Anytime the subject of morels is on the agenda, attendance at the monthly meetings of the Illinois Mycological Association goes up. That was the case last month when Milan Pelouch, the group's former foray chairman, came to talk about his book, How to Find Morels, encouragingly subtitled Even as Others Are Coming Back Empty-Handed.
Pelouch, a 78-year-old retiree from a Libertyville metallurgical company, broke the ice at the North Park Nature Center by poking fun at the infamous secrecy and subterfuge among veteran hunters of the elusive wild mushroom, whose response to the question "Where can I find morels?" can't always be trusted.
"If you are foolish enough to ask the question, you are foolish enough to believe the answer," he said.
Plenty of books have been written on the spongy, phallic morel, which in Illinois usually makes its annual appearance right about now. But Pelouch says most are focused on identification and taxonomy and fail to include practical advice, such as how to identify the particular species of tree the fungi grow around. It's also important to be aware of differences in the behavior of subspecies, he notes—yellow and gray morels may sprout in the same spot year after year, for example, but black morels probably won't. Like many 'shroomers, he has a tendency to speak of fungi as if they were sentient; the morel, he told the group, is a "wily creature" that, once spotted, may disappear if one glances away, as if "it figured it was in mortal danger and just hid."
Pelouch began hunting mushrooms as a toddler in southwestern Czechoslovakia, and in his book he imparts the fundamental tactics his grandfather taught him while they were off in the woods searching for boletes (better known in markets as cepes or porcinis). In the old country, though mushrooming was far more popular than it is here, it wasn't competitive—foragers didn't tail one another or eavesdrop at campsite latrines to discover secret spots. Pelouch doesn't stoop to such tricks either: mushroom hunting, in his view, should have a higher purpose, which is what led him to share his knowledge. "I really think it's good for people to become more in union with nature," he says. "I think it brings out good qualities in people."
In 1948, when Pelouch was 17, the new communist regime didn't look kindly on the political columns he wrote for his school newspaper. He was interrogated by the authorities and, taking a hint, he and two friends sneaked over the Bavarian border that April. He spent a year and a half in refugee camps in Germany and Italy before a Catholic group sponsored his immigration to the small town of Caspian on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It was there, while working as a pin jockey in the town's bowling alley, that he met his future wife, Lila. A year later they'd found jobs in northern Illinois and married.
Pelouch stopped mushrooming for a time in the course of raising three children, but as the family prospered and began to take regular vacations, he caught the bug again. About 30 years ago he happened across some boletes while visiting Lila's parents in Michigan. Lila had never hunted mushrooms before, "but once you start finding them you get hooked," she says. Back home, Pelouch joined the IMA, and in the company of professional and amateur mycologists he quickly became addicted to morels.
While he's the foraging expert, Lila is the cook, and she's amassed three notebooks' worth of her home recipes. Fourteen of them appear in her husband's book, including ones for fresh morel paté and morel strata with cheese and sausage. (You'll also find one of her recipes on the Reader's Food Chain blog.)
Returning to camp after a foray, Pelouch dumps out his basket, which often contains more than he and Lila can eat fresh. He brushes the mushrooms clean and slices them in half, removing any insects lodging in the hollow interior, then turns them over to Lila, who sautes them in butter, packs them in bags, and freezes them. They prefer this method to drying, and say frozen morels taste just as good as fresh ones. They eat mushrooms about three times a week, but even so the couple's freezer contains morels from several seasons back, and the tops of their kitchen cabinets are lined with jars of dried boletes and morels.
Pelouch spoke to the IMA just a few weeks before the group's annual morel foray in Kankakee, which will take place this Saturday. But he won't be joining them: though Illinois seems to go crazy for morels every spring, he doesn't think the state's a very good place to hunt them. Instead, each year around mid-May he and Lila hitch up their 2002 Airstream and head for northern Michigan, where there's far more public land to collect on, the soil is a morel-friendly mixture of organic leaf litter and sand, and the competition is less intense. "It's wonderful to pick mushrooms in this country because so few people do it," says Lila.
They have no fear that the book will cut into their supply. "I am not worried," says Pelouch. "We always find them."v
For more on food and drink, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.