There are Mushrooms and There are Morels

I’d heard people talk excitedly about hunting ‘morels,’ but never shared that experience. The only mushrooms I gather and eat are the shiitake we grow on logs here at the farm. When Holly, one of our farm workers, approached me in the orchard, and said, “What are those mushrooms under the trees?” I immediately went over to look.

Holly had been straightening out the irrigation drip lines, pulling them close to the trunks in the tree rows, so that when we mow they won’t get snagged. I had been weeding around young trees, putting cardboard down to suppress the weeds, and covering the cardboard with bark mulch. I followed Holly down one of the rows as she looked for a mushroom to show me. “Morels,” I said, instinctively, peering under the canopy of a large tree. I recognized the morels without really knowing I was familiar with them.

When I returned to the house I looked up morels, just to be sure. One photograph was all that was required. Sure enough, morels love growing under old apple trees. Morels have a distinctive shape, eerily similar to brain coral in surface, with elfin-like rounded turrets that poke up out of the ground, leaning this way and that.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Morels particularly like apple trees, poplar, and elm, but can be found just about anywhere. The challenge is to spot them. Sometimes you have to walk by a site several times, but once you notice one, you will usually see many more. Morels like days of sixty degrees and nights of forty degrees, and, of course, moisture — just the conditions we’ve had all spring. So perhaps we have had morels before, but so few that I didn’t notice. This is a bumper year for morels, they are calling out to be harvested. Otherwise, the mushrooms will dry up in a few days, resembling dark rice paper that will melt back into the ground. It did occur to me that I probably shouldn't be writing this blog—morel seekers guard their favorite gathering locations with religious fervor!

When I decided to collect the morels, I read about the best way to harvest them. Some aficionados claim that you should cut them just at ground level; others, that pulling with just a slight tug releases the mushroom with a little knob covered in dirt. The ones who favor cutting say that plucking may damage the mycelia threads and reduce future harvests. I decided to try both techniques. I went back to the orchard with a basket and pocket knife. Pulling them seemed so easy, as if they simply released willingly into your hand. It didn’t feel like I was doing any damage. Cutting them off is neat and clean, but left a hole in the hollow stem open to the air. After trying both approaches, I found myself preferring the pluck method, and harvested enough for lunch.

Blase and the day’s workers, Kevin, Mike, and Holly, were already in the kitchen. I sliced up the morels and added a few shiitake. In a heavy frying pan, I poured a little olive oil and a generous tad of butter. When the pan was hot and the butter melted, in went the mushrooms. While they were cooking, I added a little salt, a little rice bran oil with a very small amount of shoyu, and balsamic vinegar. We shared the exquisite, rich taste. I couldn’t imagine they would ever taste this good again. Two days later, my daughter, Ariel, and I went hunting, and brought home another basket full.  I cooked them again, and they were scrumptious.

Morels with a couple of small shiitake.

Morels with a couple of small shiitake.

"What's in a Name?"

Granny Smith, Bramley’s Seedling, and the picaresque Bloody Ploughman are names of apples with unique histories, but I, too, have had my own journey with names. I was born Linda Bess Weiner. When I was a child I disliked my middle name; it seemed too old fashioned. I got the sense from my mother that she really didn’t like it either. The name came from my father’s mother, an overbearing woman. I imagine that my mother must have felt pressured to do what her mother-in-law wanted and thus named me after my great-grandmother. When I was about ten, my mother said I could change it, and we decided together it would be Elizabeth. The initials, LEW, had a nice ring to them, and she gave me a necklace with those letters. We didn’t say anything to my grandmother. However, it never rolled off my tongue without a hiccup of some kind, a hemming and hawing, an exclamation that it wasn’t my real middle name. And then of course the question followed: “What is my middle name?”

After a few years, I simply dropped having a middle name. I was Linda Weiner. It wasn’t a last name that I particularly liked either. There was just too much childhood teasing —  Oscar Meyer Weiner hotdogs and worse. Why couldn’t I have a normal last name? I especially felt this frustration given that my family had now moved from the working class refinery town of Chester, Pennsylvania, to Wynnewood, one of the towns of Philadelphia’s prominent Main Line. My schoolmates attended dances at the nearby Merion Cricket Club, but Jews were not allowed. We got along well enough at school, but clearly there were differences. My name gave away my legacy.

The English apple, Bloody Ploughman, was named after a ploughman who was shot by a local gamekeeper for stealing apples. And the popular, Granny Smith, was named after an Australian woman, Maria Smith, who rescued an apple growing in her compost heap. The Bramley, another English apple, was named for a Mr. Bramley who bought a house from Mary Ann Brailsford  where she had planted a seedling which grew astonishingly good cooking apples. Bramley allowed a local nursery to propagate it on the condition that it would be named after him. I might have avoided planting this apple if I’d known its patriarchal history.

A group of new apples sport the name, ‘Crisp,’ including Honey Crisp, Golden Crisp, and Cosmic Crisp. The “crisp” in the name indicates that these apples have been bred to be particularly crispy, something the early 21st century public desires. One of my favorite new apples is Bonkers, a cross between a Delicious and a Liberty produced by Cornell University's apple breeding program in Geneva, New York. Bonkers is large, extremely crispy and juicy, and very red; and it is scab free, important for our organic orchard. The name, Bonkers, also has some kick, especially compared to other new scab-free apples like Pristine, Liberty, and Freedom.

When I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to live with Paul Matisse, the father of my three children, I told him that I didn’t particularly like my last name. How could I like ‘Weiner’ when I was living with a ‘Matisse,’ one of the most illustrious names in 20th century art? Paul said, “Why don’t you change it?”  I immediately thought of the traditional Japanese poets who often took pen names. The Japanese haiku poet, Basho, over his lifetime published poems using three different names. Basho was the last one he adopted after his disciples built him a little hut and planted a basho, a banana tree, in front of it.

The idea appealed to me and I thought of a poetic name like River, a name taken from the natural world. Paul was quick to say, “No.” I think he imagined Linda River was too close to Joan Rivers or some Hollywood star’s stage name. “It should be a normal name,” he said, and he pulled out the Manhattan phone book, opened it at random to the H’s, and found Hoffman. So I took up Hoffman, and went to the Cambridge courthouse and officially changed my name. It was a sort of declaration that I no longer belonged to my family of origin. I was starting out fresh, a new person with Paul; I was a person without a family history. 

When, twenty years later, I moved to a rundown farm with a large pond in Harvard, Massachusetts, I decided that I wanted to give this new home a name. I was a small frog leaping into a big pond, not knowing what was waiting for me under the water. I named the farm, Old Frog Pond Farm, after Basho’s haiku.

Old Pond

            Frog Jumps

Splash of Water

It felt right to name the farm after a Japanese poem. It connected me to the time when I was living alone in Japan — young, inexperienced, and passionate about the Noh Theater.

Trying on a silk kimono with my Noh teacher, Takabayashi Koji Sensei.

Trying on a silk kimono with my Noh teacher, Takabayashi Koji Sensei.

Naming the farm after Basho’s poem was the beginning of finding a true name, a place where I was grounded in the reality of the soil, physical work, and natural beauty. As I found firm ground beneath my feet, my old names no longer mattered.

Unlike us, an apple likely has no consciousness of its name; it simply grows, producing blossoms, leaves, and fruit regardless of what we call it. But the name can change our perception of an apple and create its market appeal. In a similar way, our own names can make a difference. Some names roll off the tongue easily, others are poetic, or connect us to a much-loved family member. Many people at midlife go back to their full birth name, and discard their childhood nickname, capturing a new identity in doing so. In 2010, I formally took Buddhist vows, and my teacher gave me the Buddhist name, Shinji. Shin means truth and ji means soil or earth. Truth in the soil. One’s Buddhist name is meant to be a teaching, something to aspire towards. I like when I am called Shinji by my Buddhist sangha and friends, and I am perfectly happy being called, Linda, or Mama, or Babe, the name my husband, Blase, uses, or Ama, the name my granddaughter uses.

We have a few seedling apples in the field near the Medicine Wheel with no names. These started growing from pips in the pumice we dumped from our apple pressing two years ago. If they continue to grow, they will each produce a unique variety of apple. Most likely the apples will be small and bitter, but you never know, one of them could be sweet and crisp, or be a great cooking apple like the Bramley seedling. And what would I name it? The Shinji apple has a nice ring, but I think the first seedling apple we grow will be named for my first granddaughter, the Vita Apple, the apple of my eye!