I've never met Malfred Ferndock, but then nobody has. I have more reason to hope I'll one day meet Peter Leach, in whose mind and pen Malfred Ferndock resides.
Peter Leach is usually a potter, someplace in Minnesota. He is also the Garrison Keillor of morels, those delectable, convoluted, cap-shaped wild mushrooms that beckon hordes of Americans into the woods this time of year. Leach publishes a mail-order catalogue of morel-oriented artifacts such as morel-hunting sacks and T-shirts and cribbage boards, plus Leach's own pottery mugs with a little morel peeking up from the bottom. The catalogue is also kind of a newsletter on the doings of the elusive Malfred Ferndock, with photos and sketches of the bearded Ferndock tackling morels big enough to strap onto the top of his car (one might wonder about what Minnesota has done to breed such fancifiers, but then the state also claims Paul Bunyan).
Now Leach -- or Ferndock -- has published, along with Anne Mikkelsen, who is real and a cook, the most useless cookbook I know: "Malfred Ferndock's Morel Cookbook" (Ferndock Publishing, Box 86, Dennison, Minn. 55018. $8.50 plus $1.50 shipping; the catalogue, from the same address, costs $1 refundable with any order).
It's a book I wouldn't be without.
As for its uselessness, morels are one of the world's most elusive and expensive ingredients, right up there with truffles unless you live someplace like Minnesota or Oregon. One springtime after another I have searched the woods of various states for morels, and have never found more than two tiny samples. Nowadays I can find them in the market -- fresh ones for $15 to $35 a pound. I can order them fresh by mail from American Spoon Foods (411 East Lake St., Petoskey, Mich. 49770) for about $30 a pound. Or I can buy them dried from a fancy food shop or by mail from Vanilla, Saffron Imports (70 Manchester St., San Francisco, Calif. 94110) at $15 for 1.41 ounces or $80 a pound, shipping included. All of which makes them not a kitchen staple.
On the other hand, until a year or two ago I couldn't buy them fresh at all, and now the markets make possible that splurge, should the craving become too strong to ignore. They have already been available from Oregon; the midwestern ones are coming in now, and should be around for another week or two. It is an early crop this year, says Leach, who also likes to taunt me with tales of the food editor in Oregon who found 322 pounds in one day.
Leach usually picks a couple hundred pounds himself in a season, starting within 20 yards of his front door. So he has a clear need to use up morels. "You can put morels in anything," claims Leach, who proves it by including in his book a recipe for a morel sundae -- with honey, pecans, brown sugar, Frangelico liqueur and Michigan's Vernor's Flavored ice cream. Mostly, though, he's got the right idea for a cookbook: The two dozen recipes, largely selected from submissions by friends of the Malfred Ferndock newsletter, were chosen because they show off morels to advantage. No morel chow mein, Leach says pointedly. Anne Mikkelsen, who tested all those recipes, put it differently in the book: "I was striving to maintain the flavor, dignity and prominence of the morel."
Naturally enough, Leach considers this a practical book even for city folk. "Supermarket mushrooms" will substitute for morels in any of the recipes, he says -- and indeed the Morel Spread is quite delicious even with those everyday ingredients. Furthermore, with an ounce of dried morels, suggests Leach, "You can serve four to six people an absolutely spectacular cream of morel soup." On a larger scale he did so himself when he served soup to a couple hundred people with a mere 12 ounces of dried morels for an out-of-season book-publishing party. He does admit, though, that his missionary zeal is not likely to convert the masses. "I suppose you could walk out on the street and hand it to 50 people and 49 could care less," he says of his new cookbook.
But calling it a cookbook is like calling a morel a mere mushroom. It misses the flavor. This is a book of thoughts, essays, fungi prose poems. It is a book of "morel fiction" as well as "morel fact." It has Eugene McCarthy speculating on whether he missed finding the elusive "merkle" -- morel -- in Virginia because he wasn't wearing the appropriate John Deere cap or because he has brown rather than the required blue or green eyes. The morel-hunter's fatalism is explained in its pages: "What's the worst thing that can happen? If you are out in the woods and don't find any mushrooms, well, at least you are out in the woods."
This is a book dangerous to city slickers. It sets up a yearning. It tempts one to abandon the video center and fern bar for the weekend, quoting Ida Geary, in "Hunting the Wild Morel," who tried to describe the morel's taste but instead described the tasters: "smiling knowingly as older girls do when asked by younger girls about love."
The book has morel etiquette and morel odes, morel tales and morel history (morels helped nourish the Lewis and Clark expedition). It quotes writers as varied as a 16th-century botanist and novelist Tom Robbins. Unassuming and spiral-bound as it is, it has morel etchings and photos of hunters and their mounds of prey, plus a winner of Ferndock's annual tallest morel contest photographed towering over a can of beer. It makes me hungry and gives me hope.
Mushroom hunting reaches its glory this week in the Midwest. Mother's Day weekend is the time for the National Mushroom Hunting Championship in Boyne City, Mich., where hunters are led to "secret hunting grounds" for 90-minute contests. Lewiston, Mich., has its morel festival Saturday, with hunting lessons, guided tours and cooking demonstrations. Another morel festival, in Muscoda, Wis., will be May 17 and 18, branching out into such activities as a carnival, street dancing, bicycle racing and a community auction.
Many cashiers' counters have penny boxes for charitable donations or exchanging change. My favorite among recent finds was labeled "The Ladies' Afternoon Ice Cream Penny Fund."
Giving my college-student son a recipe over the phone, I suggested he should delete some of the herbs because it was too expensive to buy several whole jars for such small amounts when he might not use them again this semester. Once more he showed me how fast the world changes; at his campus co-op he can buy herbs and spices measured to his needs, whether a teaspoon or a pinch. It had never occurred to me to use the bulk herb section of my supermarket to freshly supply each recipe.
MALFRED FERNDOCK'S MOREL SPREAD (Makes about 1 cup)
The authors of "Malfred Ferndock's Morel Cookbook" found this recipe to be the spread best highlighting the subtle morel flavor. It was submitted by Diane Dare of Evansville, Ind.
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter
1 cup chopped morels (or cultivated mushrooms)
2 tablespoons sour cream
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sherry
In a large frying pan heat 1/4 cup butter and saute' mushrooms. Cool. Pour mushrooms and any juices that have accumulated into a blender or food processor, along with remaining 1/2 cup butter, sour cream, seasonings and sherry. Blend until smooth, about 1 minute. Chill slightly. Serve on crackers, bread or slices of raw vegetable.