Sunday, February 19, 2006

Hobie Hunting

In 2002, my father in law George, suffered a series of T.I.A.s which are like mini strokes. What brought his attention to the condition, other than a terrible headache, was a sudden loss of vision, which was eventually diagnosed as Macular Degeneration. Georges vision has been declining since 2002; today he is legally blind and unable to do many of the things that he once did with enthusiasm. Among those things he can no longer do is the simple and peaceful act of walking through autumn woods and hunting for mushrooms. The following essay was written for and about George in celebration of Fathers Day and in appreciation for his kind and gentle spirit as he taught me the fine art of hunting 'hobies'.

Hobie Hunting, originally published in 1997, Door County Voice, Ephraim WI

After the rains, the lake air in the fall can be so crisp that it almost burns the inside of the nose; slightly freezing minute nose hairs which thaw later only to produce raw, runny noses. The ground is covered with leaf litter so thick you can not tell if you are on the path or off it and into the woods. We find perfect sticks, not meant for walking, but for prodding. We turn the decaying leaves over in a steady pattern, not dragging the sticks or digging into the leaves, but gently getting under the leaves and flipping them over to the same side as last time; and again and again, until we find just what it is we are looking for.

My father in law George, is descended from Czechoslovakian parents. He was the youngest of three children, born 1928 in Brookfield, Illinois. George began school at the age of six and it was then that he learned to speak English and from that time on, English became the language he read in, wrote in and spoke everywhere but home. George regrets not learning to write and read in his milk tongue, and when speaking about his childhood and remembering words for certain things, he admits that he has no idea how to spell those words. So he slowly sounds out the words for me, syllable by strange syllable.

George tells me he remembers picking mushrooms with his parents at the age of four. He says that his sister tells him that he accompanied his parents on mushroom picking expeditions to Kiwanis Park in Brookfield when he was eighteen months old. Today, George teaches me the traditional way of picking and drying hobies.

It's fall and the leaves have already turned in Door County. In fact, they are littering every inch of the ground after last nights heavy downpour. Today the air is not so crisp, but it is cool and the days are shorter and there was the October harvest moon last night. We walk off what we know to be the path in Peninsula Park. It is peaceful there now, the summer crowds have gone and the majority of the campsites are empty. Deer droppings lay where a tent once stood and blackened and half burnt wood sits in fire rings now vacant until next summer. The leaves here are not the brilliant red, orange and yellow, they are brown from the soaking rains.

Flip, flip with the sticks. Just on the edge of rotting logs and usually in the deepest leaves; flip, flip. I've learned to recognize the mushrooms that are safe, although I often stop and ask George if a particular hobie is good. I will not pick or eat puff balls as I see them as deformed and alien, bloated creatures of the forest. But these winter hobies are delightful gracing a grilled steak. These mushrooms are like shitakes. I do not know the English word for them, but George has taught me to call them jeepka. This is the Czech pronunciation of the word he remembers for winter hobies he and his sister love.

"What are these called again?", I ask and George replies, "Jeepka".
"Say it again and slowly please." He does so and the 'j' sound is soft like the French name, Gigi. The emphasis is on the last syllable with a hard 'k'.
"Jeepka", I repeat as I imitate his actions and flip, flip, flip.

Down my own path; flip, flip. At the edge of log and bramble I think I see a small velvet head peeking out from under a brown crepe oak leaf. I drop to my haunches and move leaves gently with my hands until I uncover the little brown cap and many other near it. The jeepkas aren't just brown, but they are pale stemmed with a small, tight, tan head, with the hint of a dark brown center on the cap. The underside of the mushroom, the spore gills are a darker, luminous brown. And the entire mushroom is soft; softer than baby flesh. Softer than a wren's feathers. I take half of what I find and put them into a brown paper bag I carry with me. I can see George bent over in the woods a few campsites away and I know he has found jeepkas too.

That evening, at the farm, on old newspaper at the kitchen table we shake the contents from the brown paper bags. All of the mushrooms look alike, that same soft texture. As they tumble from the bags, a dark heady aroma fills the kitchen. It is as if the garden walked through the door and shook the dirt of its feet. The mushrooms are sorted, mostly for size as quality is determined as they are picked. George cleans them one by one with a small paring knife. He cuts the bottom from the stem and runs the knife gently around the edge of the cap to remove the flange like frill, then lays the mushroom on an old window screen kept specifically for this task. He uses chairs from the kitchen as props and places them in front of the wood burning stove, and sets the screen on the seats of the chairs so air can circulate around and under the mushrooms. They will remain in the screens overnight. George will turn them once, and in the morning they will be dry, then stored in old cardboard oatmeal containers with holes punched in their plastic lids. I have seen these same mushrooms in gourmet shops hung like streamers. Like strings of Czech beads, they are strung on cord and dried and sold.

The season for jeepka is short; they need rain, a full moon and cool nights. Each year, George has about one week to find, pick, dry and store enough memories of leaves and woods and crisp air in oatmeal boxes to last him until next autumn when he begins the process of hobie hunting again.

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