In 1984 Tony Williams won Boyne City’s National Morel Festival hunt with 796 morel mushrooms in two 90-minute morel hunts in two days. Years later, someone claimed to have gathered 900 morels in the same time period, but most folks think he cheated, leaving Williams’ record intact.
Williams went on his first official morel hunt in Northern Michigan when he was just a few months old. He’s been finding hundreds of the succulent fungi during morel season ever since. The earthy diamond pattern of a morel mushroom is ingrained in his brain. He’s so good that after winning the National Morel Mushroom Festival Competition in Boyne City for six years in a row, he removed himself from the race to give other morel hunters a chance at first prize. Since then, he has been awarded the position of “Expert-In-Residence” for the National Morel Mushroom Festival in Boyne City. He now teaches morel hunting and takes people on guided morel hunting tours in the Boyne City area.
As Northern Michigan’s morel mushroom season moves into full swing and Boyne City prepares for the 50th anniversary of its National Morel Mushroom Festival beginning May 13th, MyNorth talked with Tony Williams about some tips on how to search for the mouthwatering morel. However, as any morel mushroom hunter will concur: Tony will NEVER reveal the spot where he finds the most morels! (Morel Non-Disclosure: It’s a Northern Michigan tradition.)
MyNorth: You’ve been hunting morel mushrooms for most of your life, right?
Tony Williams: Actually, my mother was pregnant with me when she went mushrooming, so I started early. I guess I’ve been hunting for morels since BEFORE I was born. And my parents carried me through the woods when I was a baby while they went morel hunting.
MyNorth: So it was kind of like osmosis.
Tony Williams: My grandfathers, Homer and Morris, were loggers here in Boyne City more than a hundred years ago. They both picked mushrooms. My grandfather Homer was married to a French- Indian woman and her father was a French fur trapper, and he brought the art of morel mushroom picking to Northern Michigan from France. So it’s been in the family for about 150 years.
MyNorth: So you’ve been doing this since you were a little kid. But lots of people do this from the time they’re very young, and they don’t find the volume of mushrooms you do. What makes you so good?
Tony Williams: It’s been an acquired thing. You do it year after year, and you pick up on it. I started right out picking with great pickers. My father would carry me through the woods before I could really walk to go mushroom picking. It’s about recognizing the terrain. The time of year makes a difference, too, and a north-facing hill versus a south-facing hill. Knowing your trees. Knowing not to look down at your feet, but to look out, and knowing you should keep moving. I’ll go out with pickers who don’t seem to understand: you need to keep your head up. I look long range. I know what I’m looking for. I’ve seen people looking just four or five inches from their toes. You should look out at least 25 to 50 feet. I can find mushrooms a hundred feet away, ‘cause I know what I’m looking for….
MyNorth: But even if you know the right terrain, how do you know when the mushrooms will be there?
Tony Williams: It’s all about weather. The mushrooms are out there! There must be millions of pounds of morels that are not picked every year. Know your terrain. Know your trees. Moisture is a big part of it. You go there at the right time of year. Some people go out for 45 minutes, and say they can’t find anything. Well, in my family, it’s an all day thing. You go out all morning. You take your lunch and eat it in the woods. And you keep going. If you’re really hunting for mushrooms, you put your time in and cover a lot of ground. Keep moving.
MyNorth: Everyone seems to agree: we’re in a weird weather pattern. It was the driest March on record. Some say it’s global warming. Whatever it is, how’s this affecting the morels?
Tony Williams: Everything is slowed down this year. I haven’t been out yet, but a friend of mine went out the other day and found 160 blacks, two to three inches tall. They were nice and they were fresh. Obviously, it’s all about the rain. The mushrooms don’t look at the calendar and say “hey it’s April 25th, we need to get out there! ” They look at the weather. When we get the rain, we get the morels. But even in a light rain, they will come up. And there’s also moisture left over from winter.
MyNorth: So you’re not worried there won’t be any morels this year?
Tony Williams: We could go out right now and I’d find some. It’s the same thing every year. Every year I find them. I don’t worry about moisture. We’ll know when it gets here. I’ve never gone through seasons without morels.
MyNorth: Do you have any doubt that we’ll have mushrooms when the National Mushroom Festival in Boyne City begins May 13th?
Tony Williams: It’s an early season. People have been finding morels already. Usually it depends on how cold it gets. Cold weather can slow down the pace. If it warms up and we get a lot of rain by the weekend of May 13th they’ll still be out. And we usually have them a week to two weeks after the festival, so I’m not worried.
MyNorth: I hate to bring up people’s ages, but have you been around since the very first morel mushroom festival began?
Tony Williams: I joined the mushroom festival … I competed… in 1979 or 1980. I won the championship five years in a row and then I quit. Some people were telling me they weren’t entering the competition because they knew they couldn’t win. It just got to the point where “I’ve won five years an a row and I’ve made my mark here.” I’m a good mushroom picker, that’s for sure. And then years later, the festival organizers asked me to come give a seminar. Then I started giving the seminar eight or nine years ago. The seminar is Friday afternoon in the big tent in Boyne city during the festival. People gather, and I get up on stage and talk about picking morels. I reveal to people all my tips—how, where, what to wear, what you’re looking for, and then right after my seminar, we take five school bus loads of people out on a fun pick … no pressure. We take them out to Boyne Mountain. It’s the only day of the year they let people pick there, so that’s pretty cool. We take people right in to the woods and show ‘em what’s going on.
MyNorth: What’s the most you’ve ever picked at a competition?
Tony Williams: At one time, the championship was over two days. When I first started, it was a ninety-minute pick each day, then the top 20 pickers would come back for another 90-minute pick and combine the two totals. I remember seven to eight hundred for that competition. One year, I picked 450 in three inches of snow! You could see the mushroom indentations as if they were embossed in snow. My bag got extremely wet. I had to take my shirt off to hold around the bag because they were so wet. Four-hundred-plus mushrooms that day… and a freak snowstorm! But that’s your competitive pick. The pick we do after my seminar is just fun and leisurely.
MyNorth: Someone reading this may never have looked for morels before. Can you give a bit of advice for a first-timer?
Tony Williams. : In the old days, you could find morels by elm trees. But then Dutch elm disease came through here 25 years ago and we lost ‘em. Now it’s by ash trees. And it’s recognizing those. Those are mainly for white morels. But the blacks: that’s poplar or aspen. It’s a two-fold season. You start with the black morels then you have a crossover period with blacks and whites, and then at the end of the season, it’s only whites. It’s a five or six week season. During the crossover: that’s when you go to an apple orchard … if you can find one that’s from an old abandoned farm, maybe 100 years old, it’s perfect. That’s an excellent place to go during crossover season.
MyNorth: So: what’s so special about morels, and hunting for them?
Tony Williams: Well for me, what I emphasize in my seminar, it’s getting back to nature. I lean more and more on that all the time. It’s a great food. It’s exotic. You can’t buy it in a grocery store. That part of it is like a treasure hunt. People love to find stuff! Treasure can be anything, but the treasure here is morels and food. But what I emphasize more and more is: bring the kids. Get the kids involved. Everybody’s on computers. Everybody’s driving cars down asphalt roads. We gotta get our kids in the woods, so that they understand the planet. And so they understand the planet provides food for us, too. When you take them in to the woods as a family, spend time walking through nature, you find these morels, and you take them home, and you have this little family gathering: you clean them in the kitchen, you throw them on the stove, you cook them, you eat them together. It gives them a whole new view of the planet, which I think a lot of young people are missing today.
MyNorth: I have to ask you: how does the Expert-in-Residence cook his morels?
Tony Williams: I do it the way my mother did it. We never got fancy with ‘em. Some people say “We’re having morels!” and they’ll make a roast and throw like ten morels in the sauce, and you’re searching for them in the sauce. In my family, we’d pick morels and bring them home and first of all: don’t soak them in water! Don’t soak them in salt water! Just clean them off…. you shouldn’t have soil in the bag with them anyway, if you break them off properly. Snap them off at the stem. DO NOT PULL THEM UP BY THE ROOTS! Keep your morels clean from the start by pinching them with your thumb. Then take them home, cut them in half lengthwise. If you do get a little bit of dirt or a bug in there, just take a brush—like a paintbrush or a butter brush—and just brush it off. DON’T WASH THEM. The moisture in there is very flavorful. So then, throw the morels in a pan without anything at a very low heat. It will draw the moisture out of the morel, and it will be in the bottom of the pan in it’s own moisture. Cook them on low heat for, like, ten minutes until the moisture starts drying up and then I throw in a good-size chunk of butter and turn the heat up to full (he puts out his hand and mimes shaking a frying pan: “SHHHHH!!” )—do the sautéing and searing, then splash them on a plate in a pile and eat ‘em.
MyNorth: No salt or pepper even?
Tony Williams: I don’t. You can salt and pepper to your delight. But I like the taste of the morel. The only taste I add is butter. That’s the real clean way of eating them. It’s kind of like: you don’t have to have a 60-foot sailboat. You can sail on a 10-footer, and it’s true sailing. It’s the same thing with morels. You don’t have to cook some great big lavish thing. This is a real true way to get the taste.
For more information the National Morel Mushroom Festival in Boyne City, go to morelfest.com.