true morels, he says.

On Saturday, Jon, Sadie and Calvin collect between a pound and two each. A recent Field and Stream article online says morels sell for about $20 a pound, but the family uses the harvest themselves or shares with friends.

Morels need to be cooked. Anderson likes to saute his in butter and garlic or make a cream sauce to pour over fish or toast. Some people like to batter and deep fry them, he says. Jon and Sadie have tried stuffing them with crab meat and putting them in spaghetti sauce.

Last year, Jon dried morels on the dash of his car, spreading them on paper towels and parking in the sun.

“It smelled like morels in my car for weeks afterward,” he says. “It was great.”

It’s that earthy smell, their meaty flavor, the once-a-year shot at an elusive mushroom and time together that brings the family back to “fungi hills” each year.

“It’s getting out into Mother Nature,” Calvin says. “Everything else in the world goes away for the few hours you’re out there.”

Cultivating mushrooms

Compared with morels, the button mushrooms served on salad bars are like eating paper, says Noreen Thomas, an organic farmer from Kragnes, Minn.

“It’s like having a very fine wine and then going back to a cheap wine,” she says.

The Thomas family, mainly son Carsten, has started growing mushrooms in grow houses.

“We did everything wrong initially,” Noreen says. “We’re getting better at it all the time. It’s a mystery and gentle balance.”

They’ve sold criminis and trumpet mushrooms to local stores and restaurants, including the HoDo, Noreen says.

Mushrooms are getting more attention for their nutrients, versatility in vegetarian dishes and potential cancer-fighting properties, Thomas says.

Morels are highly coveted for their rich flavor, she says.

“There’s nothing like it,” she says. “Chefs across the world really like them because they’re just delicious.”

But they’re also especially difficult to cultivate. Morels are fickle where they grow in nature, too, Thomas notes.

They tend to grow at the base of a tree and where there has been a fire. They grow across the Midwest and in the Rocky Mountains, Thomas says.

Wild mushrooms can go for $20 to $60 a pound, Thomas says, but adds you typically need a license or other regulatory approval to sell them or risk steep fines.

Her family forages occasionally.

“They’re a joy to find,” she says. “You have to know what you’re doing. A bad mistake is probably your last mistake.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556