I like to cook, and one of the things I most like to cook are mushrooms. Almost any of them are good to cook with — plain old white button mushrooms, portobellos, oyster, shiitake, take your pick — and it’s easy to sauté them with some finely chopped shallots in a little sweet butter. It wouldn’t hurt to throw in a couple of sprigs of thyme or rosemary, maybe a teaspoon of Dijon mustard and a splash of cream right at the end, and spoon over broiled chicken breasts, or sliced shoulder medallions of beef, and serve it with a picket fence of roasted asparagus and shaved parmesan. Yum!
This commentary first appeared in Salon.
The truth is, I have had a long and checkered past when it comes to mushrooms, going all the way back to the week after the 1972 Republican Convention. I had been down in Miami covering that buttoned-down bacchanalia for the late lamented Saturday Review, and I had a few days free before I had to be back in New York, so I went to visit a friend of mine who was living in a little cottage on the west side of Hallandale, and it was in a cow pasture nearby that I found myself in search of the Psilocybe semilanceata, also identified in learned fungi journals as the “Liberty Cap,” most appropriately, I might add.
It’s a conical mushroom with a pale, yellowish top and purplish-blue spore, found in open grassland, which the cow pasture certainly was. A friend of a friend knew the location of said cow pasture, so we jumped into his Datsun and hauled our asses over there one evening about dusk. Luckily, cows were nowhere in evidence, but the tall grasses where Les Psilocybe like to hide were abundant, as were Les Psilocybe themselves. We quickly packed a grocery bag full of the multi-hued little monsters and Datsuned back to a friend of a friend’s kitchen, where we put two large handfuls in a blender, added some Welch’s grape juice and whipped ourselves up an experimental mushroom shake.
By that time, it was getting dark and a few neighbors had gathered, so we poured each of us a six-ounce jelly jar full and drank it down and sat down to wait. It took me only a few moments to hurl up the first dose, so down went another jelly jar full. This time it stayed down. My host, a very wise hippie who dove the reefs off Miami Beach for tropical fish he sold to pet stores, suggested we take in a movie while we were waiting for Les Psilocybe to kick in. We loaded into the Datsun and headed for a theater. About halfway there, it became clear that time was of the essence, because the mushrooms were definitely spreading their magic across the old blood-brain barrier. By the time we made it to our seats, Les Psilocybe were in full song. The lights went down. The film came on.
It is difficult, sitting here so many years later, to describe how profound “Planet of the Apes” appeared that night. Charlton Heston was me! The monkeys were the Republican attendees of the convention I had just covered! Nobody understood poor Charlton, just like nobody understood poor me, and he was trying to escape from the oppressive monkey government, and they were persecuting the shit out of him, just like the Republican government in power in Washington, D.C., was persecuting the shit out us hippies.
After the movie was over, as we walked out of the theater into the fetid August Miami night, we had a dim understanding that we were still under the influence of our mushroom-grape shakes, but we couldn’t let go of the notion that out in Hollywood, there was a stoned studio head sitting up there in a canyon somewhere who really got it, who understood us. We were looking around at the other moviegoers . . . straight couples on hand-holding dates . . . moms and pops taking the kids out for a treat . . . and their faces were blank, uncomprehending.
Had they seen the same movie we saw? Not a chance. I remember standing in the parking lot watching a man fishing in his pocket for his keys, turning up a pack of gum and a pocket knife and some change, cursing his frustration and digging down in there again. His wife walked around the car and reached into his jacket pocket and handed him the car keys and he unlocked the car and they got in and drove away, arguing about something. And I was standing there watching them go, wondering what the fuck planet they were on.
It’s a question I’ve been asking myself almost every day of my life since then, only now, I’m asking what fucking planet am I on?
Did you hear any of Trump’s speech at his rally in Minnesota last week? I was out in Minnesota a few weeks ago. It’s a nice state . . . kind of flat, but then Long Island, where I live, is kind of flat. Listening to the red meat Trump threw to 9,000 MAGA hat-wearing followers who packed a down-at-the-heels convention space in Duluth gave me a flashback to watching “Planet of the Apes” on mushrooms, lo those many years ago. I mean, what planet have I ended up on?
Trump’s up there, and it’s 18 very long months since he was inaugurated, and he’s going back over his big win in 2016, and he’s shrieking about Hillary, and her emails, and the crowd is screaming and going crazy: “Have you been seeing this whole scam?” he yelled. “Do you believe what you’re seeing, how that no matter what she did, no matter how many crimes she committed, which were numerous, they wanted her to be innocent. But with me, nothing. No collusion, no nothing. They wanted to put us in trouble.”
Whackadoodle mayhem. You’d think he was standing up there throwing jars of Oxycontin into the seats. They’ve got their hands in the air, and they’re screaming for more and chanting, “Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!”
I mean, he beat her! He won! He’s the goddamned president of the United States, and he won’t let her go.
He was off on his “witch hunt” refrain, “It’s called the phony witch hunt. The phony witch hunt, the phony witch hunt” like it was the pop-a-ooo-mow-mow in a doo-wop song. And the crowd is virtually singing along, waving their red hats, ecstatic grins plastered on their faces, listening to him beat up on the special counsel investigation that has produced 19 indictments and I’ve forgotten how many guilty pleas and is circling the White House like a starving shark.
And then he started praising the crowd: “You know, we talk about the forgotten men and women. They’re the smartest people, they work the hardest, they pay taxes, they do all of the things, and yet, they’re the forgotten people. And believe me, our people are the smartest, smarter than anybody, and the hardest working.”
They’re going wild, and he stands there for a moment, basking in their adulation. Suddenly, something occurs to him. All of those people who did the forgetting about “the forgotten people,” they’re the “elites.”
“You ever notice they always call the other side the elites. The elites! Why are they elite? I have a much better apartment than they do. I’m smarter than they are. I’m richer than they are. I became president and they didn’t.”
Watching that man bragging his hollow brags with that fake half-smile on his face and that yellow muskrat on his head, you want to pick up the flat screen and throw it across the room. But what’s the use? Why bother? What fucking planet am I on?
I’m putting the frying pan away. No more sautéing for me. I’m going straight back to the blender and the grape juice and Les Psilocybe. They got me through Nixon. Maybe they’ll get me through this.