The package arrives special delivery. He reads the return address before he opens it, vivid memories flooding up from that most distant time. His childhood neighbor now owns the woods near the house where he grew up. “Do you want me to send you some?” the friend texted, a surprise connection recently made on Facebook, the weathered farmer’s visage still recognizable.
The morels appear as though they were just gathered, forest dirt clinging to the torn white flesh at the bottom of their hollow stems. He remembers how strange they were to him as a boy, spongy brown blobs from outer space hiding among the bright green parasols of mayapples. His whole family always searched for morels together, the forest of the Potawatomi and pioneers now theirs, toting grocery bags from the IGA.
The big kitchen is sadly empty, closed by the Twilight Zone virus. His restaurant empire has kept expanding but he loves his flagship original too much to stay away for long. Even though books and TV shows have made him a celebrity, he still does the menu here, works behind the line often enough to keep his game alive at 70.
He has incorporated the world’s most delicious fungi into his dishes over an entire career – first white button and portabella, then cremini, porcini and chanterelle, shiitake, enoki, maitake, and oyster, beech, lion’s mane, hedgehog, bluettes, king and black trumpets, and, of course, those exquisite Tuscan truffles straight from Mario’s property outside of Florence – and each spring foragers near and far sell him precious morels. But these, here, now, on the cutting board in front of him, are the most precious of all.
The table of his rural Midwestern childhood in the late 1950s and early ‘60 was set with the simple recipes his mother had learned from her own mother, the grocery stores where she shopped filled with bland canned goods and familiar staples from Betty Crocker, Kraft, and Chef Boyardee. There were no mushrooms of any kind for sale, only those little pieces in the creamy white Campbell’s soup, their flavor so distinct, meaty but not, contributing a hint of something earthy and exotic to the insipid liquid, what he later would learn was that magic quality “umami”.
Everyone gathered around the farmhouse range while his mother dipped the halved morels, hollow in the middle as though they hoped to hide some secret, in egg mixed with milk, then dredged them in crushed saltines. As they sizzled in hot Crisco, the smell reminded him how special this moment was every year.
The taste was like nothing else, their texture, even to a country boy, exquisitely toothsome. He was raised on squirrel and rabbit, wild raspberries, blackberries and pawpaw, but morels represented the true essence of the forest, of Nature itself, expressing the mystery that would continue to seduce him for the rest of his life.
He refills his glass of Meursault, cuts each morel in half, musing over the empty space inside. He puts a bit of garlic in olive oil and local butter, and gently sautés this gift given to him, takes a video of the finished product artfully displayed on a white china platter, and makes a toast which he sends to his childhood friend – then he slowly eats them all.
Steve Brammell has worked as a freelance writer for various publications including Alabama Magazine and Birmingham Magazine as well as industries and medical institutions. His poems and short fiction have appeared in journals such as RavensPerch, Northwest Indiana Literary Journal, White Wall Review, The Tiny Seed Literary Journal, The Write Launch, Flying Island Journal, Cathexis Northwest Press, Toho Journal and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. Finishing Line Press will be publishing his book of prose entitled Red Mountain Cut later this year. Steve has also enjoyed an interesting parallel career in the restaurant and wine business for the past 25 years. He is graduate of Wabash College and a member of the Indiana Writers Center.