“I've walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don't be fooled / this isn't a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here, / our country moving closer to its own truth and dread, / its own ways of making people disappear,” writes Adrienne Rich in “What Kind of Times Are These,” published shortly after the Cold War and in the midst of the AIDS crisis. Rich’s words are always prescient but right now—with COVID-19 deaths climbing, the virus disproportionately impacting marginalized communities, the myth of U.S. exceptionalism unraveling, and unemployment skyrocketing—the poem’s message feels particularly obvious. We have our own ways of making people disappear, indeed.
Many of us, in the midst of it all, are “picking mushrooms at the edge of dread.” Some of us, able to make it to the grocery store, are gathering sustenance in aisles with half-empty shelves, worried that cans of soup or cart handles could be vectors. Some of us are front-line workers in those stores, risking our health—without adequate protection—to provide food to others. Some of us are in quarantine, and worried about the increased difficulty of ordering grocery delivery. And some of us are experiencing heightened food insecurity, accessing support from mutual aid groups like Tucson Food Share or waiting for produce and bread in food bank lines. (These experiences are, of course, not mutually exclusive.) For many of us spending time cooking is also a balm: It brings us back into our bodies when the trauma-responses feel like too much, challenges us, connects us to our communities and ancestors, and allows us to care for ourselves and others. Those of us experiencing food insecurity or limitations for the first time are, in many cases, learning to appreciate the ingredients we’re able to access and to improvise in the kitchen. Once-common groceries—cans of chickpeas, a container of yeast—feel like treasures.
A few weeks ago, my partner came back from our rural town’s Safeway with a treat: button mushrooms. Contemplating what to turn them into in response to Rich’s poem, my friend Annie Jane Cotten urged me to think small: “The whole intention [of that line] is to tell you there is a meal somewhere, not to be the meal itself. A taste, a tease of something that lets you know there is skill and hidden knowledge involved in even the simplest of recipes.” And so I made these braised mushrooms, loosely inspired by the tapas dish champiñones al ajillo. I used ingredients from my cabinets and the container garden in my yard—olive oil, red wine, garlic, rosemary, a block of parm —and if you don’t have something this recipe calls for, I urge you to do the same.
Rich’s poem ends with a bait-and-switch: “Because in times like these / to have you listen at all, it's necessary / to talk about trees.” She mentions the mushrooms, the woods, the “leafmold paradise” so that readers pay attention to “the persecuted” and I, in turn, have tried to draw you in with the delights of the kitchen. Now that you’re here I’d like to ask you, if you’re able, to get involved with or donate to mutual aid efforts in your community. A great place to start is with this international resource list, prefaced with a poignant essay by Cindy Milstein.
Garlic & Rosemary Braised Mushrooms
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp red wine
A pinch of salt
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
1 rosemary sprig, minced
10 button mushrooms, cleaned and trimmed
Pecorino or parmigiano to taste
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Combine olive oil, wine, salt, garlic, and rosemary in a small bowl (whisk with a fork to mix). Toss the mushrooms in the olive oil mixture until they are all coated, then place them cap-side down in a small oven-proof glass or ceramic dish. Bake for 25 minutes or until most—but not all—of the liquid has evaporated. Broil them on low for 1-2 minutes, checking often to make sure all the liquid hasn’t evaporated and the garlic isn’t turning a dark brown. Transfer mushrooms to a small bowl and pour the remaining liquid over them (scrape the dish to make sure the rosemary and garlic get into the bowl with the mushrooms as well). Top with grated cheese to taste and serve warm.
Poetry Potluck is written and curated by Poetry Center staff members Leela Denver and Wren Awry.