Each spring, when flowers begin blooming and songbirds return from their winter migration, Carl Robinson, 80, can be found trekking through the woods around Mesick, Mich., (pop. 483) searching for the wild and delectable morel mushroom.
Look under the brush, near ash, and apples trees, Robinson instructs, scouring the damp forest floor near his home.
The Mushroom King, as a sign on Robinsons Ford Bronco proclaims, has been hunting mushrooms since he was a child in Nappanee, Ind., (pop. 5,812). Since moving to Mesick in the mid-1970s, he has become a local authority on where to find the prized mushrooms.
The key to finding morels, Robinson says, is keeping your eyes fixed on the ground just ahead of you. The mushrooms resemble small sponges and can be found growing among the new green foliage or hiding behind last falls leaves. Robinson has been known to take novices with him on his hunts; a few years ago a New Hampshire woman paid him to help her find the tasty delicacies.
Mushroom hunting season starts in early April in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Ohio and creeps northward into Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin as temperatures warm and are accompanied by spring rain or melting snow. Morel season in northern Michigan normally begins in early May and runs through early June, drawing mushroom hunters from across the country in pursuit of the sometimes elusive fungus.
Black morels appear first, followed by the yellow and the highly coveted white morels. All three varieties grow in the Mesick area when weather conditions are right.
Even novices can identify morels, says Les Barnes, owner of Mesick Hardware. Morels are hollow and have a honeycomb appearance, with distinct pitted and ridged caps connected to their stems.
For Robinson, the true value of a morel is in its taste. He recommends frying morels in butter to enjoy their delicate flavor.
They have a sort of nutty flavor, says Louis Hughes, treasurer of the Mesick Lions Mushroom Festival committee.
Mesick, the self-proclaimed Mushroom Capital of the World, began celebrating the morel 42 years ago when the Mesick Area Chamber of Commerce organized the towns first mushroom festival. In 1998, the Lions Club began hosting the festival to keep the tradition alive.
Thousands of people attend the festival each year. While some people scour nearby woods for mushrooms, others enjoy the parade, flea market, and carnival rides, or participate in the softball, volleyball, or card tournaments. This years festival is scheduled May 5-13.
During the event, some people ask for permission to hunt mushrooms on private property, while others venture onto nearby state and federal lands in search of morels. The mushrooms, when dried, can sell for as much as $12 an ounce in gourmet stores or on the Internet. Because of their high water content, it can take up to a pound of fresh mushrooms to make an ounce of dried morels.
Successful hunters often stop by Kens IGA or Yeomans Market, the towns two grocery stores, with bags and coolers filled with mushrooms to have their largest specimens measured. The person who finds the biggest morel receives a $100 savings bond.
A mushrooms size is determined by measuring its height and circumference and adding the two together. The largest mushroom found in the last 10 years totaled 22.25 inches. The tallest was 9.5 inches.
The mushrooms are measured with a sewing tape measure at Kens IGA, says owner Ken Abraham. His store buys fresh morels from successful hunters and sells them for between $15 and $25 a pounddepending on supplyprimarily to people who havent been as lucky in the woods.