Soda Popp runs his boat toward the shore of the Missouri River, cuts the motor and crunches to a stop in the heavy muted stillness of morning. The boat hangs there, still and gray. The river, gray. The mid-April sky, stone-cast. This can be the temperament this time of year in the Midwest, when it is no longer winter but not yet spring. Buds have not yet broken. Colors have not fired. But to Soda (yes, that's his real name), it's one of the most energizing of seasons, and he is eager to show me why. I clamber in, and we putt across to his 90-acre woodland property on the other shore.
"I have four seasons," he says, "but not spring, summer, fall and winter. For me, it's fishing, turkey, deer and morels. And in mushroom season, from the first day to the last, I'm out there hunting. It's kind of a disappointment when I realize the run is over."
The morel season lasts about two weeks ("three if you're lucky," Soda says), and enthusiasts across the Midwest spend hopeful hours scouring woodlands for the coveted, reclusive mushroom that holds, they say, the ultimate of flavors. Buttery. Woodsy. Earthy. Rich. You can buy morels at farmers markets, but finding then preparing your own is the holy fungal grail.
Soda will traipse 12 miles or more through the woods each day, carrying at least an apple and a bottle of water. The Popp family moved to this central Missouri region near Jefferson City in the 1850s, and Soda reads the terrain well, in particular this 4-mile-long silted and flood-prone peninsula dividing the Osage and Missouri rivers. He takes me in an old pickup truck, and we bump through the woods.
Finding a morel is unpredictable. The season is brief, and many factors influence when and where they appear: ground and air temperature, sunlight, humidity. They like wetness but also drainage areas. Some say they appear near dying trees—in particular elms—or in orchards—in particular apple.
"You also go by how the land feels under your feet," Soda says. "You want spongy, but not too much." Each morel hunter has a strategy, but, Soda says, "just when you think you figure them out, they fool ya." Because the morel is tricky to find, hunters rarely disclose the whereabouts of successful patches.
Soda talks while studying the ground passing his truck window. Suddenly he jams on the brakes. An empty turtle shell skids across the dash.
"I thought I saw one," he says. He peers into the sullen woods, a mottle of bare brown limbs and scrub brush, brown silty soil, brown eroding leaves, and brown rotting twigs and limbs. It is brown upon brown, damp to cloak the spongy morel from discovery.
"Nah. We're a day or two early for this spot. Let's try another place." We stop farther along. The mulchy earth oozes with winter and smells of decay. Fallen, sodden twigs collapse underfoot rather than snap.
Soda, a retired gym teacher, walks briskly, scanning the ground side to side. He twists through brambles and disappears. I follow. You learn things in the woods. I learn about his mother, Dorothy, who taught him the love of the outdoors. I learn about bald eagles nesting on his land. I hear a tale about Dot, an old Dalmatian- mix dog of his that allegedly could find morels. I learn that some mushrooms are poisonous, but the morel is distinctive and easy to identify. I learn how refreshing it can be wandering a spring woods. And I learn the thrill of spotting a milky-creamy morel pushing out from a mat of leaves. We find 25 in the morning and 74 in the afternoon, low for Soda's standards (one season he "quit counting at 5,000") but pleasing to me.
When we finish the hunt, Soda rinses the morels then gently sautes them in butter. Though chefs covet the morel for intricate dishes, it also is revered served as simply as the woods from which it came. That's what we do. We share them on a paper plate, the rich, incredible flavor of a Midwest tradition.
1 Don't look straight down; scan the ground 8 to 10 feet out. Look behind you on occasion, too; sometimes they can only be seen from certain angles.
2 If you find one, circle back around it. There may be more nearby.
3 Carefully check recently disturbed ground, such as where a tree fell.
4 Cut at ground level with a sharp pocket knife, trying not to crush the stem. Avoid getting dirt into the morel.
5 While hunting, carry the mushrooms in a plastic bag. They'll bounce and break less than in a paper or mesh bag.
6 Make sure you have permission to hunt on the land, and know what you are looking for.
7 Rinse them several minutes in a pitcher tilted under a running faucet so it overspills. Try to use morels soon after your hunt, though they will keep up to a week in the fridge in a slightly open paper bag.
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® March/April 2012.)
Tuck this creamy filling inside an omelet or serve over grilled steak or chicken. Can't find any morels? Substitute the same amount of stemmed shiitake, cremini and/or button mushrooms in the recipe. Or check online for dried morels.