Earlier this year, near the end of spring, I found myself browsing one of my favorite haunts: Union Square Green Market, in the dead center of Manhattan. Now that my daughter is fully ensconced in her own Upper East Side apartment (crowded with roommates though it may be) and is a fully fledged member of the dean’s list at her college, my wife and I have more than ample reason to migrate regularly to the Big Apple. While we partake of all manner of sophisticated society when we visit, the Green Market is a welcoming beacon of earthiness at the epicenter of urbanism.
If you are like me (and I know I am), you find farmers’ markets irresistible. My own market in the Proctor District of Tacoma is a weekly delight, but I am also enamored of the San Luis Obispo Thursday Night Market, the Saturday morning market at Cabrillo College in Aptos, and the St. Paul Lowertown Market. You may have yours; these are mine.
My most recent visit to the Union Square Green Market — responsible for launching Danny Meyer’s iconic Union Square Café (which, sadly, will soon be no more) — gave me reason for serious pause and reflection. Among the heirloom carrots, organic micro-greens, free-range pheasant, line-caught bluefish and sundry other yuppie delights were baskets full of morel mushrooms — foraged fungi that fetched (gulp) $150 per pound.
Yikes! I am used to mushrooms being pretty pricey, morels in particular. Just weeks before my New York excursion, I saw them priced at $70 a pound at Seattle’s Pike Place Market. I watched with amusement as a disbelieving tourist thought the purveyor was quoting $17 rather than $70. But $150 a pound? That price got my attention. A decimal seemed out of place.
Experience speaks on this subject. Growing up in south central Minnesota some decades ago, amusements came cheap and were unrelated to the internet or any kind of “social media.” We made our own fun, or so the story goes. One Saturday morning, under clear instructions to get me out of the house, my father took me out to hunt arrowheads. If there is a more pointless activity, I don’t know what it might be. Off we drove to find a nearby freshly plowed field, in the hope that we might find a flinty stone that had been worked to a point with an antler for the purpose of killing something. I had been on such scavenger hunts before without much success, but multiple Hills Brothers coffee cans in our garage — brim-filled with fractured flints collected by my father — gave me hope. “Keep your head down and your eyes peeled” were the only instructions. Since those days, I have found that a direct correlation exists between the degree of guidance required and the spiritual or psychic value of a specific exercise . . . but that is for another time. Suffice to say that “Less is More” almost always holds serve.
That day provided no points, but we did happen upon a treasure of another sort. Taking a break from Indian archeology, we happened upon an adjacent stand of once-sturdy American Elm trees, now dying of Dutch Elm disease. In this doomed grove, we happened upon a patch of gigantic morel mushrooms, each of them approximately six inches or more in height. I had no idea what luck had befallen us, but I could tell from my father’s excitement that these were good times. We picked more than our share, perhaps a half grocery bag or more, and headed home, leaving a fair enough number for procreative activities of the fungal sort. Aside from gorging on a heaving platter of morels sliced and sautéed in butter for lunch, I have no recollection of what happened to that mother lode. Today, such a find would fetch a thousand dollars; back then it was just a very good Saturday morning.
So it was something of a personal shock for me to see morel mushrooms, those little nubbins, fetching $150 for a single pound. Certainly morels are tasty, offering up a splendid umami, earthy flavor that mates especially well with butter, spring garlic, a good New York strip steak, and some wild ramps. The fact that it is not possible to commercially cultivate this fungus certainly puts a damper on the supply. And in our free enterprise system, short supply combined with significant demand results in prices that soar to levels unconscionable.
Of course this begs the question: When does morel eating become (im)morel? It is certainly a question worth asking and one that must be asked, especially given the dilemma of how to feed a growing human population, the majority of whom go to bed hungry. Moreover, how does one justify spending $150 a pound for a foodstuff that you can find for yourself for free, if only you will spend some time in the woods?
As a committed food enthusiast, it is a situation I confront with frequency, and one that I realize I contribute to, however unintentionally. Were there not people like me willing to pay an immoral sum for a prized ingredient, the market would not support such outrageous prices. Morels would go back to being the provenance of distracted arrowhead hunters and the mycological cognoscenti. Still, we live in a market economy that insists that costs find the intersection of supply and demand. If few of us are willing to venture into the dying woods in search of fungal treasure, then we get what we get. In this regard, I am not innocent.
Along the same lines, I ventured the other day to my cellar to peruse my wan collection of wines, a mere few dozen bottles I keep for some rainy, special day, hoping they will improve while reclining in their dark and cool resting place. I have a number of bottles from a Vashon Island winery called Andrew Will that are absolute treasures, and a number more that I have hoarded for far into the future, thanks to the sage advice of Tacoma wine merchant Bill Bonnie, who is an enological savant. Engaging in some rapid back-of-napkin algebra, I calculated the value of my stash and was seriously taken aback. I’m not going to quote a number here, but it’s a lot more than I expected, and more than a little embarrassing.
Of course there are those that outdo me in this regard by many multiples, so I don’t feel too bad. My own moral high ground here is but a small mound indeed, so I will resist making value judgments in the hope that I may be given but a warning ticket for my own gustatory trespasses.
While one can find endless examples of over-the-top, im-morel culinary excess, there is, of course, the other side of the coin. Food that is too cheap to be true is exactly that. That Saran-wrapped poulet you got on sale for 79 cents per pound lived a life of utter squalor, not to mention the environmental holocaust it takes to turn a profit from chicken that cheap. Farmed salmon? Fuggitaboutit. And don’t get me started on feedlot beef: an abomination from any angle, whether social, environmental, or culinary.
When it comes to eating, morality is a slippery subject. I get where food writer and social commentator Michael Pollan, is coming from. Eating right (not to mention well) is indeed an Omnivore’s Dilemma, and it’s hard to know where to draw the line between right and wrong. No doubt about it, though — there is a price to be paid. That is, unless you are willing to take a few minutes off from scavenging for arrowheads to see what you can find among the dying elms.
New York Strip Steak in a Morel Green Peppercorn Cream Sauce
Two thick-cut New York strip steaks (the highest quality you can get)
A half-cup of heavy cream
6 small morel mushrooms (sliced)
1 Tbsp. green peppercorns (roughly chopped)
1 small shallot (finely minced)
2 cloves garlic (roughly chopped)
A splash of dry vermouth
Bring the steaks to room temperature and season expertly with salt and pepper.
Heat a cast-iron pan, large enough to hold the steaks without crowding, to medium high. Cook until a nice crust forms on one side and then flip. Remove steaks from pan and place in a 375 degree oven to finish cooking.
In the same cast-iron pan, sauté the garlic and shallots briefly with a pat of butter. Add the sliced morels and sauté for a couple of minutes. Add a healthy splash of the dry vermouth and reduce quickly by half. Add cream and continue to reduce until thickened. Add green peppercorns. Adjust seasonings, salting to taste.
Remove steaks from the oven (preferably at medium rare). Slice on a bias and serve on a platter with the morel cream sauce poured over them.
Clever readers may be able to connect the dots between this wonderfully flawed clip and the story above. Or not…