About now the dogwood must be blooming in southern Illinois where I used to live. And that means it is the season for morels, those astonishingly delicious mushrooms that burst up out of the cool, damp soil in the woods of late April - after the bloodroot and anemone and before the mandrakes bloom.
Morels have the distinct advantage of not looking like anything poisonous, but rather like upside down, round-ended ice-cream cones elaborately Swiss-cheesed with holes, balanced on short, fat stalks. And they don't taste faintly like earthy supermarket mushrooms. To call them delicious is to say that Helen of Troy was probably somewhat nice looking.
In fact their elegant flavor inspires some peculiar behavior among morel enthusiasts. These delicacies are not common. They do not litter the woods. One does not fall over them. They blend in expertly with the leaf litter, and they prefer certain out-of-the-way spots. For instance, before American elms completely died out in the area, victims of the Dutch-elm disease, morels especially like the vicinity of old elm roots.
Dedicated morel hunters all have favorite mushrooming spots, about which they are extremely secretive. If you are talking to one in early evening, he will likely remark vaguely about duties at home and drift away with his eye on you to see that you don't follow. His family might as well eat supper without him. He won't be back until well after dark. Nobody in the family worries about this. They are as eager for the morels as he is.
Property rights seem suspended during morel season. One finds pickup trucks parked in odd places, on private land, across which some morel hunter has set out in search of his treasure, stepping around the "no trespassing" signs, eyes, no doubt, on the ground.
I recall one friend, Bob, telling me he had gone up a wooded ridge behind his house looking for morels, but every one he found had a small twig stuck in the ground next to it as a mark of possession. The previous hunters were letting them grow a little more to get that last ounce of flavor. He honored the twigs, though I could tell it was a little ruefully. He knew the boys who had staked their claims and didn't want to infringe their rights on land none of them owned.
When the Mississippi is not in spring flood, some of the big islands in the river support good morel crops, and one can see local people set out in their boats - to fish, of course, but forgetting their poles.
One evening in spring a friend gave me two small morels from his sack. Only two? I was delighted. They would enhance an ordinary family supper even with only a few morsels for each of us. Then he astonished me by telling me exactly where he'd found them. At the time I didn't know he was moving away in a few weeks. Then it made more sense.