‘Hickory chickens,’ or ‘dry land fish,’ don’t have anything to do with chicken, fish or hickory. They are morel mushrooms and they’re in season right about now. Look for 3 varieties throughout Appalachia: morchella esculenta, which can be found under old apple or pear trees when the oak leaves are about mouse-ear size; morchella angusticeps (‘fat morel’), which can be found under oak, beech or maple forests, when the serviceberry is in bloom; and morchella crassipes, found on swampy ground near jewelweed.
All favor damp soil and decaying logs, and if you hunt after a spring rain when the sun has warmed things up a bit you’ll likely be rewarded. Don’t count on help from die-hard ‘shroom hunters, however! Not only is the morel’s flavor prized above all other mushrooms, but it’s notoriously difficult to cultivate commercially. And so hunters are loath to share their fields lest others clean them out first.
Watch out for false morels. ‘True’ morels have caps that are completely attached to the stem–while false morels in the genus Verpa have caps that hang completely free, like a thimble placed on a pencil eraser. One of the verpas, Verpa bohemica, is known to be mildly poisonous to some people.
Batter dipped and fried up, nothing compares to the ‘sponge mushroom’s mild oyster flavor (hence the ‘dry land fish’ label). Some folks shun the batter, and saute them plain with butter and onion. They can be dried (never frozen!) for the off-season months (they need to be soaked in water for a few hours to reconstitute them). Or just use them dried: they can be turned into powder with a rolling pin to make a wonderful morel “spice” that can be added to sauces.
Related post: Land fishing for Molly Moochers
sources: Firefox 2, ed. Eliot Wigginton, Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1970