Flash in the Pan 

Sifting through the ashes

“Oompa, Loompa, doompadee do,” chanted Black Dog, his head bobbing like a cork at sea. Different head positions provide different perspectives. “There’s another one,” he said.

“Here’s another,” said Safety First!, standing by a sunsplash on the scrubby forest bottom.

We had them surrounded, those curiously magical-looking mushrooms poking through the forest duff like half-buried treasures. We stood there salivating until Black Dog said “OK,” and we all pounced, delicately plucking the morels into folded napkins, hankies, paper bags. Black Dog’s T-shirt said Anyone silly enough to ask a morel plucker where he got ’em is also foolish enough to believe the answer. If you’ve ever eaten morels, you know why. If you haven’t, well, I couldn’t describe it any better than I could describe the taste of a strawberry, or chocolate.

“Black Dog,” I said, “can’t we go prowling in a burned area? I hear that’s the place for bung-loads.” Black Dog shook his head. “It isn’t time,” he said.

Just then, Forage Boy returned to base after another trip in orbit around our roaming posse of forest prowlers. In his cupped hands he bore fungus. “Oh. Dude. Where did you find that?” asked Black Dog. “Was it in moss? That’s the biggest...specimen of one of those...that I’ve ever seen.”

The whole gang was staring in open-mouth disbelief. Finally, Safety First! spoke. “I’ve, I’ve, I’ve never seen Black Dog forget the name of a mushroom before,” she gasped. Black Dog grinned like the Cheshire Cat. “Short term memory loss is a beautiful thing baby,” he said.

“I’m glad you think so,” I said, snapping my fingers in front of his eyes. “You are now hip-motized.”

Black Dog was still grinning. His eyes were glazed. “Groovy,” he said.

“Black Dog,” I said, “I’m sorry to be doing this, but I’m Chef Boy Ari, and I do what it takes to get the job done. This story is for the Burn This Issue, and we need to take a stroll through a burn, even if it is too early for the post-fire fungus. So, when I snap my fingers, the forest that you see around you will be burnt, and you’re going to find us some post-fire morels. OK?”

Snap, and Black Dog was crouched by a fire-blackened ponderosa pine, looking anxiously at the sky, as if it might fall. “Watch out for hanging snags!” he barked. “Prowling in post-fire country can be hazardous.”

“Far out,” said Safety First! “Can I be hip-motized too?”

Black Dog’s eyes darted across the ground. “Watch out for burned-out stump holes too,” he said, “and loose rocks, and omigod, ladies and gentlemen, we have some fungus among-us.”

We gathered around a patch of mushrooms. They looked like fairy-sized red-brown wine goblets. “See these guys? They are called Geopyxis vulcanis, also known as Fire-Following Fairy Cup. They are a post-fire associate of morels—one of several hundred species of mushrooms that fruit prolifically following a forest fire.”

These fungi are part of a vast underground network called “mycorrhizae”—special trans-species tissue that forms between tree roots and forest fungi. This vast underground network of symbiotic partners provides a medium for the exchange of nutrients.

“Eighty percent of forest tree water comes to the trees through mycorrhizal connections,” said Black Dog. “After a fire, if the mushrooms don’t come back, neither does the forest. One of the dangers of salvage logging is it can mess with the soil ecology, compacting the soil in some places, exposing and raising the temperature in others. Most forest regeneration failure is due to mycorrhizal failure.

“Sometimes a fire burns through the understory, killing trees. The dead needles drop, making a perfect carpet for the morels to fruit through. Keeps the charcoal off of the ’shrooms…” Black Dog pointed as he walked: “like those beauties.”

The gang rushed over, plucking, not being greedy. Oompa, Loompa, doompadee do. Black Dog was still talking. “Nobody knows exactly how fire stimulates morel activity. It has to do with the fire-resistant sclerotium phase of the life-cycle. The sclerotium is a fatty, sub-surface fungal hairball-looking tissue mass. From time to time, it fruits, sending up morels.” I wondered aloud: “Hmm, a fatty part of the morel organism? I bet the sclerotium would be great on the grill.”

“Too bad they’re the size of thumbtacks,” said Black Dog.

Clearly, this short treatment barely scratches the surface of mushroom-ology (known as “mycology” in technical circles). The best way to learn more is to log on to www.fungaljungal.org, the Web site for the Western Montana Mycological Organization, and get privy to reliable info on where, when and how to find our most coveted fungal pleasures—and most importantly, how to cook them—without getting poisoned by look-alikes (like the infamous false morel) along the way.

E-mail Chef Boy Ari: flash@missoulanews.com

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