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The mountains and morels are calling

April 03, 2010

Many years ago, my grandmother Gen would take me to the mountains surrounding Dargan in search of the ginseng plant. She would point it out and I would dig it up. She then would clean and dry the roots and we would send it off to an address she got out of Grit newspaper, and they would send her a check for our efforts.

It was a way to make a few dollars in the country, but it took an awful lot of dried ginseng roots to make a half-pound.

Another spring ritual for my grandmother, mom and most Dargan folks was the arrival of the morel mushrooms.

Although stories of finding the morels often matched the size of some fishing tales told along the Potomac, locating the secret patch of mushrooms was not a topic of general discussion among the hunters. Protecting a "special spot" was most important to the mushroom picker.

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Even today, mushroom pickers are mum about their favorite spots. Waterboarding efforts to pry these secrets from the Dargan morel hunters would be a waste of time and good water. No amount of torture will make them talk.

Some might provide basic information and tell you to look for the elm and the ash trees, maybe a cherry tree or apple orchard. And others will tell you to look miles away from their favorite mushroom territory in hopes that you might get lost.

After some warm nights, find a steep hill where the ground is fertile, the brethren trees stand lookout and the sun visits the leaves dotted with dew early in the morning, and you might find the home of a morel.

Having a breakfast of morels in Dargan elevates you to a status of royalty.

One of the most delicious meals ever cooked on my grandmother's Home Comfort wood stove, in one of her black cast-iron skillets, was a batch of fried morels.

I believe the melted butter in the old black skillet was created solely for the purpose of permitting morels to swim in the hot pool until becoming brown and crispy, and ready for a salivating palate.

If you have never hunted or dined on morel mushrooms, I can only extend my sympathy for your misfortune. You, indeed, have been cursed.

After finding a nice mess of the wild mushrooms and slicing them in half or quarters depending on how large they were, a little soaking in some cold, salted water was a requirement.

Fixing them was a matter of your own creativity.

Some people simply dry the mushrooms, dip them in flour and fry them in a skillet of butter; others get a little more exotic and dip them in an egg mixture, maybe some milk and cracker crumbs before frying.

When Tom Mellott, Alan Fuller and I travel to the Eastern Shore in search of the great striped bass, my buddy from Fulton County usually provides the morels and we prepare them with a few grilled sirloins after a hard day of bay fishing.

Yep, that's my favorite. Dining on morels and steak next to the water on Smith Island, I figure, is just about a half-mile south of heaven.

Whatever preparation method you use, the morels are a real treat. If one of the pickers might sell you a few, the going price for a gallon is somewhere between $50 and $100.

The black morels already are up and the white morels will follow from the middle of April to early May.

If you ask me for a good hunting place, I would probably recommend the Everglades in Florida. That's far enough from my favorite morel place in the Dargan woods to protect the location. Besides, once you see a snake or other vermin, that will dampen your desire for morel hunting.

Now, don't get me wrong. In Dargan, we like tourists. It's good for the economy. We just don't like sharing our favorite mushroom spot.

Lloyd "Pete" Waters is a Sharpsburg resident who writes for The Herald-Mail

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