Essay: Rite of Spring

This is the season when I force my kids to log off Facebook, put on their boots, and tramp through the wet woods in search of a certain fabulous fungus. There's a method to my madness. Let me explain...
Illustrations by Hadley Hooper

Just the other day I was out in rural western Virginia hunting for mushrooms with my family when I noticed my son, Joseph, standing sternly with his arms folded across his chest, leaning against a tree. "What's wrong?" I asked. "Don't you like hunting mushrooms?" He gave me that incredulous 12-year-old-boy glare, the one that says, "You've got to be kidding me," with a side of "I wonder if I'm adopted?"

It's hard to imagine why walking around in random circles in the damp woods looking for fungi wouldn't appeal to a kid that age. But Joe was bored because A) we were hunting for the elusive morel mushroom, and B) he wasn't finding any. I took his ennui as a personal challenge and asked him to give it one more try. He grudgingly agreed, so we walked side by side into the forest.

As a dad, there are many times when you have to make the tough call. I decided against the tried-and-true "Why can't you pick mushrooms like your older sister, Grace?" tactic and went instead with another page from the Bad Parenting Handbook—deception. My plan was to trick Joe by secretly scouting out some gems, then steering him in that direction so he'd have his eureka moment. Problem was, I couldn't find any myself, so I had to wander over to where my dad, Bill, the bloodhound of the family, was looking. Even now I sometimes ask him to yell when he spots a morel so I can rediscover it, which is okay when you're 12, but I'm 50. Then it's just sad. Still, there we were, three generations of manly Tuttles united in one cause: finding and re-finding and re-re-finding morels, the tastiest treat that ever grew out of rotting leaves and wet dirt.

To understand why I care so much about passing down this tradition, I have to walk the story back a little and tell you some family history. For centuries my Appalachian ancestors have been a tad obsessed with the homely little morel, though we don't call it that. To us, they're just "mushrooms." Giving things simple names seems to be a pattern among country folk. My parents bought a few acres in the woods a while back to build a cabin on, and after much thought they named it ..."The Land." One local had a mutt named "Dog," which I didn't find that unusual, because my dad would sometimes call every one of his Beagles "Johnson" so he wouldn't have to remember all their names when he summoned the whole pack back from rabbit hunting. Anyway, I'll never forget my great-grandfather putting his mushrooms in "Ol' Romulus," a sack made from a black bear's ear, which my great-grandmother lovingly sewed with cat gut and tanned herself with ham hock juice and bacon drippings. All right, none of that really happened. But why do people writing about food feel the need to write like that? Fact is, we used a plastic Sunbeam bread bag or whatever else was handy.

The ritual is in our blood: Find, pick, eat, love, repeat. My family was into the whole foraging thing way before it became trendy. When I was growing up, we'd all go out to gather huckleberries and wild asparagus. My grandmother Hazel would put a plain white sheet down under the low-growing berry bushes, and we'd shake the plants until the ripe fruit dropped off onto the sheet, settling in the folds. I don't know if it was efficient, but it was definitely fun. And eating the cobbler she'd make later was pure heaven. Other times we'd drive along in her old white station wagon, the kids sitting backward in the way-back, inhaling the dust rolling through the open window and feeling sick, while at the same time being ordered to scout for wild asparagus growing along the roadside. We'd holler when we spied some, and my grandmother would hit the brakes so we could jump out and pick a bunch.

Now my kids are learning the same skills, and they don't have to ride backward to do it. My dad instructs them to hunt for morels, which look like spongy little gnome brains, near grapevines and poplars, while my mom, Joyce, preaches that old apple orchards are best. If they stick with it long enough, chances are Joe and Grace will develop their own sixth sense about locating a good patch, just like my little brother, Chris. He was at a business meeting in Grottoes, Virginia, one spring a few years ago when he looked through the window toward the woods and started daydreaming to himself, I bet that bank is covered in mushrooms. When the meeting finally ended, he grabbed an empty Pepperidge Farm bread bag from the break room, made a beeline for the hillside and started poking around in the dirt like mad. When he returned minutes later with a mother lode and muddy shoes, his colleagues thought he'd lost his mind. If that's not enough evidence of his passion, know that Chris recently found a monster morel growing out of the side of a dead possum, and left it behind only after my dad wisely advised him to leave it be.

We Tuttles take this stuff seriously. And heaven help the family member who somehow let slip to an outsider where our hallowed hunting grounds are. I don't even want to think about what sort of punishment might be offered up in such an apocalyptic scenario. Perhaps my mom would make you watch while the rest of us ate a mess of morels, lightly fried in Crisco. Mmmmm. We go to great lengths to keep our family patches secret, deploying scouts to be sure the coast is clear while others listen for cars before we dart into the fungi-filled hollow.

Because of my youthful foraging experiences, I know now with perfect hindsight that living a life attuned to the seasons rather than the vagaries of social networking teaches patience and flexibility. Mother Nature is a fickle mom. She gives on her terms, and then every now and then has a bad hair day for no particular reason. So some years the morels come back in the same spot in huge numbers, but the next year you might find only a handful. If it rains too much, they get drowned out; if it doesn't rain enough, they don't bother to come up at all.

That's lesson number one: You're not in control. And that is what makes nature's mercurial gifts so precious. The Snickers at the market is always going to be there, and taste exactly the same as it did last time. But that's not how life really works, and it's a good thing to learn that when you're young. So every year when spring has sprung, I ring up my parents and ask simply, "Are they up yet?" And they know exactly what I'm talking about. If they say "yes," this awkward conversation will immediately ensue with Grace and Joseph: "Kids! Turn off your Play-Station and log off Facebook! Mawmaw and Pawpaw said the mushrooms are popping up! Let's pack the car and drive 200 miles, where we will search for hours in the damp, chilly woods and maybe not find any!"

It's not easy keeping this tradition alive, especially since we live in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. But I bring the kids back to "The Land" whenever I can to cultivate their own sense of the seasons and the importance of knowing that the food we eat should be treasured. The strawberries will last only so long; gorge on the peaches while they're here. Pick as many blackberries as you can—my dad dodged rattlesnakes and thorns to collect 48 gallons last year—and freeze the rest for winter. Even looking up at the stars comes as a surprise when we've been away from the cabin for a few months, so every night I make sure we stand out in the dark and gaze skyward until our necks get stiff.

When my Grace and Joseph are older and living in some far-flung locale, I hope they'll remember those afternoons we spent foraging and honor how fleeting it all is—the seasons, the bounty, the time we have together, life itself. They'll be thankful we were all there in that time and place. And they'll have learned the same lessons I did: The forest is full of secrets, kept across generations and passed down from father to son, mother to daughter. And it's full of gifts, physical and spiritual, that are there for the taking. The trick lies in knowing where to look.

Originally published in the May 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.