Tuesday, September 5, 2017
An ode to the morel mushroom — or merkels
The season for the wild Appalachian delicacy known as the morel mushroom has come to an end.
Typically found from March until May, depending on the weather, the Morchella ushers in the beginning of spring. I had been prolonging the season — unearthing my stash of dried morels and bringing them back to life with a little bit of water. But, alas, my last morel took its final journey to my tummy.
The wild edible found throughout our West Virginia hills has seen some interest from chefs in large cities — driving up demand and resulting online sales at about $65 per 4 ounces, according to one site.
While they’re now trendy, morel mushrooms have roots in our culinary culture. Mountain people hunt, fish and forage for berries and, of course, mushrooms, creating that strong connection between the land and our people.
As a child, I would accompany my grandma through the woods behind her house in search of the elusive morel mushroom, or as my grandma says, “merkels.”
You’ve probably heard morels, “molly moochers” or “hickory chickens,” but in my part of Appalachia, it was always merkels.
Folklore says a mountain family was saved from starvation by eating morels, and thus they were called miracles — or merkels in a strong Appalachian dialect. Some also say the scientific name for Morchella is thought to have derived from “morchel,” an old German word for mushroom, which could have been a source for name merkel.
Whatever the name, these mushrooms became a fixture of my youth in West Virginia.
We would hunt merkels for hours.
“Find the ones that look like a honeycomb,” my grandma would tell me. “Not the smooth ones, those are poisonous.”
In her kitchen, merkels could often be found strung up with fishing line. A small prick from her sewing machine needle in the stem of the mushroom, a quick loop with the line and you can enjoy merkels long into the winter months, if you possess any shred of self-restraint.
Nowadays, my pizza is always topped with mushrooms, and lasagna isn’t lasagna without that touch of umami. Maybe that’s because the love of the mushroom was instilled in me at a young age.
My grandma, now 75, forages less frequently these days. But, along with the love of merkels, she instilled in me pride in our state.
West Virginia is a beautiful place, and while others may take for granted all the incredible — and delicious — gifts it bears, my grandma never did. While she enjoyed hunting merkels, she more so enjoyed being in nature where she could appreciate the birds, the rolling hills and the beautiful flowers. The bounty was a bonus.
And, while my morels may have been the last of the season, you can still get in touch with your foraging roots with chanterelles, chicken of the woods and others as they begin popping up in the upcoming seasons.
Whether to you it’s a morel or a merkel — or something else — I’m not sure a mushroom from any other place would be as tasty.
Candace Nelson is a marketing and public relations professional living in Morgantown. She’s also the author of
“The West Virginia Pepperoni Roll,” a comprehensive history of the unofficial state food, and blogs about West Virginia food culture at CandaceLately.com. Follow @Candace07 on Twitter or email Candace127@gmail.com.
Dorothy’s Fried Merkels
This is the recipe my grandmother made for me as a child. As is the case whenever I ask her for precise measurements, most of the cooking is done by eyeballing the amounts. The following is not fancy, but it’s real. It’s how I grew up eating merkles, and I hope you enjoy.
1 cup of flour
mess of morel mushrooms
Rinse the morels in cold water to remove loose dirt and insects.
Crack an egg.
Slice the mess of morel mushrooms.
Coat the mushrooms in the egg.
Put the mushrooms in a plastic bag full of flour to coat them.
Pour about 2 inches of canola oil in a skillet and deep-fry it until the mushrooms become crispy, like french fries.
Top with salt and pepper.
Share the bounty with your friends, but if you plan to return again, never tell them where your morels were hiding.