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Fortunately for the 'Roon Hunters of Boyne City—and most spring mushroom enthusiasts in the U.S.—poison isn't a major problem. The Morchellaceae, or the morel family of mushrooms, are not only nonpoisonous—though some people may develop an allergic reaction in the form of indigestion—but also are among the easiest of fungi to identify with the help of a mushroom guide, one that includes color plates. Depending on the mycologist you consult, there are about a dozen species of true morels. The tastiest and biggest is Morchella crassipes, the Thick-footed Morel, which can grow to nearly a foot in height and weigh more than a pound (the largest morel on record is a 21-ounce Thick-foot plucked in the spring of 1977 by John Marconi in Michigan's Upper Peninsula). Like all Morchellas, the Thick-foot's head is conical and deeply pitted, and hollow from "root" to tip when split with a knife. The head is tan to brown and makes up nearly two-thirds of the fruiting body, and the stalk is distinctively thick, like the buttressed roots of a tree. The latest of the morels to sprout, it's rarely part of the plunder in mushroom festivals like Boyne City's. Though the Thick-foot can be found around oaks, ashes, maples and beeches, it flourishes especially in dead elm stumps. Since Dutch elm disease is only now wreaking its havoc in the Upper Peninsula, that means there's prime ground for Thick-footed Morels right now and there should be for years to come.
Actually, many mycologists—Smith and his daughter among them—feel that the Thick-foot may be nothing more than an outsized variant of M. esculenta, the White Morel, or Sponge Mushroom. Gigantism isn't unusual among morels, especially a variety called Verpa bohemica (the Early Morel). M. esculenta has a cream-colored, more globular head and is the commonest morel in the Central and Eastern states. You can find it in old orchards, hardwood forests, lightly burned grasslands, in swamps near elms and jewelweed, even occasionally on lawns. But don't expect guidance from the oldtimers. "I have 'roon-hunting pals who'll only take me into the woods with them blindfolded," says John Cooley, an English professor at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. "But it's worth it once you get there: 'Roon Heaven!"
The most abundant morel during the Boyne City championships is M. angusticeps, the Black Morel (called conica in Europe). A lover of aspen and piny woods, it pops up in the early spring throughout the upper Great Lakes country and in the Pacific Northwest (where a larger form may be the hallucinogenic M. elata, found in Europe). Gray when it first emerges, with elongated pits, vertical ribs and transverse ridges, angusticeps—which means narrow head—gradually turns black with age but doesn't lose its flavor. An allied species, M. semilibera, the Half-Free Morel, has a skirt of pitted flesh depending from the head; its stalk is stringy, and it's rarely abundant enough to single out for eats.
The Early Morel has a wrinkled (not pitted) cap that sits on the stalk like an inverted teacup on a stake. Found in low, rich soil along streambeds and in marshy ground, it can cause a lack of coordination, dizziness and even nausea in some persons, from four to six hours after ingestion. But so many people eat it with impunity that to label it poisonous would be unfair: Many of these "caps" were collected in the Boyne City championships, and the judges saw fit to count them as fair game.
"Caps are good eating," says Tony Williams. "Why don't you come by my restaurant later and eat some?"
Who could refuse?
Boyne City (pop. 3,400), a former logging center and ore-shipping port on Lake Charlevoix, where tourism is now the principal source of revenue, lies in the heart of Hemingway country (Walloon Lake, where the Hemingways had their summer home, is only five miles to the north). Papa would probably be scandalized by the mushroom motif that dominates this once-tough old town during the championship weekend. Colorful drawings of crinkly-topped 'roons and long-eared leprechauns adorn the shop-windows downtown, and knee-high wooden models of morels are for sale in the town park, on the waterfront whence the ore barges and log rafts once chugged down to the "Big Lake" (Michigan). The wooden mushrooms are carved by chain saw—no mean feat, as anyone who uses those snarling monsters can attest—by 24-year-old Mike Kessler of Boyne City. Photographer José Azel and I stopped en route to Williams' Depot Restaurant to watch Mike "sculpt" a morel out of an aspen log. It took him six yowling, high-decibel minutes to carve the cap, another 20 to "put in the squiggles"—the characteristic elongated pits of the angusticeps. "I've only been sculpting about three-and-a-half years," he said, covered with chips. "But I been workin' a saw since I'uz 10 or 12." It showed.
The restaurant is a converted railroad station on an abandoned siding. It's roomy and redolent of old wood and woodsmoke. Williams greeted us at the door and ushered us to a spacious round table. Photographs of Boyne City at the turn of the century adorned the walls.
"This is the fourth year I've won the championship," said Tony as we started our first course, a thick, creamy morel soup with a rich, earthy flavor. "I've been picking since I was an infant. My mom used to take me into the woods on her back. My family has been in these parts since the logging days a hundred years ago. They've been morel hunters all along, I guess."
Next up was a platter of deep-fried 'roons dipped in a thick tempura batter and cooked crisp. You anoint them with hot sauce, then pop them into your mouth. But I found that the batter and sauce overwhelmed the mushrooms' flavor. Better was a plate of morels sautéed in butter with just a hint of garlic.