For many residents of Southern Oregon, spring means morel mushrooms — but morels mean different things to different people.
Eric Liston was in the sixth grade and had just moved to the Griffin Creek area when he noticed a boy on the school bus eating a mysterious snack out of a Ziploc bag every morning for breakfast. New to the area and eager to make friends, Liston gratefully accepted when the boy offered him a taste — and he was shocked by the savory, earthy flavor of his friend’s innocuous snack. They turned out to be crispy, fried morels, and, although Liston didn’t know it at the time, that bite would spark a lifelong hobby and an enduring friendship.
Over the next few weeks, Liston and his new friend went out foraging.
“We started roaming the mountains around the area, and he showed me how to pick mushrooms. Twenty-five years later, we’re still friends. We still pick mushrooms together.”
Liston brings the same spirit of friendship and camaraderie to morel hunting in the present day. Three years ago, he and his wife, Trina, decided to start a Facebook group to share their passion with others in the area, and interest in morel hunting has exploded.
“Every day I get new requests to join the group.” On the Facebook group, called “Southern Oregon Morel Finders,” experienced hunters and novices come together to learn and share knowledge. While all are careful not to give up their spots, foragers will post pictures of their finds, along with general details such as elevation and county of the find.
Novice foragers can post pictures of unidentified mushrooms, and the community will chime in to help with identification.
“I want people to help each other,” Liston says. “I want it to be a community.”
Now a resident of Gold Hill, Liston and Trina continue to forage every spring.
“We probably ate $40 worth of mushrooms one night last week,” Liston says with a smile.
They don’t make a profit from their passion, preferring to dehydrate the leftovers to save for the rest of the year, when the morels aren’t popping, or to give as gifts to friends. (Full disclosure: I was gifted a generous Ziploc bag full of dried morels when I interviewed Liston for this article.)
Liston makes a point to take new foragers out with him.
“I’ll show them simple little spots everyone knows about.” He shows them what to look for and will point out morels on the ground, giving those new to foraging the opportunity to learn by doing before venturing into the hills and forests to test their newfound skills. Both Eric and Trina love sharing their knowledge with others.
“It’s a fun thing,” he says. “I enjoy seeing how excited people get when they find mushrooms.”
Stewardship is important to Liston. He’s spent too many years cleaning up after irresponsible woodsmen, so he asks everyone who joins the Facebook group if they think it’s OK to drink and leave cans in the woods. If they answer in the affirmative, they’re not allowed to join the group.
“Mother Nature is giving us something. We should respect that.” That’s part of why he doesn’t take anyone to his best morel spots.
“Certain spots, you want to keep to yourself.”
Local mushroom buyer Donna Silva couldn’t agree more. When I point out the territorial behavior for which morel hunters are notorious, she responds, “As well they should be!”
Unlike Liston, Silva makes her living buying and selling mushrooms, and has been doing so for most of her adult life. She knows well the financial benefits of being protective. “Morel patches are like a savings account. Would you give your PIN to someone you just met? No, you wouldn’t. So, don’t take them to your mushroom patch.”
Silva is a wealth of knowledge about morels. How to prep them for eating? “Soak them in cool salt water for no more than 10 minutes.” Any more than that and they will get slimy, she says. “Rinse them in cold water, lay them out on dish or paper towels, and let them almost air dry before you cook them. You’ll get a more concentrated mushroom flavor without all that water.”
The perfect weather to make the morels bloom? Take note, aspiring hunters: “If I could dial up the mushroom gods and the weather lady,” she says with a laugh, “I’d ask for 65-degree days and 55-degree evenings.”
The best way to preserve your treasures while hunting?
“Do not pick in a bag of any kind,” Silva recommends. “Lay a soft dish towel at the bottom of a bucket. If it’s hot and windy, get your dish towel as damp as if it just came from the washer, and lay it on top of your mushrooms as you pick,” to prevent dehydration.
For some, finding enough morels to necessitate a bucket feels like a mythological event. Nasser Rihan, an elementary school teacher in Ashland and a hobbyist mushroom hunter, assures aspiring hunters they are not the only frustrated foragers in the Rogue Valley.
“The first time someone took me out, we found a bunch of morels, and I thought it would be so easy from that day on. But it’s far more difficult than I originally thought.”
He’s been going every year for the four years since he has lived in the area, and every year he’s found at least a few. But when asked how this season is going, he replies, “I’ve spent more time in the woods this year than ever before, and I still haven’t found any.”
Despite this, Liston and Silva insist this is going to be a good year.
“They were late this year, but we’re seeing a lot of mushrooms,” says Liston. “I think it’ll be a good year.”
Silva agrees. “If the weather follows the pattern the forecasters are predicting, it could be crazy out there,” she says.
Foragers eager to turn a profit must obtain a permit to pick and sell their mushrooms. These can be bought at a U.S. Forest Service ranger station for $20 for a 10-day pass or $140 for a seasonal (six month) pass.
Hobbyists who do not intend to sell their mushrooms can pick up to a gallon a day, or five gallons per season, for personal use only — and if you’re picking on BLM land, you must cut your mushrooms in half as you pick to indicate that they are not for commercial use.
And if you are persevering and lucky enough to find these little nuggets of gold, how should you enjoy the spoils? Everyone agrees: simpler is better.
“We’ll fry them and eat them out of a bowl,” Trina Liston says.
“Take a rolling pin and crush salted crackers into crumbs,” Silva says. “Dredge your morels in flour, then egg, then cracker crumbs. Fry gently on medium heat, until the outsides are golden-brown and the morels inside are cooked.”
She smiles fondly.
“That’s how my mother and grandmother made them.”
And as a sixth-generation resident of Gold Hill who cannot remember a time when she didn’t hunt morels, Silva’s word on the subject is good as gold.
Amira Makansi is an Ashland-based freelance writer and the author of “Literary Libations: What to Drink With What You Read,” due out in September 2018. Reach her at email@example.com.