Tuesday, April 29, 2008
...the moral of the morel...
A trinity of early spring foods have sprung up very early. It used to be Mothers’ Day when Lew Parquette would announce that first morel hunt – a little special something for my mother on her day – bags upon big brown grocery bags picked full of crenellated, brain-like, cone-shaped mushrooms for her to clean. Can you believe it? I can’t. Actually, it was my job to clean them – thousands of mushrooms bobbing in a great sink full of cold water – drudgery personified. Once I escaped that southwestern Michigan place to school, my mother would put them, in net bags, into the washing machine on gentle cycle. What a tedious job it was to clean those morels.
Here I am, talking of cleaning the things instead of the keen and totally involved excitement of hunting them, and the excruciatingly beautiful taste of them. I suppose that’s what comes of what almost seems like industrial foraging – I’ve never found that many morels since – but it’s also an indication of some numbing mind-set that I grew up with. All excitement and beauty must be tempered by duty and finally resentment.
Dad, an orphan, while seeking and desperately needing excitement and beauty, was so afraid of those qualities that he insisted we children eat hunks of bread with our morels in order to dilute whatever toxins the exotic things might have. At least he knew and taught us the beauty of them, and had the sense not to put them into a white sauce or stuff them into something or something into them. They were fried in butter. That was it! Yum! I mean YUMMMMM to the nth degree!
Leo’s mother, on the other hand, dipped morels into flour and then fried them. When we were first together, Leo and I fought desperately over which technique to use – he won, but only because I came to see that a bit of flour – or cornstarch – stiffened them into a nice crisp bite. I like a nice stiff bite.
Morels are liable to make you lewd. You’re out trespassing on a southeast-facing cliff composed of rocks with water seeping over them, and soil on top of that, and trees and leaf-litter on top of that, a few cows peering over the edge of the cliff at you, and there is that heart-stopping moment when, from the corner of your questing eye, you glimpse that first hump where the top leaves have been pushed up by something growing through them, that tell-tale, striated mottling of the crenellated brown and cream and gold crown, and the eye jerks back to it. Most often it’s nothing, some poplar seed necklace flung there, but once it IS a morel, that first one, you zero in on that and bend or kneel to pick it while your eye sweeps around 340 degrees, and there’s another at 10 o’clock and way in the periphery another at 7, and suddenly these mushrooms, these fungi, are popping up under your nose – where a moment before they weren’t, now they are. It begins to rain, and except for skidding in the muck as you stagger up the steep cliff to the next morel you hardly notice. And then it pours, and you take off your shirt – you would strip stark naked if need
be – to collect all the morels you’re finding as you struggle to take shelter under a ripped up rootball of a humongous tree that may head south down the slope at any moment. The dog hunkers beside you. “Finally!” he says, panting. “You should GROW up!”
And probably you should. There must be easier ways of finding mushrooms. Dad found them in old apple orchards under ancient trees, along stream banks, near the town of Breedsville, Michigan, where he was born. Why must I insist on climbing the roughest cliffs for them? Because that’s where we’ve always found them here. Well, except for those first Vermont morels that we discounted – because after all this was not Michigan – that grew around the stump of an elm that had died in our front yard. Wow, we said, those look just like morels but it can’t be, we’re in Vermont! I cannot believe how ignorant we were! Now we know there is no earthly reason to fear a morel, because it is one of those unmistakable mushrooms – nothing else looks like it.
Except they come in all sizes from an inch or so high to 4 inches, and from dark brown and cream to blonde – like P2’s holding here. They should be a regular conical shape, though.
I still clean them a bit, but never soak them in water. Just brush the outside of any forest loam or critters, then slice them in half and brush out the central hollow stem. Occasionally you’ll find a slug. Ugh. Just avert your eyes and scrape it out. A bit of flour and sizzling butter do wonders for slug slime.
And if, wonder of wonders, you find too many to eat, just let them dry on the mantel and eat them at any stage. My mother cooked them and froze them, if I remember correctly, which really doesn’t do much for their texture.
...romping in the ramps...
The prophetic connotation of things coming in threes, trios, certainly predates Christianity and lodges deep in our pagan consciousness – indeed, my dog may well think in terms of threes – and yet by using the word Trinity, because I liked the sound of it, I’ve given it a Christian connotation. And if we stick with that connotation, certainly the morel is God the Father, the central and most impressive of the three spring foods I’m talking about here. In that case, the ramp, the wild leek, would be, in my estimation, The Son.
The wild leek is a gorgeous plant with a pure white bulb, fringed with white and thread-like roots and enclosed in a slimy sac-skin, like any other allium or onion. The bulb shades at the throat into pink, into magenta and then spreads into wide, spear-like dark-green leaves that look for all the world like lily-of-the-valley.
It plants itself, again, on that rocky cliff, along with trillium and dog-lily, often wedging its bulb under rocks and roots and growing in a semi-circle with its siblings. The best way to harvest them is to stick a broad-bladed garden knife on the outside of the circle and nudge one out of the soil by pulling the stem towards the center of the circle while prying from the bottom.
The head snaps out, if you’re lucky, just where the roots attach to it. Wipe one off on your jeans, slough off the skin, and eat it immediately, then take a bunch home and spray them with the garden hose in the yard to get the slimy skins off them – the skins will clog a kitchen sink quicker’n scat! Put them in a big bowl with a little water in it – they make a beautiful edible bouquet. A leek literally cracks at the bite of the tooth – they’re crisper than the ultimate radish – and that’s why they’re so difficult to dig up, and the taste is sweet and garlicky and oniony. I like to eat them – again, my tastes are very simple – raw, dipped in sea salt, with some good aged gruyere and a hunk of crisp French bread either dipped in olive oil or slathered with butter.
...fiddlin’ with the fiddleheads...
Now the Ghost – and my amateur theology is no doubt completely wacko here – following this line, would be the fiddlehead. I think I like to pick them better than to eat them.
Just as they’re uncurling from the mother corm, still curled tightly together and each ensheathed in a copper paper, snap them off and take them home. Spray them with a hose in the yard to get as much as possible of the copper paper off them, for they, too, will clog a sink, then parboil them, drain them into a colander and spray off the rest of the copper sheath with cold water. Then you can sauté them, or make a fiddlehead quiche, or simply dress them with sliced leeks and a sweet ‘n’sour vinaigrette. They’re one of the first spring green things and their taste is grassy. I don’t dislike them – and I do very much like the quiche – but I don’t love them. But I find them, gather them, and eat them. That’s about all I can say.
I remember one spring day many years ago, when my daughter was perhaps a pre-teen, when I took a sharp right off Rt 7 coming home from Rutland, and she wanted to know, with dread in her voice, where we were going. When I told her I just wanted to see if the fiddleheads were ready yet, she positively yowled “Noooooooo-ooooo-ooo!” You would have thought she was kilt. Once out in the swamp, though, she became as engrossed as I in picking them. Okay, that’s enough, let’s go, I said. “Just one more fern,” she begged, crouching across the mulch. And then, a few years later – how time does fly – she arrived half an hour late to my house, saying, “I stopped to get some fiddleheads,” handing me a bag of the delicacies.
Michael Pollan notes that “foraging for wild plants and animals is, after all, the way the human species has fed itself for 99% of its time on earth.” In my opinion we are incomplete humans if we cannot connect with that ancient practice.
Dad didn’t know ramps from scallions, and scoffed at the idea of eating baby ferns, but nevertheless he awakened the concept of foraging in my heart with the luscious morel, and I awakened it in Zoe’s with fiddleheads and ramps. My son P2 is content to let someone else do the picking, but doesn’t mind eating the fruits of it or posing as a poseur – that’s him in 1985 with two big, blond morels that he didn’t find. The first time we sat down to a platter of butter-fried morels I urged him to try “just one,” and to his murmured “those aren’t bad,” and his reaching for his 5th in as many seconds, he got his hand smacked and an admonition that, in the future, “he who finds, eats!” and to take it a little easy. Shades of my dad, Lewis Parquette. P2 must be on the next rung of evolution, though, and manages just fine by waiting at the table to appreciate what others have found out in the muck.
...the heart of downtown rutland...
As many of you know, the dynamic and charismatic Rebecca Jeran-Ruben has stepped down from the increasingly demanding position of General Manager of the Co-op into that of Grocery Manager. Becca had been Interim GM since November of 2006, when one of her first gambles-that-won was to dramatically increase the Co-op’s inventory of products. Slowly that move blossomed, aided and abetted by the public’s response to Becca’s welcoming warmth and her untiring dedication to the Co-op’s mission of providing affordable access to good food and other products to members and the wider community.
Working with the Co-op’s active and energetic Board of Directors – of which I am very pleased to be a member – she added another primary aim – that of sourcing as much local and regional product from our local farmers and producers as possible, an action which, in the last year, has gained such momentum as to render the Co-op a completely changed marketplace from a year or so ago, and making it – as some people have mentioned to me with, and I kid you not, tears in their eyes – the downright Heart of Downtown Rutland.
Becca was not a manager who had to have her fingers deep in every pie. She had a very good idea of the limitations of her time and energy, and she did not look a gift horse in the mouth nor try to micromanage what others were perfectly capable of accomplishing. When a small group of us decided to work on getting a kitchen into the Co-op, and when the Farmers’ Market wanted to use the space in the back of the Co-op for a Winter Market, Becca gave the go-ahead with the caveat that she herself would not be able to micromanage the projects but would certainly facilitate them.
The Board became very active in these projects, no one more than Dennis Duhaime, Produce Manager, who acted tirelessly as job captain. Way less than a year after the original go-ahead decision was made, the beautiful new prep area and kitchen is finished – almost all of it built by volunteers incredibly generous with their skills and time; a wonderfully successful Winter Farmers' Market is just completing its first season under the leadership of Greg Cox and RAFFL; and the Co-op is in the midst of many energizing Downtown Rutland developments.
At just about the same time that Becca was making her decision, regretfully, to step down as GM, she made another momentous announcement – that the Co-op had just reached and surpassed the first $1 million in gross sales!
Now the Board of Directors – and it is hoped that Becca will become one of them – is deep into the exciting but daunting task of searching for a new dynamic and energetic GM to seize the reins and lead them into the exciting future to which these developments point.
But my full-fledged thanks go to Becca here, for making – and accepting the help offered – the last two Co-op years simply amazing.
The last Winter/Spring Farmers' Market will be indoors at the Co-op on May 3 from 10 to 2. That means May 10, the Saturday before Mothers Day, will be the first market back outside in Depot Park, and it promises to be bigger and better and even more festive than ever before. What a great year it's been!
See you there -- In and Out!