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Fungus Hunters

These Parts--Buchanan, IL/Stalking the Elusive Morel Mushroom



Buchanan, Michigan, is only 90 miles from Chicago but far off the southwest-Michigan tourist path. It's a small working-class town of 4,000 people who speak with that relaxed American country drawl that doesn't seem to know North from South. Buchanan's stores have none of the understated boutique look that you find in trendier New Buffalo or Lakeside, 15 miles east. Intead it seems thrown together and lived in, with too many bikes and toys littering the front yards, a battalion of pickup trucks under repair in backyards and driveways, and a hodgepodge of vacant storefronts along the main drag.

Buchanan boasts that it is American's redbud capital, but don't look for a carefully landscaped row of redbuds along Red Bud Road. These intensely fragile purple-blossomed trees, now in full bloom, are plentiful in Buchanan, but they are scattered helter-skelter through town like an infestation of beautiful weeds.

Buchanan, though robust and attractive, looks like a town that needs a haircut and shave.

Kind of like city public-works employee Phil Gorbitz, a wild-eyed, frizzle-haired, full-bearded Buchanan good old boy of 35 who introduced himself to me the other day while laughing and guzzling a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. "Just say that I'm someone who loves huntin', fishin', drinkin', and fuckin.'"

One can easily imagine Gorbitz and his tidier, short-haired older brother John fishing for bass in the Saint Joseph River, deer hunting in nearby forests, and making short work of a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon. But one would have to stretch well beyond the good-old-boy stereotypes to see them also as aficionados of a rare gourmet delicacy. And yet the Gorbitz brothers, like their parents before them, are expert hunters of the elusive morel mushroom.

Tony restaurants and gourmands are willing to pay as much as $20 a pound for the richly textured, piquant-tasting morel, often called the champagne of the mushroom family. Chicagoans who have developed a taste for morels are delighted to find a dozen or so on an outing through the woods. Phil Gorbitz can pick enough for a meal on his lunch break. He finds them everywhere--in Little League fields, along streams, and mostly in the woody ravines on the outskirts of Buchanan.

Tourists pay good money for weekend morel-hunting safaris conducted farther north in Michigan. Hunting is not good this year up there in the Manistee forest, the Gorbitzes hear. But in Buchanan, a town not known for its morel harvests, Phil, John, and some of their friends find bagfuls of the spongy fungus whenever they go. Last year Phil and a friend stumbled down a ravine and literally fell into a motherlode of 600 to 700 morels, which they gathered by the armful.

An estimated half million Michiganders go looking for morels each spring, according to the Michigan Travel Bureau and Department of Natural Resources. Their brochure also says that "morel hunting may be the state's fastest growing outdoor sport... with field workers counting as many vehicles parked along roads during spring morel season as during the November deer hunt."

Every spring Buchanan townsfolk tell stories in the bars and at work about the ones they found, the ones that got away, the giant yellow morels as "big as beer cans" as well as the small black ones that the Gorbitzes call "dog peckers." What they don't talk about is exactly where they find them.

"Morel hunters never say exactly where they look," says Phil. "It's always 'south of town,' or 'near the river' or something general like that."

One day last week the Gorbitzes and two friends, Butch Horvath and George Ksiazek, took me with them on a late-afternoon morel hunt somewhere northeast of Buchanan. We parked Phil's truck and trudged quietly through a hilly section of woods, keeping our voices down so as not to alert the nearby property owners' dogs. The golden sunlight of late afternoon streamed through the trees; wild strawberries were starting to flower on the edges of the woods.

"No one really knows where or what makes morels grow," said Ksiazek, a free-lance writer who moved from Chicago two years ago. "Some say look near elms. Others say in beech forests. Some say look on the edge of forests; others say deep within. I have my own theory that they grow best where people dump their garbage, like that dump over there--something about the metal in the cans might touch them off."

"Summabitch who figures out how they grow and learns how to grow 'em would have a gold mine," said John Gorbitz.

Phil was out ahead of the group, leading us through sections of the forest where he had found morels in the past. But it was ex-Chicagoan George, the guy trailing the bunch, who found the first morel, a three-inch yellow one. The rest of us had walked right past it. This somehow bothered John Gorbitz, who looked as disappointed as a catcher who'd just allowed a passed ball. Determined to catch up, he found the next batch--eight large yellow ones. To me, it seemed easy to walk past the quarry; whether black, gray, or yellow, the morels blended in with last fall's dead leaves and branches and were easily hidden by the fast growing spring foliage.

Soon others started scoring. John and Phil's eyes were the best, often spotting mushrooms that I couldn't see until they went to pick them. Eventually, though, even I was finding them, including a patch of ten spongy yellow ones. One hillside seemed unusually rich with morels, yielding most of the 60 or so we were to find that afternoon.

"You know the butcher in town finds morels every year, but he never tells where he found them," said George. "He sells some, but he's got to be careful because of the liability. If anyone made a claim saying they were poisoned, he would have some trouble on his hands."

Walking toward the truck, John Gorbitz blurted out, "I'm writing a mushroom-hunting song."

"How's it go?" I asked.

"I ain't got it written yet, but there's this songwritin' contest run by the Yuppers. [Da Yuppers, named presumably for Michigan's Upper Peninsula, recorded "The Second Week of Deer Camp," a song popular with local hunters.] They're gonna publish the song and put it on their next record, and I'm gonna win the fucker with a mushroom song. They got a deer-hunting song, fishing songs. Now they need a mushroom-hunting song."

A half hour later we were in Phil's dining room, working on a new case of Pabst and talking about the best way to eat morels.

As soup, or stuffed, said George. But others said just fry them slowly in lots of butter.

"Don't waste them by mixing them with eggs," said John, who also warned against eating "false morels," which have caps that detach easily from the stem. The caps and stems of edible morels are continuous.

"Whatever you do, you better soak them in saltwater for a day or so before you fix 'em to kill all those bugs that are on 'em," said John.

How important is morel hunting to these men?

"To be honest, if you wasn't coming up here, I'd be sitting in a boat on a lake catching crappies, sunfish, trout, you name it. I'd rather go fishing," said Phil.

John didn't agree. "To me morels mean that spring is finally here, and I like it better than fishing. Hell, anybody can go catch a fish; give a kid a pole and he'll catch something. But I don't think everybody can find a mushroom. People are desperate to find mushrooms, and they get jealous if you find some and they don't.

"I'll go to work at the post office, and first thing they'll ask is how many mushrooms you find? I'll say, 'I dunno, 50 maybe.' And they'll start grumbling, 'You summabitch, where'd you find them?'

"'Course, I won't say. No one ever really says."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/George Ksiazek.

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