Festival In Irvine, KY Sparks Competition Within Morel Mushroom Community
Dryland fish, Molly moochers, hickory chickens. No matter what you call them, morel mushrooms are a seasonal favorite in many communities throughout Appalachia. And you can often spot morel hunters bragging about their best finds on Facebook or at backyard cookouts. At the Mountain Mushroom Festival in Irvine, Kentucky, several layers of competition are present within the mushroom community there.
Everybody’s Afraid You’ll Find Their Honey Hole
Up on a stage, tucked underneath a tent, John Allen is preparing a cream sauce chock full of morel mushrooms. The cooking demonstrations are in full swing.
“Now whenever I’m doing a cream sauce—when I’m thinning it out—I always go about one step thinner than I want my final sauce to be,” Allen said to the audience.
This is Allen’s tenth year demonstrating at the festival, which celebrates local traditions around morel mushrooms. Morels are a type of wild mushroom that can be found in the forests of Appalachia in the springtime. They are often identified by their honeycomb-like caps. They can be smaller than a fingertip and bigger than a hand, and they’re prized for their meaty texture and their nutty, buttery flavor.
For his dish, Allen layers the morel cream sauce over a piece of sourdough bread, and tops that with a slice of tomato and fried morels. It’s an ode to the Kentucky Hot Brown, made with Estill County morels.
“I’m gonna call it the Estill Brown, why not,” Allen said. The crowd claps and cheers as Allen shows them the mini open-faced sandwich.
While Allen enjoys sharing his creation with hungry festival-goers, he’s also vying for the top prize in the Mushroom Cook-Off. He enters the cook-off every year. And a few of his dishes have won him a blue ribbon.
“I did a morel-stuffed homemade ravioli once,” Allen said. “One year I did a sausage made with wild turkey, cranberries, and morel mushrooms. And I cased it up and cooked it up like you would a sausage. That was really creative and I had a good time with that one. That was probably one of my favorites.”
These days, Allen’s considered a veteran of the mushroom festival. Yet it wasn’t until he moved to Estill County in 2006 that he became interested in hunting and cooking morels. But as someone who didn’t grow up in the community, getting information on how to find morels wasn’t easy.
“When I first moved here, people still guarded it like some sort of well-kept family secret, until everybody looked around and realized, oh gosh, no one knows how to do this,” Allen said. “So slowly, people have been a little nicer, a little more kind about teaching younger folks how to do this stuff. But everybody's afraid you'll find their honey hole. So that's kind of what it comes down to.”
You Get It When The Gettin’s Good
Morel hunting can bring out people’s competitive side. That’s partly because morel season is so short—about three to four weeks. But it’s also because it takes a lot of skill and effort to find these tasty fungi.
“It takes a special eye,” Tina Caroland said. “They change colors throughout the season. They're under the leaves or up next to stumps. So they don't just pop out there for you to see and find.”
Caroland was born and raised in Estill County, and she comes from a long line of mushroom hunters.
“My papaw took me as a little girl. And then I’ve took my kids and my mom goes. So we kind of just make it a family affair,” Caroland said. “After Easter—after we did our big Easter egg hunt for the kids— a big truckload of us all loaded up and we went mushroom hunting.”
Caroland has been demonstrating on the food stage of the festival for about 15 years. Today, she and her aunt, Jen Collins, are sharing their family recipe for fried morels.
“I would say it’s a secret recipe, like KFC or something. But it’s not really. It’s just flour and cornmeal,” Caroland said. “So, we’re gonna put a little oil in the skillet.”
Once the oil heats up, Caroland’s aunt fills the skillet with morels that have been coated in the flour and cornmeal mixture. As the mushrooms turn a golden brown, the oil pops and sizzles. Caroland tells the audience that when her family goes mushroom hunting, it’s always a competition.
“We make it a contest with each other,” Caroland said. “Who finds the first, who finds the largest, who finds the most, who finds the smallest. So we just kind of make it a fun event when we go in the woods together.”
As Caroland describes it, her family can get pretty serious about it. When an audience member asked if she would ever wait to pick a mushroom, Caroland quickly responded: “No, you don’t wait because somebody else is gonna get it. You get it when the gettin’s good.”
The mushrooms Caroland and her family typically find are pretty small—only about an inch high. But one time, Caroland’s dad found a surprise growing in a rotted tree in her grandmother’s apple orchard.
“There was a mushroom there—it was bent over a little bit, but we measured it out twelve inches,” Caroland saids. “He had it put in the paper, and that’s probably been twenty plus years ago by now. And that’s probably the biggest one we have ever found.”
Along with the Mushroom Cook-Off, the Mountain Mushroom Festival hosts competitions for who can bring in the biggest morel and the most morels by weight. At noon on the first day of the festival, the contest board showed the leading totals were 9 by 7 inches for the largest single morel, and 24 pounds for the most weight.
While Caroland and her family make morel hunting a contest amongst themselves, none of them have ever entered any of the festival competitions.
“We have not ever entered,” Caroland said. “Today is actually the first time I thought we might should have fried some up earlier and entered them to give a few people a run for their money. Because everybody likes country cooking. I mean, who doesn't like plain old country cooking?”
Now We Have Award Winning Mushrooms
Up on the food stage, Caroland and her aunt have almost finished the first batch of fried morels.
“We'll try to make sure we get enough samples for everybody to at least get a taste,” Caroland saids to the crowd. “I mean, you come to the mushroom festival, you at least want to taste a mushroom.”
But before Caroland and her aunt pass the morels out to the audience, they slip a couple to the festival judges. For the first time, they’ve decided to enter the cook-off. And just a few minutes later, one of the festival volunteers comes up on the stage.
“I'm gonna interrupt just for a second. Just to announce the winners,” the volunteer said. “ We had three people enter our cooking contest. Entry number one was John Allen’s Hot Brown from this morning's presentation. And he got a perfect score of 36. So he actually got first place.”
The crowd cheers. Another blue ribbon for Allen. Then the volunteer announces that the next entry came in third. She then makes her final announcement.
“Our third entry are these two beautiful ladies here, with second place prize,” she said.
While Caroland and her aunt didn’t win first place, they did earn themselves a red ribbon. And some bragging rights.
“How bout that?” Caroland said. “Our first time entering and we got second place. That’s a pretty good deal. Now we have award winning mushrooms.”
And since the fried morels were a family recipe, maybe they can share those bragging rights.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council. The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.