Mini-reviews of morel books
For this special issue of FUNGI, I gathered a variety of old and new morel books—residents of my personal library, loaners from the collection of Mary Margaret Rogers, and a few provided by publishers for review purposes. There is a distinct Midwest flavor to this collection and a strong focus on elm trees, particularly in the older books. Although I have yet to make a spring collecting trip to the far side of the Rockies, I suspect most of the information in these books will be broadly applicable in eastern North America. However, most things morel are at least a bit different on this side of the continent and the western moreler’s book has yet to be written.
A quick online search in late December 2009 suggested that all of these are still obtainable, at least used. Some of them are still in print and readily available; others, while out of print, apparently still can be had new. Cover prices for the in-print books and original cover prices for the out-of-print books are given. Used book prices vary tremendously, so shop around. The brief reviews are presented chronologically.
The Curious Morel:
Mushroom Hunters’ Recipes, Lore, and Advice
Written by the late Larry “Tree” Lonik (he passed away in 2003 after a morel hunt), this small-format, inexpensively produced book is neither a field guide nor a cookbook, but includes elements of both, and more. Other than the cover, it’s all black and white, and the quality of the photos isn’t the greatest. However, it is information- and anecdote-rich and written in humorous fashion. The Introduction begins with, “Every May, the State of Michigan is invaded by an army of 600,000 fanatics who arrange their only vacation time from their regular employment so they can dress in old clothes, carry sticks and bags, wander deliberately but haphazardly away from cities and road, kick through brambles and swamps, brave cold and rain, battle mosquitoes and spider webs, keep to themselves, invariably prevaricate when confronted by other human beings, and hold festivals to celebrate their bizarre rituals. These people are drawn, zombie-like, into orchards, fields and forests, over rivers and hills in search of tiny sponge-like growths that are as unpredictable in habit as they are difficult to spot.”
The book discusses the why, what, where, when, and how of morel-hunting and includes practical advice on what to do with them. Slightly more than half its length is devoted to recipes, and five pages cover drying, freezing, and canning, should you be fortunate enough to find more morels than you can eat immediately. Some of Lonik’s other morel books, such as Morels: True or False, the Essential Field Guide and More and Basically Morels: Mushroom Hunting, Cooking, Lore & Advice also can still be found.
A lovely over-sized book for those with a tendency to taxonomic splitting and an ability to read Français, or who merely like to look at lovely images of morels. There’s an extensive discussion of morel habitats, anatomy, and morphology, plus keys to, and descriptions of, 28 pre-molecular-data species. The descriptions are accompanied by color photographs and beautiful paintings, along with line-drawings of whole fruit bodies and their microscopic features.
Roon: A Tribute to Morel Mushrooms
“Roon: 1. A person possessed by extreme or insatiable desires for morel mushrooms. 2. A keeper of the secrets and Order of Roon. 3. One who is given to luxury and sensual pleasures. 4. Used in cooking, an equivalent measurement of dried, frozen, or fresh morel mushrooms.” To that passage from the book, one could add: 5. The shorthand title for a small book of morelia.
With only about 20 scant pages of text, this is primarily a short visual celebration of morels, including several high-quality photographs, both in color and black and white. The text briefly covers what morels are and where (in general) they can be found; describes five types of morel; exposes a bit of morel sex; gives instructions on how to behave after finding morels; and what to do with them once they are in your basket or bag. The dozen recipes include ones for morel dust soup, wood nymph gravy, The Official Minnesota State Dinner (featuring walleye, wild rice, and, of course, morels), and Morchella Eggsculenta.
By the way, a roon equals 2 cups of frozen morels and butter mixture, 2 cups of halved, medium-sized, fresh morel caps, and 1 handful of dried morels, which yields 2 cups of rehydrated morels.
Malfred Ferndock’s Morel Cookbook
This is billed as a cookbook and indeed it is that, with 2 dozen editor-Mikkelsen-tested recipes and a very brief introduction to them. However it is more than that, as the recipes are sandwiched between a potpourri of entertaining quotations, essays, poems, excerpts from printed works, and other writings compiled by editor Leach. The writers of these include notables such as former senator Eugene McCarthy, Captain Meriwether Lewis, author Tom Robbins, British mycologists/artists James Sowerby and M.C. Cooke, and West Coast morelaholic Larry Stickney.
Because the mysterious Mr. Ferndock reportedly suffered a freak non-fatal accident involving 5- to 7-pound morels, his neighbors Leach and Mikkelsen stepped in to write the cookbook he had wanted to produce. As he says in the Foreword, “There are plenty of field guides already and lots of cookbooks, too, so I gave ‘em just one instruction: do a book I’d like to read on a cold winter’s evening, sitting by the wood stove, thinking about spring ... next year!” Enjoyable reading, whether or not you have a wood stove.
Morelling: The Joys of Hunting & Preparing Morel Mushrooms
It was clear from the beginning that I would like this book. First, Maggie Rogers said so, while hinting mysteriously about a link between beer and morel-hunting. Second, it is dedicated to two “exuberant” black Labrador dogs who accompanied their owner-authors on many morel hunts (no doubt squashing a number of the fungi if they are anything like my dogs). Third, this passage by Samuels hit home, “Is it more exciting finding the elusive morels or eating them? Delicious as they are, the pleasure of the hunt is clearly my preference.” That resonated with this mostly non-mycophagist.
This is another small, inexpensively produced book illustrated primarily with line drawings, along with a few black and white photographs of the authors and of morels. It is divided into three sections - Anticipating them, Finding them, and Enjoying them - the latter concluding with 17 varied recipes. But this book is about the story-telling and its capturing the essence of being a mushroom-hunter, whether or not the main target is morels. As for the cans of beer thing (formally known as “the bathroom tree hypothesis”), it seems the authors have found that each time one of them ducks behind a convenient tree to answer nature’s call, morels are there. Thus, adding a few beers to the hunt increases the number of times those trees must be found! Note, however, that the key to this is getting one’s eyes down to the morels’ level such that they are more visible, and so it might not be expected to work as well for the gentlemen as it does for the ladies. But even if the tactic doesn’t work, Evans (the mother of Know Your Mushrooms myco-star, Larry Evans) proclaims, “There’s something about a beer and mushroom hunting that just go together.” A sound observation, although certain of my acquaintances would probably argue for red wine instead!
A Morel Hunter’s Companion: A Guide to the True and False Morels of Michigan
If pressed to recommend a single book about morels, this probably would be my first choice because it has something for everyone. Never mind the geographic restriction suggested by its title, or its age. It is full of broadly useful, authoritative information about morels and false morels; which of them to seek and which to avoid, and why; the art of finding them; what to do once they have been found; and even “morel madness,” all from someone who grew up in Michigan where folks take their morel-hunting seriously (not to mention the annual invasion by those 600,000 fanatics). As a bonus, Weber’s husband Jim provided a large number of fine photographs such that the book is as attractive as it is informative and entertaining. The opening quote, attributed to V. Bourjaily, captures the wait for morel season well, “The most precise symbol of my annual discontent with the way spring takes its time would be an odd-looking little fungus, with a mushroom stem and a head like a scrap of old sea sponge. This is the morel, a mushroom that grows in pretty good quantity ... except in those places where I happen to be looking.”
Although the book’s focus is on morels, it also has an excellent taxonomic treatment of the false morels in the genera Verpa and Gyromitra. Given all the information that has come out in the past two decades, it is no surprise that certain aspects, such as the taxonomic discussions, could use a bit of updating. Seems like a good excuse for a new edition.
The Morel Mushroom: Information / Recipes / Lore, A Guide for Roons
This is a revised and expanded edition of Roon (see above). Compared to the original, this edition has a more polished look, additional photos (although the shot of a naked woman cradling a suspiciously huge morel in her lap was not retained), a story by the late Lee Muggli, and a higher cover price. The high quality of the photographs fortunately was maintained.
Morel: A Lifetime Pursuit
“Every spring when the season begins, an inescapable fever overwhelms me and I am off to the woods.” In this short book, Tommy Thompson shares some of the knowledge he obtained over 60+ springs spent in search of the Midwest’s favorite mushroom. The stories are entertaining and include many nuggets of information that will increase your chances of having a successful morel hunt. However, Thompson remains understandably humble, “I have discovered a few distinct behaviors of the morel that will increase success in your quest, but there are many variables. The unpredictable behavior of the morel is exasperating and continues to retain my lasting respect. Considering all aspects of the pursuit, conquest of the morel remains mostly a matter of luck, some knowledge, and great perseverance!” The book closes with 10 of Thompson’s favorite morel recipes.
Morel Tales: The Culture of Mushrooming
Despite the title, this really isn’t a “morel book.” Or even a book about morel-hunters. It’s about mushroom-hunters in general. Gary Fine is a professor in the Sociology Department at Northwestern University, an ethnographer by trade and, at least when he did the research that went into this book, not “one of us.” Perhaps the latter still is true, but having completed the book, he did confess to a “wild urge to traverse the fields once again.”
Fine explained the book thusly in the preface, “I present a simple ethnographic narrative, told about nature, meaning, society, living, and the world. A story about fungus, and simultaneously a peopled sociology. Told by a tourist—a tourist with guides and comrades. This then is my tale. How a little patch of the world becomes known, is given value and worth, and what this suggests about how we understand our world.” Thus, this is a scholarly work, but written in a generally accessible style.
Chapter titles include Being in nature, Meaningful mushrooms, Sharing the woods, Talking wild, Organizing naturalists, Fungus and its publics, Naturework and the taming of the wild. Within them, Fine tackles questions such as what is nature? Why do we hunt mushrooms? Why do we give them names and puzzle (or even argue) over the application of those names? What goes on when mushroomers gather (prevarication? exaggeration?)? Why are there mushroom clubs and mycological societies and why can’t the members all get along? Even how does being in an automobile accident affect one’s philosophy about eating wild mushrooms? The answers to these and many more make for an interesting look at our pastime.
Find the Tree ... Find the Morel (Untold Secrets to Morel Hunting, Great Mini Stories, Recipes, & More)
Less a celebration of morels than many of the other books included here, this one focuses more directly on providing specific guidance on exactly how to find morels in the Midwest. Although Edge admits to finding morels under a variety of trees, including apple, poplar (cottonwood), and ash, his experience suggests they are far more abundant under elms, more specifically, recently dead elms. Thus, for him, finding morels is mostly a matter of finding the right elms. Edge is a very successful hunter, to judge from his trophy collection, and his passion for morels is displayed throughout this short book. “When the last day of the hunting season creeps in, I shake my head and say, ‘It can’t be over already.’ The season comes and goes too fast. This is why I enjoy every second of the last hunt, walking at a slow pace and enjoying every morel I find, even sitting down for a while and admiring the beautiful morels before picking them. It is so hard picking that last morel, knowing it will be a long time until next season.”
Along with the straightforward advice, Edge provides a handful of morel-hunting stories, tips on preserving morels, and five of his favorite recipes.
Kuo, keeper of the well known website, mushroomexpert.com, takes a wide-ranging look at many aspects of morel culture and science. What morels are, how they live, and a survey of their different types; what false morels are, why many should not be eaten, and how to distinguish them from the real thing; where to find morels and when; suggestions for the hunt and eating the quarry; something of the sociology of morel-hunting and the people who do it; explanations offered for the seemingly inexplicable appearance (or not) of morels; and a summary of recent findings in morel biology and taxonomy.
In its broad coverage of morel hunting, eating, culture, and science, the book is most similar to Nancy Weber’s A Morel Hunter’s Companion. Like Weber’s book, Morels is packed with information, and is clearly and entertainingly written (Kuo is an English teacher after all). It is more up-to-date in some areas (such as including findings from molecular research), has creative section heads, and contains a large number of illustrations. However, Weber’s treatment of the science rings truer to me (she is a professional mycologist after all) and the photos in her book are better overall, as a number of the mushroom images in Morels suffer from poor lighting, mediocre composition, or too-shallow depth-of-field. Nonetheless, Morels would be a good addition to any moreler’s library, and it offers the advantage of being easy to come by.
Ecology and Management of Morels Harvested from the Forests of Western North America
This is a great source of recent scientific information about morels and their ecology and management. It covers general information about morels (their distribution, habitats, taxonomy, biology, cultivation, and toxicity [yes, toxicity]); morel harvesting for sales and personal use; morels in commerce; morel harvesting in North America by region; and management and research, including productivity and sustainability. No folksy tales or culinary hints here, just the facts, at least as they currently are understood by the authors. This is the only book reviewed here that takes mostly a western perspective.
How to Find Morels (Even as Others Are Coming back Empty-handed)
This is the most recent morel book that came to my attention and a good one it is. It’s well written, nicely produced, and Pelouch’s philosophy, which I appreciate, comes through clearly. The book is true to its title, and the chapter heads give an accurate picture of what is covered: Know thy quarry (descriptions of the different types of morel); Handy implements of a mushroom hunter; When do we go morel hunting?; So, where do we start looking?; How do we preserve the find?; About the edibility of mushrooms; How to use morels in the kitchen; Mushroom hunters’ etiquette; and Wouldn’t it be easier to pick them in our backyards?
Although Pelouch presents a lot of to-the-point advice, don’t expect that merely reading it will enable you to find buckets or bags of morels. He stresses that the best way to find mushrooms is to do it “the old-fashioned way—work at it.” As he says, “Anybody with decent eyesight, leg joints free of arthritis, an ability to scale some fairly hilly terrain, the necessary knowledge of what the quarry looks like—that is a few rules of thumb about their habitat—and a bit of patience can find morels if they are in season and growing.” He gives the reader a lot of necessary information to get started, but it still takes a lot of time in the woods to develop the hunter’s eye and that sixth sense of when things are just right. But that time in the woods provides good exercise, a respite from the noise and frenetic pace of daily life, a chance to appreciate the beauty of nature, and, if you succeed in your quest, a well earned sense of accomplishment and healthy meal (if you go light on the butter and cream).
If finding morels is your primary objective, then you’ll find this reasonably priced little book useful, whether you are a newbie or someone with a bit more experience.
— Reviews by Steve Trudell, Seattle, WA
— Originally published in Fungi