Hickory Chickens
creative nonfiction by Ned Weidner

Hickory chickens. That’s what old timers called them. When the dutchmen’s britches and trilliums pop up, the creek is running high, and the first bit of green can be seen in the tops of elm trees, that’s when you’ll find them hiding on the south side of shagbark hickories.  


Morel hunting is serious business around here. Some folks get the fever. Fever-stricken hunters come out of the woods dripping with sweat and dirtier than a flea-bit hound and try to cash in. The Bolte General Store outside Hillsboro where the sign reads “Bait, Beer, Gas, and Grocery” but also contains a wide assortment of antiques including vintage pinball machines, was a hotbed for folks with the fever. They’d walk out of the woods and drop brown bags of the fungus on the counter demanding top dollar. Bill would of course oblige because he knew he could get three times their price in the city. Plus, most these morelheads would drop half their cash on instant lotto tickets or change it into quarters and burn it playing the Arabian Night pinball machine in the corner. It ain’t all fungus and lotto tickets in the world of morel fever though. Down by the river, morel hunting gets as serious as ginseng and heart attacks. Dan Gartman, the guy who manages Utter’s deer farm and has a mild to severe case of PTSD depending on how many Budweiser’s he’s had, has been known to park his CJ at the bluff overlooking their property and shoot over the heads of prospective poachers. One late April, he grazed the top of my hat on the way for a visit. “I thought you was one of them bastards coming to take our morels,” he said without a bit of remorse in his voice. “No, Dan. Just coming to say hi.” Down in the hollows, they sometimes plant flashbang explosives near known patches or guard the property with dogs. Folks don’t go to the woods in the spring around here without knowing where they are stepping. 


“Live slowly and listen to God.” That’s what Charlene always said. Born deep in the hill country of Kentucky, Charlene comes from God-fearing, banjo-picking, honest stock. And when she goes out hunting, she moves slow, not because she walks with a cane and she can’t see more than two feet in front of her face, but because morels must be snuck up on. As she tells it, they are sensitive creatures to all things light, temperature, sound, even movement. Conditions have to be just right for them to pop their little brainy caps up out of the soil, and if you move too fast through the woods, you are liable to spook them right back under ground. “Oh…there’s one,” she would whisper pointing behind me to a light tan, coral-shaped fungus with its spongy cap poking up just above the leaf-scattered forest floor. “You moved too fast and spooked it,” she would say with the soft voice and knowledge of a grandmother.  


I walked through the woods, stepping over mayapples and rotting logs, carefully placing my feet on the earth beneath me. I brushed past the silky strands of spiderwebs crisscrossing the trail and began the steady climb up the hill. In my left ear, the sound of the creek falling over limestone and shale was interrupted only by the hurried bustle of squirrels in my right. 

Two weeks earlier, I was curled in a ball. Shaking. Crying. Looking for an escape. “Hello,” the woman on the other end of the phone said. “We are sending someone over.” 

Above, red-tailed hawks swooped and dove in the jet streams, and the welcoming hoot of the barred owl could be heard in the early morning dew. The familiar V of a whitetail’s hoof prints embedded into the earth. I looked off in the direction of its path. A wildness stirred.

“You are not safe by yourself,” they said. “You’ll have to come with us.” 

The crisp spring air tickled my cheeks as I trudged uphill. I took a few more steps passing elms and fallen ash trees. And then there it was, its spongy cap poking up between the hickory leaf litter and dirt, a sign of renewal and hope and healing. 


To cook morels, one needs only a few simple ingredients. One brown bag of fresh morels. One bag of fresh fiddleheads. Two handfuls of ramps preferably harvested with scissors. Lemon. Butter. Garlic. And angel hair pasta. 

Slice morels lengthwise and sauté in butter until slightly browned. You will know they are ready when your nose tells you so.

Toss in some freshly picked fiddleheads and two handfuls of ramps. This must be done precisely at the right time and not a moment before.

Add garlic, but not too much, or you will cloud the earthy tones. 

Squeeze a pinch of lemon into the pan to deglaze. Don’t get overzealous. Remember this is a morel dish.

Salt and pepper to taste. 

Toss with warm angel hair pasta and serve with love. 

Ned Weidner is a fisherman and writer who spent the first twenty years of his life learning to be human by running the hollows and creeks of southern Ohio. Now he is an English professor in Southern California who, when he is not climbing a desert crag, stalking trout, or foraging in the pines, can be found dreaming about returning to his Appalachian roots.