Leaving DC, Reasons I Disapprove of Seasons

DC rowhouses.

Hello, Internet. I’m in Iowa for a couple weeks, having successfully flown the Washington DC coop. I am in the process of preparing for and sorting out the details of a trip to Cambodia and Burma (and possibly Laos).

I plan to leave in early October. I miss Asia, and I miss Asia even more when the seasons began to change in the US and a certain foreign crispness finds its way into the air. I am very much a tropical creature, and I have none of the usual US fondness for and nostalgia for snow. Nasty stuff that must be dealt with, more like. Though I suppose you can’t smack your friends in the face with a wadded up ball of rain, so there is that.

Went to Boston to meet with my lovely and benevolent GlobalPost overlords. Stayed at the house of friends from Tulane, who are doing a quite successful job of being adults a bit outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is heartening to see: people my age who have a home, agency, and jobs they don’t hate. It is easy to get sucked into the constant economic mire and convince yourself that the world is sinking into a cesspool, your generation is particularly affected, and Oh Why Bother Anyway. This is not necessarily true.

We visited the Boston Aquarium, where they are removing every last creature from the massive, central ocean tank so that they can clean and renovate it. This meant we got to watch scuba divers wrestle and transport sea turtles and rays. Sea turtles are easier to tangle with: you rely on the element of surprise and swim up under them, hustling them into a plastic box and walking them down the aisles of your aquarium on wheels.

Stingrays are the problem: smooth, slippery, irate, extremely good at bouts of angry thrashing. We saw one huge stingray successfully escape its captors and the mist net they were using to contain it: we watched as it swiftly circled the walls of the tank, a bit of a “Come at me bro” look in its admittedly unexpressive eyes. Don’t mess around with stingrays.

Elephant at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.

I left Massachusetts in 2007 and have successfully avoided coming back since: not due to any real particular ire towards Massachusetts but more because I’m now pretty convinced I will actually wither and die when confronted with cold climates. Still, Boston is lovely: a city that feels downright exotic to mostly-West Coaster me, where everything is old, cobble-stoned, and has a distinct feeling of age to it.

Most US cities are defined by their sparkly newness, and this is especially true of the West, my West, where the population shifted around the 1950s and bought neon signs and convenient burger salons with them, where no one built inconvenient narrow alleyway houses, where we have boxes made of ticky-tacky. My classmates live in a house from around the 1920s and say this is considered relatively new in their neighborhood: Boston has an enviable connection with its past, and perhaps a more enviable connection with the water.

There are many cities built around ports, on the water, but not many construct as many attractive buildings on the waterfront. And then there’s all the fishing boats, the wharfs, the activity around there: reminds me especially of the Basque countryside in Spain. Same ocean, a few thousand miles apart, give or take. There is probably a chill in the air in very early September in the Basque country too.

One downside of traveling as much as I do: you become a bit detached from the “usual” progress of seasons. If you remain in one place, you are able to subconsciously track about when you should be breaking out your sweaters, or preparing for rain, or worrying about tornadoes: you lose this ability when you are perennially on the road, and must rely on the Weather Channel or word of mouth to fill in the gaps.

Misty morning near Hamilton, Illinois.

A chilly night or a remarkably hot day or a rain storm fill you with surprise: there is no context for This Time of Year. Fall happens now, or it could happen then, or it might not even happen at all, or it might look different from everybody else’s. My brief experience with Massachusetts seasons in Great Barrington left me feeling deeply offended, especially when April rolled around and it was still snowy, frigid, and largely impassable between classes on the Simon’s Rock campus.

I took it as a personal affront, coming from a state where April is the month where summer begins, as if the Berkshires particular geography was an intricate conspiracy designed to make my life suck.

It’s still summer in Iowa, although there has been a little rain since I was here last a month ago, and the plants and grass look a bit less put-upon. The weather is a glorious 70s: I wonder if I could successfully manufacture a life outrunning the seasons, using jet airplanes as a panacea against reality. (They don’t outrun time, but that would be nice).

I am definitely outrunning the election, at least. As was planned. 

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Mushroom Hunting in Iowa: Staring At Woods for Food

You probably don’t associate the much-derided state of Iowa with rarefied culinary delights. This is because most people don’t know about the Midwest’s highly developed and slightly voodoo-like mushroom hunting culture. It all starts in the spring, when the temperature begins to climb and the landscape explodes into verdant green, complete with the twin annoyances of pollen and oodles of bitey wolf spiders.

This is the time of year when morel mushrooms begin to sprout in the Midwest, and it’s also a time when the region’s more crunchy residents begin to get a hungry, fungi-inspired glimmer in their eye. Now is the time when you don Carhartt shirts (in many colors, all of them plaid), work pants, and a hat, and make your way into the woods – surprisingly thick in this part of Southern Iowa, where I’m staying at the moment – in hunt of fungi. Since mushrooms have a delightful habit of staying put, this is much cheaper and less likely to result in a gunshot wound than hunting for birds or deer. If you’ve never foraged for your own food before, it’s a peculiar kind of rush – I’d liken it to leafing through a “Where’s Waldo” book, except you’re tromping through the woods, and you find food instead of a cartoon man in a ridiculous striped outfit. There are many edible mushrooms in Iowa, but the morel is the crown jewel of the hunt for a lot of people. This is for a couple reasons.

For one, the morel is a picky bastard and exceptionally hard to grow in captivity. You either find them in the woods, or you buy them for something like $119 a pound at your local Whole Foods. Finding them in the woods yourself is a more pleasant experience by far. Further, morels are extremely easy to identify and distinctive in apperance, which greatly decreases the risk of accidentally picking a mushroom that will horribly kill you.

The morels you find in Iowa are yellow in color, rather large, of a spongy texture, and have a ridged, rather slender top. Morel hunters tend to jealously guard their secrets of the hunt, but there’s a few good places to look. They like the roots of elm trees. They like sun, but not too much, and moisture, but not too much.

They like to sprout by creek beds, and favor rich leaf-litter. Finding them requires you to adjust your eyes, something like those Magic Eye puzzles many of us gazed into in elementary school. It’s a good idea to squat down and survey the leafy undergrowth contemplatively. Mushroom hunting involves a lot of squatting down and surveying the landscape contemplatively.

So what do you do with them when you find them? There are many possibilities, although I’m only willing to entertain a couple, at the advice of the Midwestern mighty mushroom hunters I’ve met. If you’ve got plenty – and you probably won’t – you should saute them in plenty of butter. A very light dredging in seasoned flour doesn’t hurt. Eat them with some toast points sauteed in more butter. It’s delicious, and there’s the added pyschological satisfication of eating something you found in your woods, just like your mighty wooly-mammoth hunting ancestors.

You can also make morel salt out of them, which is a damn fine spice, and rather expensive if you’re unable to DYI. Thankfully, I can. My friend Dayton says that the trick is drying them under a fan. Lay the mushrooms out on a piece of newspaper, preferably over a grid of some time. Let them dry under the fan overnight. Don’t toss the newspaper – it’s rumored that if you bury the newspaper in a likely spot, you might have morels in your backyard (or the park, or wherever) in few years.

Once you’ve got your dried morels, grind them up – a spice grinder works or a mortar-and-pestle. Then, mix them up with some high quality sea salt. Keep it in a bag and sprinkle them on standard button, portobello, or any kind of store-bought mushrooms with a delightful hit of umami. More on the Great Midwestern Morel hunt later. It’s a rather interesting phenom, and not what you think of when you think Iowa.

For example, not everyone in Iowa lives in the middle of a field of undulating, slightly creepy corn.

I was shocked too.