Bounties of Spring
Jesse Shepherd's woodland harvest
by Kathy J. Clark
From the July, 2014 issue
Jesse Shepherd is an expert woodsman. In season he hunts wild turkey and deer, traps muskrats, and hunts small game. In summer he enjoys fishing the lakes in the Waterloo State Recreation Area between Jackson and Chelsea. And each spring he'll often walk up to twenty miles in one day and gather more than 100 morel mushrooms.
"My family has foraged for many generations," says Shepherd, age forty. "We all love the morels just because they are a delicacy."
They are not alone. Each May, the 21,000-acre recreation area is full of morel hunters, according to Earl Flegler, a public lands specialist with the state Department of Natural Resources. "It's a very popular activity this time of year. There's no limit, as long as visitors pick mushrooms for their own consumption."
Morels are found in all fifty states but are most plentiful in the eastern half of the country. Enthusiasts say store-bought "button" mushrooms hardly compare in taste to the nutty, earthy flavors found in wild varieties such as the morel and the "hen of the woods."
Shepherd also gathers the large hen of the woods in the fall, but morels are his passion. "Black" morels range in color from dark black to very light brown or tan. Others can be white, yellow, or gray. He says the largest yellow ones are found at the end of the season; he's seen some as big as a two-liter pop bottle.
Shepherd's keys to successful mushroom hunting are favorable conditions, including temperatures above sixty degrees and plenty of recent rain, and locating the kind of dead trees that foster mushroom growth, preferably on a southerly exposed hill. He checks the same spots around ideal trees more than once. "They can pop up overnight. If you don't check every tree more than once, you may miss a bonanza."
According to the U.S. Forest Service, Michigan is the "mecca" of morels, with significant quantities of public lands that are open for foraging. One Sunday in May,
I made a short trek through the woods off Cassidy Lake Rd. with a friend of Shepherd's. We tramped through lots of dead limbs, vines, and raspberry bushes but didn't find a single mushroom. My guide explained we wouldn't find any unless we traveled at least a mile into the woods.
Gathering morels is definitely for experienced woodland foragers with a lot of endurance and patience. Shepherd has both--and can also draw on generations of family wisdom.
"I first went into the woods with my dad, Mike Shepherd, when I was three or four years old," he says. "We went to an abandoned orchard and looked underneath the old apple trees. You have to hunt the trees first. Now I look under dead elm and poplar trees and around old-growth cherry trees.
"Some people wander aimlessly looking at the ground. I'm successful by finding dead trees that may produce mushrooms for a few years." The best dead trees have freshly peeling bark starting to slip down the trunk to reveal a pink-and-white checked pattern on the wood.
Shepherd cautions about the "false morel," a toxic mushroom that looks similar to a morel. A good field guide with photographs will show the difference.
"The warmer the ground temperature, the bigger the mushroom," he says. "Someone found about seventy little ones [in April], marked them with a stick. Then we had snow, and they all died. Close to Mother's Day you can count on morel mushrooms and asparagus."
Jesse's grandmother, Georgia Morris Shepherd, lives a few miles from him, very near the boundary of Waterloo. Born in Kentucky in 1920, she learned to forage from her own grandmother, Paralee Hall Morris, a full-blooded Cherokee. Paralee and her husband, German immigrant Henry Morris, lived their lives in the Cumberland hills of southern Kentucky.
Georgia describes her Kentucky home as "the bottom place, where it was all green and full of apple trees. Me and my brothers used to go down in those trees, and we'd pick morel mushrooms. I'd pick my dress up to hold them. I'd have a lapful to take home to cook.
"My grandmother would take me to the woods most every day, and she'd hunt anything. We'd find ginseng. Paralee's family dug the ginseng root, strung it up with thread to dry, and stored it in a shoebox ... In the fall we'd sell it to Sears. That way we could buy all the kids underwear and blankets for the winter."
In the 1930s ginseng was worth $20 a pound. Georgia's husband, Oliver, would send the shoebox to his brother, who'd take it to the Kentucky Farm Bureau in Prestonsburg, where it was kept until someone from Sears came to buy it.
Georgia and Oliver moved to Chelsea in 1936, a year after they were married. Oliver's sister, May, had married a Chelsea man named Paul Messner, and she encouraged Oliver to move here for work. His first employer was Gaunt's, a wholesale gladiolus farm off Sibley Road. He later worked for Klump Bros. Gravel off Loveland Road.
One day in 1955, while Oliver was fishing on Spring Lake, he spotted the red berries of ginseng growing all over a hillside. He told Georgia, and she and her sister grabbed their baskets to collect it. (Ginseng is now protected by law in Michigan.)
Oliver and Georgia raised fourteen children. Though Oliver died in 1989, many of their descendants still live in the area. "They all love to hunt," Georgia says, "and they all love to fish." And they forage, drawing on the lore handed down from Paralee Morris.
In addition to morels, the Shepherds pick and eat "poke salad," or poke weed greens, each spring. The song "Polk Salad Annie" refers to this southern delicacy. "Grandma calls it her 'spring tonic,'" Jesse says.
In mid-May, Georgia was still looking for her tonic. This year, "they're a little late coming up," she says. "Jesse usually gets me some."
"Once they get to a certain size, they are poisonous," Jesse explains. "You have to boil pokeweed down like you do spinach. After boiling, you put it in a frying pan, sprinkle a little bit of cornmeal, and scramble eggs into the greens."
Two other favorite greens consumed by the Shepherds every spring are common plantain and dandelions. The oval, ribbed, short-stemmed leaves of plantain tend to hug the ground. The leaves may grow up to about six inches long and four inches wide. It's best eaten when it's young. Every part of a dandelion, including the young flower buds, is edible, and you can drink the water that you boil the roots in as a tea.
Both in Kentucky and Michigan, the Shepherds gathered asparagus from the sides of country roads. "We grew up in the mountains picking all those things," Georgia says.
The Shepherds cut the mushrooms they find in half, then soak them in salt water overnight to get bugs out. It is common to find "rollie pollies" (pill bugs), ants, and slugs. Drained and covered with damp paper towels, fresh-picked mushrooms will last from seven to ten days.
"They used to dry morels all the time," Jesse says, "but nowadays the best way to preserve a morel is to batter and half-fry a batch, put mushrooms in layers of wax paper in a Tupperware container, then freeze them. When eaten, they are pretty much like the day you picked them. Once they're dried and rehydrated, they don't taste the same." He also cans much of his morel harvest.
Jesse says that in the fall you can find hundreds of pounds of hen-in-the-woods mushrooms in the Waterloo area. "Every year is different depending on the weather. Like the morel, if it's really dry, like in 2013, they won't come up as good."
Hen of the woods can be sold to restaurants, but only if you have a license. "I looked into getting a license with no luck," Jesse says. "High-dollar restaurants in Chicago buy them. People I know have sold morels for nine to ten dollars a pound. The hen in the woods sells for a lot more."
Brent Courson, executive chef for Mainstreet Ventures in Ann Arbor, says he buys morels and other foods for the company's fifteen restaurants from Preferred Brands International. "Morels regularly run forty dollars a pound. The Chop House features the most morel dishes on their menu."
The downside of foraging in the woods is the abundance of insects that forage on humans. "In certain areas the ticks are worse than others," Jesse says. "One day I found more than thirty ticks on me and had to shake out my clothes by the side of the road. They can crawl up your pant legs and inside your shirt or get into your hair." This spring, he shaved his head as a precaution. "There is no special clothing that will discourage ticks," he says, but mosquito repellent can help. "Every time people come out of the woods," he advises, "it is smart to shake out their clothes, then shower."
I asked Jesse if he ever gets lost while walking twenty miles into the woods. He told me he doesn't: "I rely on my sense of direction looking at the sun."
[Originally published in July, 2014.]