S1E1: The Morel of the Story.

Original transcript:

Dear M,

If I were to ever get a tattoo, I think I would get one of a mushroom, especially, after getting a PhD. The program doesn't have to be mycology, but it has to be a mushroom project. The mushroom would be a morel and it would be on the upper right part of my torso, below my shoulder near my pecs. The morel is not like many mushrooms eaten in the culinary wold. The morel is in the ascomycota family which has its own distinctions from the basidiomycota family where you normally find the white button, cremini, portobello, oyster and the likes. You see, the morel is honeycombed-ish in shape and has no gills. You won't be confused with a poisonous looking mushroom or "shroom", especially, when requesting a tattoo version. No mistake, the more is a unique organism. Some people say the false morel looks like a morel, hence the name, but I don't see the difference. There's a stark contrast. But, maybe, I'm just used to looking at mushrooms to see the difference. I'm not dying from mycotoxins -knock on wood.

If you don't already know, I'm a fungal fanatic and my logo is representative of my obsession or passion, I should rather say. My podcast is about food in all its complexity from the grand scale in its system to the scientific principles governing the cooking process. Chau Time looks at food through the lens of investigative journalism through different seasonal experiences and experiments. From the first season, you'll go on a journey to learn about me and my fascination with the fungal kingdom. You'll get to know me, my quirks, and my thought processes. From each season forward, we will explore different avenues of food. In part, we will learn about cooking different cuisines, explore sounds and its impact on eating behavior, and review food literature from a philosopher's, librarian's and scientist's point of view. I'm excited to share with you all that I have in store and more.

Going back to the topic of mushrooms, my fascination began when I was younger. I was a born into a Chinese-Vietnamese American household. My parents are both of Chinese-Vietnamese descent. I grew up with different cuisines that is considered fusion. A bowl of bun rieu is equally as common as a clay pot of braised pork and eggs. I thought that was normal for any Asian American just like I thought everyone loves mushrooms. I was exposed to shiitake, wood ear, enoki, white button, king oyster, and creminis. Just like Bubba Gump has versatile uses for shrimp, I imagined many applications to mushrooms: fry, stir fry, sautee, bake, puree, dehydrate, add to soup, add on pizza, grill, boil, microwave, steam, ya feel me?

As with many childhood beliefs, I had to learn the truth. Not everyone loves mushrooms. Some people hate mushrooms. That's fine...I guess there will more mushrooms for me to consume. The last meal I would want to have would be well cooked mushrooms. The texture of chewing on a mushroom is juicy. The umami and earthy flavor combinations brings me to my happy place. That's how much I love mushrooms.

I recall a time not too long ago...April 2017. I was in Northern California for a mushroom hunt. My friend and fellow fungal fanatic, Stephen, was going to navigate me to a secret location to find morels. At 7 in the morning, we were up and gearing for an adventure. One and a half hours of driving later, I saw vast wilderness. The hunt is on! This hunt wasn't my first forage, but it was my first time hunting for morels. The difficulty in finding these little guys are on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is easy peasy lemon squeezy and 10 is what the bloody hell, where can I find these damned things, is a solid 8. Let me preface by saying there was an earlier forage in which I didn't participate and many morels were already picked. A new set of rain came a few days prior which would, hopefully, sprout more morels.

Now, I had a housemate in Napa and he used to live in Michigan where his family picked mushrooms. He warned me about false morels and he told me about the likelihood of finding morels around pine was slim to none. Of course, that's Michigan and we're in California, so, maybe, there's a difference in the fungal ecology that permits morel growth. I just know morels prefer a slightly more basic soil and after a fire, morels pop up like no tomorrow. As an aside, I'm not condoning setting fires in California, especially, if you see pine trees. Morels are highly valued products because they're not easy to find or grow. Setting fires arbitrarily with hopes of finding morels doesn't work; that's fungal fantasy.

Let me set the scene for you. Pine trees. Everywhere. The trees are not bundled together. Some trees have fallen. Enough about trees... The ground is full of weeds, rock, tanbark, and pine cones. Some broken pine cone bits or rocks, from a distance, gave me false hope of finding morels. So many false encounters. Stephen found the first morel and I surveyed the surroundings. These tricky little guys camouflaged so well. Mother nature at her best. I'm also bad at Where's Waldo which doesn't help my cause. Of course, finding one morel means there's a cluster nearby. I find the cluster comes at most in a set of 3. As we progressed through our hunt, finding more and more morels, we stumble upon a waterfront and sparser trees. It is at this point, I look up to find myself alone. I parted from my friend as my head was kept low looking for morels. I had an hour to kill. I decided to double back looking for morels on my own. I found bones of a dead animal. The oblong jawbone makes me think deer. I don't even know if there's deer in the area. After collecting 12 or so morels, I began to circle back towards my car in hopes of finding more. I shouldn't have kept too tight of a time record, but I did. I didn't find any morels for 25 minutes and desperation set into motion. Twelve mushrooms?! I drove all this way for 12 morels? Am I just bad at finding Morels? (Yes.) Just as the 30 minute mark hit, I started to hike my way to higher ground to find Stephen when I saw them. One more. Then. Two more and another a little further. In moments like these, I felt like crying, but I didn't and collected the morels. With no more luck, I ended up where I started and heard the whistling of Stephen. Meeting up with him, we compared our spoils. I disappointed him. He ended up taking me to where he was so we could increase my inventory to 22. Thank goodness I have friendly fungal fanatic friends.

Looking back, finding 22 morels for the first hunt is pretty awesome. Sometimes, I tell people a failed mushroom hunt is a hike. I should believe that more. Fast forward to that April day in the early evening. I was already cooking. Mushroom don't last too long and most end up dried up as means of preservation. Speaking of preservation, applications include pickling and grinding the dried mushrooms to add into salt blends. I digress. The most common preparation for morels is took in butter. You can't go wrong with butter. I did two separate preparations: cook in butter with some red wine vinegar infused with garlic and green onions, cook in oil with the same red wine vinegar infusion and soy sauce. The common 3 pillars in cooking references are fat, acid, and salt. Morels are cooked in that manner where the fat is butter or oil. The acid comes from the vinegar and the salt comes from the soy sauce. I later added just a few drops of soy sauce to the buttered morels. Let me tell you the simplicity of the dish sent me to my happy place. Of course, I brought the morels to my last D&D, Dungeons and Dragons, session as I was moving out of Napa that weekend. You think I only geek out about mushrooms? Well, I geek out about other things too. You'll see. The group was rationed out one morel per member. Any extras were eaten by me, yours truly. For the morels I did not bring to the session, I brought home for my parents to try. They're lactose intolerant hence a version without butter.

I can only hope I end up finding the right PhD program that allows me to study mushrooms. Until then, my mushroom tattoo of a morel can wait. The morels of this story allowed me some reflection. As I struggle with my inner demons and shortcomings in life, I've found that my happy place goes back to the topic of mushrooms. I use mushrooms more liberally when I should be saying fungi because wood ear and truffles are not the same anatomical parts that a mushroom consist of. I try not to be too pedantic about these things. Morels gave me hope in times of desperation much like when I was giving up during my hunt. Morels gave me something to look forward to at the end of the journey and the whole journey too. Such is life.

Brian Chau

P.S. Chau Time is produced and edited by Brian Chau. Logo design was done by Charis Poon. Music was produced by Jadey Gonzalez. If you liked bits and pieces of this podcast and would like to support Chau Time, please visit my Patreon page. You may follow me on Instragram @this_is_chau_time. Feel free to tweet @ChauTimesfor your thoughts and inputs. Check out the rest of my website http://chau-time.com/ for more information. You may listen to Chau Time every week wherever you get your podcasts.