Hillbilly Haute Cuisine
Tuttle, Steve, Newsweek
Byline: Steve Tuttle
For centuries, my Appalachian ancestors have gone to the woods to hunt for deer, pick wild asparagus and blackberries, and fish for trout in streams. But of all the hillbilly delicacies to be found gratis in the great Virginia outdoors, the most precious is also the least lovely. I'm talking about those little moist gnome brains that peek up through the rotting leaves every spring, the ones the city slickers call morchellas, or morels. We just call them mushrooms, and this is their ever-so-fleeting season.
I still remember the hand-woven mushroom-gatherin' pouch called "Ol' Nellie" that my great-grandmother made out of birch bark, the one she lovingly treated with pork fat left over from making chitlins. (OK, not really. But why do Southern food writers always sound like that? In reality, we put the mushrooms in a plastic Sunbeam bread bag or whatever we have lying around.)
Getting them home and into your stomach is simple. But finding the little bastards is not. Some people, like my dad, are just better at it than others. Not only does he know where to look--near poplars and grapevines--but I can be right next to him and he'll find a bagful while I stand there dumbfounded. Sometimes I ask him to call out when he sees one so I can refind it, which is just sad by any father-son measurement standard.
Even if you should find a great patch, like the one there's no way I am going to tell you about, you have to protect it the way you would your family's moonshine still. (If your family had one. Which, if anyone asks, mine definitely doesn't.) But the hills have eyes, so to get to one of our spots we all stand along the dirt fire road and listen for cars. When the coast is clear, we run as fast as we can into the hollow so we'll be sure not to be seen. …