10 May, 2008

A Parable of Taste and Patience

Are the very rarest and most precious things really so hard to obtain, or do they merely seem so?

For the last week and some I have been visiting relations in the Pacific Northwest. A key point of the trip was to spend time with my young nephews, my youngest brother and his wife, and to give myself a mental picture of their still relatively new circumstances, having moved from the northern reaches of Vermont a little over a year ago to a charming 100 year old bungalow in Portland. My sister-in-law is a native of the city and in part their relocation was prompted by a desire to be near her clan at least while the boys are little. There is much to be said of the culinary culture in the region triangulated by Portland, Hood River and Bend, and my brother, a chef, was more easily persuaded by this fact than proximity to in-law sitting services.

The soils and waters of the Columbia, Willamette, Deschutes and Sandy valleys are veritable Xanadus for foragers such as my brother and myself. At this time of year the salmon are running, the sturgeon are gearing up and the fungus is coming in. It is the latter that occupied my time and thoughts disproportionately over the course of several wet days.

But first, a bit on stalking the former.

A sturgeon is caught using a drop line outfitted with bait or a lure. One waits sipping Full Sail Ale for the gentle creak of the gunwale telling of activity below. The sturgeon have to be induced to make one’s acquaintance, and once having done so they are anything but acquiescent to my playing my proper role in our sudden relationship. There is an adversarial feel about fishing of any sort, and I inevitably respect the ones that get away – it’s a sobering experience to be bested in a contest of wits and patience by one’s dinner. That sobering is mitigated by ever more generous administration of Full Sail, so a day on the Columbia is never wasted - though by the end of it I may be.

My guess would be that a sturgeon has better things to do than accept my invitation to dinner, as evinced by their forceful resistance to my entreaties. I have to take some pains to convince my intended guest to come to the table, an act of persuasion that crosses over very readily into coercion. Still, once having gotten the upper hand I’m grateful to the fish for finally giving itself over to me, but triumphalism of any sort is usually just code for having worked, or having idled while others did.

The mystique surrounding the wild morel is rather more developed than that of most fish (maybe excepting sturgeon of the Caspian sort). If one has a well developed fancy for edible fungus, then gustatory congress with the morel would the sine qua non of your condition. Certainly adding to their mystique (and their expense in markets) is the shortness of their season and the difficulty of finding them. That they are acknowledged as so elusive I’m sure adds to their saveur.

One must be prepared to suffer a bit to come to the morel, for they grow in messy circumstances – windfall, bramble, nettle, muskeg – not a natural place for a featherless biped such as myself. Regardless of the success of any morel expedition, the seeker will come away with bootloads of muck and myriad small violations of integument (mercifully it’s too early for mosquitoes right now). Attention to this aspect of the quest merely confounds recognition of the mushroom’s greeting, which is what it does when you let it see you.

A morel is a charming and unlikely denizen of the forest bottom it inhabits – one would not expect the best of anything to emerge from so unlikely and inhospitable a biome. Yet, as soon as one gives up the search and simply lets all creation as it has arranged itself be what and how it actually is, without wishing it, the mushroom, or oneself (sulfurous goo, thistle burns, battered shins and all) were any different, the morel reveals itself, and it is like a revelation, often in profusion, indeed tilting toward you in deference. Its combed ribbing, brinded gray confirmations and conical cap practically conspire in salutation, as though you were the one they had come topside to meet and offer themselves to. They know that their lot is to be treasured, to be used reverently and with respect and skill. Less perspicacious creatures avoid them. They’re waiting for the one who trusts and who is willing to be displaced, persistent, patient and perhaps a bit discomforted. The morel appreciates your suffering and rewards you with the full, happy and unresisting offering of everything it is, and will be in the violence you have yet to visit upon it.

Gently courted from its redoubt it maintains its beauty, dignity and composure as you suffocate, cut, compress and burn it, emerging on the far side of your depredations ever more desirable, seeping and fulsome, and now completely vulnerable. Every morel, like every mushroom, wants to be your last, wants to give itself ahead of others, wants to taste like nothing ever has nor will again.

It is a blessing worth thinking about that the little delicacy and I are enzymatically compatible, that for a tiny quirk of chemistry my precious and I can meet and have a loving relationship whereas it might so easily have been lethal otherwise. She wants me to find her, and as much as says so when we appear to each other, but she has no intention of making it either easy or hard on me. All she asks is that I stray a bit from where I know I can get around easily, stay awake to where I am, be willing to suffer a bit and, most importantly, not to bother looking for her.

That’s when your heart’s desire shows up, and it sure beats shopping.

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