Carla and I are doing errands in downtown Tok Junction, Alaska. We’re part of a 10-member Missoula crew that’s come to Alaska to sift through the ashes of six million acres of charred forest, the aftermath of last year’s fires. We’re after the morel mushrooms that grow in the burns.
As we enter the liquor store, a blackened blur leaps at Carla. “Bleah!” says the blur. “Ahhh,” screams Carla as the blur, who quickly comes into focus as the Frenchman, laughs. Then he gets serious in a hurry.
“I’ve found sem, you hwon’t believe eeet. Eeet’s incredible. I’ve never seen anysing like it. Sousands of pounds. And get zees: eeet’s on zeee ridge right behind our camp!”
I feel like a moron. As the founder of Camp Obese Mosquito, I’ve been here the longest. I’ve been up and down this desolate valley enough times to make it feel like home, yet I’ve never checked the ridge behind camp. I know the Frenchman can smell morels through an airlock at 70 below, but still, I shouldn’t have needed his expertise to tell me they’re popping out in my own back yard. But apparently I did.
Carla pulls a $10 bottle of wine off the shelf. The Frenchman sees it and wrinkles his nose. He picks up a box of wine. “I hrecommend zees,” he says.
The cash register lady’s mouth drops. “French people don’t drink wine from a box,” she gasps.
“Leesten lady,” commands the Frenchman. “When we are et home weeth our white shirts and tablecloths, then yes, we don’t drink wine from box. But zair ees nossing elegant about what oui are doing here!” He pounds his fist on the counter to emphasize his final five words.
The next day it rained. And the next. We scurried around camp, trying to stay warm and dry and keep our buzz on. The Frenchman, who was so convincing in the liquor store that he bought a box of wine himself, spat out his one and only sip before trading it to Jared for a pack of cigarettes. The mushrooms on covered drying racks began re-absorbing water from the damp air. I busied myself by converting my Subaru into an airtight, power-heated mushroom dryer.
Finally the skies cleared and our team hit the mushroom patch with a vengeance. The summer solstice was my day to watch camp. Chef Boy Ari, recently re-christened Dr. Funglestein, decided to cook the gang a special meal: morel chowder. I used a quantity of morels that only pickers can afford, but you can substitute other kinds of mushroom, or augment a small quantity of morels with a larger quantity of cheaper mushrooms.
I cut several beef sirloin steaks into chunks, rubbed them in olive oil, and then rubbed them again in garam massala (an Indian spice mixture available at most stores), lemon pepper and garlic salt. I added red wine from Carla’s box, covered the meat and let it sit.
Then I cut potatoes and carrots into hearty chunks and boiled them with just enough chicken stock to cover them, and a few bay leaves. When the potatoes and carrots were falling-apart soft, I removed them from the heat.
In a fry pan I cooked bacon, which I removed from the pan, and added the marinated steak chunks to the bacon grease to brown them. I set aside the browned meat.
At this point, the crew returned from the patch, each bearing a frame pack stacked high with mushroom-bearing crates. Black Dog began sorting, tossing the sub-par specimens known as culls. When I asked him for some mushrooms for dinner, he handed me the crate of culls. Most were perfectly good for immediate cooking, only a bit too damaged or old to dry and store for a long period. I picked through the cull basket and added morels to the pan in which I had browned the meat. I also added chopped onion, butter, sherry and more red wine from the box.
The Frenchman came into the cook tent to inspect.
“Culls?” he exclaimed in disbelief. “Tell Black Dog he ees a feeelthy beach for using culls on Solstice.”
Black Dog declined to comment on this allegation, and the Frenchman returned with large handfuls of prime specimens, which I added to the simmering pot. When the mushroom pot started to dry out, I added the stock, a cup at a time, from the pot of potatoes. I also added more sherry, and more wine from the box.
Finally, I added half and half to the mushrooms, and then dumped them into the pot with the potatoes, to which I also added the browned meat. I dumped in a box of parmesan croutons for some extra body, gave it 15 minutes on medium heat for it all to cook together and then served. Voila.
“Eet’s almost perfect,” admitted the Frenchman. “Maybe only if you had smoked the mushrooms before cooking them it would be better.”
?I finally shut up the Frenchman by handing him a bottle of Yukon Jack. This only succeeded in the short term, however.