For us, mushroom hunting has always been an afterthought, an excuse to go to the woods (See “Our Woods”). This year, however, we’re on a mission. We recently took a French cooking class, and we intend to find two dozen firm, meaty morels for the bisque de champignons sauvages we plan to make for Sunday dinner.
The pressure is on. But first thing’s first: Our mushroom hunting ritual always begins with lunch at Earl’s.
Earl’s Supper Club is about fifteen miles from our woods. Retro-rundown and open according to a fairly whimsical schedule, Earl’s has a fifty-year history of frying up the best catfish in the state. For twelve bucks, you get a “salad” of shredded lettuce and a slice of tomato, a heaping platter of French fries, and a second all-you-can-eat platter of catfish filets, lightly breaded and fried to a golden brown—the color of those morels we’ll soon be pulling gently out of the leaf litter in our woods.
Each meal also includes white bread and butter, dill pickles, and thick slices of onion. What the waitress sets on our table-for-two would easily feed six people. A few minutes later, she returns with the check, handwritten on a tiny piece of lined memo paper, and a very large piece of aluminum foil for our after-mushroom-hunting leftovers.
I love these outings. Between Earl’s and our woods is the little town of Darwin, a name still pronounced “DarVIN” by the German relatives in these parts. Heartwarmingly low-rent, Darwin is a community of ramshackle fishing cabins. It was originally called “McClure’s Bluff” after Keith’s great-great-great grandfather, who also was the first operator of the ferry that has served residents since 1818. Thanks to the meanderings of the Wabash, the ferry moved downriver from its original location. But it is still a tangible reminder of a time when Darwin was a bustling river town, a landing site for the great steamboats that churned up and down the Wabash, hauling sugar and cotton from New Orleans and whiskey back to it.
Darwin was itself Clark County’s second county seat: The first was Aurora Bend, now one of our cornfields, its current population twelve wild turkeys, two dozen deer, and 0 humans, except, of course, on mushroom hunting days. Aurora Bend’s elevation made it no match for the river, but for a short time nearly two hundred years ago, it had a log courthouse and jail whose second floor housed a debtor’s prison, a whipping post, and an “estray” pen where stray livestock were held until they could be reclaimed or sold to the highest bidder.
All these remnants of civilization1 are long gone, of course. Only the weight of family history remains.
When we get to our woods, we can’t keep our eyes trained on the ground. This land has been in Keith’s family longer than Illinois has been a state. There is too much to take in, too much to be responsible for, too much to miss. Three hours later, we have not found a single morel. But we have found a silver tree frog napping in the middle of a May Apple leaf. And we did climb down the south bank for the first time, turning up geodes and Indian beads along the creek bank while we listened to the chimpanzee calls of Pileated woodpeckers and the sizzle of a saggy electric fence. And we did discover that even though the property boundary lines haven’t moved an inch, what grows up around them—swathes of Larkspur or Rue-Anemone or Blue Hearts—is different every year.
Perhaps this is why I had the foresight to pick up that package of baby Portobello mushrooms at Baessler’s Market yesterday.
Because sometimes, we need to be able to have our woods and eat our Bisque de Champignon, too.
1And it was civilization: “In 1819 Clark County was a veritable wilderness, over whose extended prairies, and dense, unbroken forests of oak, hickory, elm, poplar, walnut, Cottonwood, beech, ash, maple, sugar tree and interminable swamp lands, the wild deer, wild turkey, panther, bear, raccoon, opossum, wild cat, squirrel, quail, pheasant, and other wild animals and wild fowl roamed and fought and fluttered and screamed, with practically no one to disturb or make them afraid. None but the bow and arrow of the red Indian, and the occasional crack of the old flintlock rifle of the few white settlers, or of the Red man lucky enough to possess one, ever disturbed the repose of these denizens of the frontier.” From Historical Encyclopedia Of Illinois and History Of Clark County