The Mushroom Farmer, Book Three, Chapter 3

It has been two weeks since the mf put food out curbside for The People.  They took it all, eventually:  the starting-to-get-droopy lettuce; the last remaining leeks and green onions, still resolute days after harvest.   Someone even took the decorative sprig of Queen Anne’s Lace, as intended.  The mf wants to plant flowers along the border of the sidewalk-adjacent garden during his upcoming spring vacation with a sign that says, “Please Pick.”

Q: Is this whole pick-me thing a holdover from the mf’s early-to-mid youth, wanting to get picked high for a stickball team? 

A:  Everything is a holdover from the mf’s early-to-mid youth. 

Meanwhile, the initial idea of people physically stooping over and self-picking free kale, lettuce, broccoli is now shifting into something else.  The mf doesn’t know what yet. 

Most people don’t know how to pick a green vegetable.  They would pull it up by the roots, which is no good because that would be it for the plant. The better way is to pick the outer leaves and let the inner leaves keep a-goin’.  You can also snip a bunch of leaves while leaving the base stem intact. 

The mf has seen entire heads of lettuce grow back from the base stem.  Entire heads.  Growing back.  Oh, it’s an astonishment.  The keep a-goin’ ethos of nature.  Nature is not a quitter, giver-upper, nor any of that.  Nature is in it to win it.  The mf stands back and lets this all be.

If people aren’t just going to stroll by, stoop over and pick spinach, what is the business model for the garden between the sidewalk and curb in front of the mf’s house?  Excuse me, but did I not just say he doesn’t know?

What is this mania for knowing, anyway?  Where has knowing gotten us?  Okay, I admit developing vaccines for COVID-19 within a year is impressive.  That said, it is not my job here to tally up humankind’s every single intellectual achievement.

My job here is — within the limitations of a person who is forever seated unless it is to get up for more coffee, and who performs but a single function, typing, unless he is staring out at the tufts of Queen Anne’s Lace dotting the backyard like mini-clouds or floating muffin-tops made of mini-marshmallow — my job here is to recount for you the mini-travails and micro-triumphs of the mf as he goes about trying to make, if not necessarily the most of, then at least something of his allotted time.

Yesterday felt pretty good for the mf in this regard, as he did a home-cooking demo of how to make stir-fry tofu and broccoli for his seventh period 12th-grade English class.  Oh yes, they are still doing remote learning, and everyone is sick, sick, sick of it.  The mf tried to get his second period 12th-grade English class interested in reading The Sympathizer earlier in the week, and even though The Sympathizer is utterly spellbinding, the vibe was an unspoken but incontrovertible “Nyet.”

You may wonder, how did the mf know that his students were hard-passing on The Sympathizer when there is nary a murmur from the virtually assembled youth when they are at peak engagement and enthusiasm?  Ah well, you see, teaching is not just babysitting, after all, because recognizing interest from an online class requires discernment as fine as astronomers need to detect emanations from alien life.  The flicker of ellipses in a chat; the yellow “about to speak” signifier flickering at the border of a student’s Zoom rectangle.  When called upon, they deny, deny, deny — “No, that was just by accident” — still: a sign of life.

Not a quaver greeted The Sympathizer, which is how the mf knew his plan to use it as a model of pungent diction was yet another flying machine in pieces on the ground.  Fine.  He knew then that he would have to make a different plan for his other 12th grade periods, just as he has to make a different plan than pick-all-you-care-to-eat for the parkway garden.

The new lesson plan soon birthed itself, like Athena.  Teach them to make stir-fried tofu with broccoli.  Of course!  A kid in his homeroom class whose voice has been dropping nearly an octave a semester until it is now a rumbling sort of echolocation — but at least he’s talking! — has lately taken up the topic of how much he dislikes tofu as his conversation piece.  Another kid in that class keeps urging the mf to put a toilet plunger on his head. 

The point here being, you take a random teen obsession with tofu, add in the mf’s boingy-eyed fascination with the parkway garden, and meld those together with the steady, soothing cooking videos the teens l-o-v-e love and blam! There you have it:  an activity.  How to make this activity suitable for English class?  Oh boy, is that an easy question!  You don’t even need to speak alien to answer this one.  First, you do the activity, and then you write about it.

Or not.

I’m writing about it, aren’t I?  That’s partial proof of concept, and if you’re waiting for incontrovertible proof, you might as well keep listening because it’s going to be a long wait.  Meanwhile, the first words that come to mind when reporting on the mf and his 7th period’s tofu-and-broccoli stir-fry lesson are:  “OH THE JOY.”

Yah, because the still-mostly-trapped-inside-their-apartment students could visit with the mf in his kitchen of shiny stainless steel.  Did someone say shiny?  You are more than halfway to effective pedagogy the moment anything shines.  Then there is the banter, the free banter of being in the kitchen, the home of the home. 

It all sort of bounces around like kids in a party bouncer back when people were allowed to assemble,  but I do remember at one point the mf making himself a water to go with the fresh and ready bowl of stir-fry and telling the rapt students about the pride he felt in having a crushed ice dispenser.  “When I was a young man,” he intoned, “I always hoped that I would grow up to be a person who had a crushed ice dispenser, and now that I am, I feel grateful.”

It was an ecumenical way of saying grace.  He could just tell, this resounded with them, as did the entire lesson, from waiting for the ricewater to boil to cleaning up the kitchen afterwards, accompied by a rousing “When I Paint My Masterpiece” segueing directly into “Watching the River Flow.”

“Does anyone know the third verse?” the mf inquired, pointedly wiping down the counter not with a dishtowel but rather a paper towel, which he then set aside for future use. 

“I have a Dylan poster on my wall,” volunteered a girl, at which point the mf we have known until this point ascended to his next station in his karmic destiny; simultaneously and seamlessly replaced by an identical replica who finished the song with gusto.  Full disclosure:  I too experienced rapture and have been also been replaced by what you Earthlings might think of as a clone, but more organic. 

Check it out though — how’s this for seamless non-linearity?  Going into the backyard to snip leeks and green onions.  Looking to see if there might be eggs.  No eggs, but a chance to visit with the chickens, to look into their round unblinking eyes and feel their intense sense of purpose.

Peck, peck, peck.

When you are attempting to teach high school seniors who have mostly spent the last 365 days and counting indoors, many of them witnessing the pandemic at its grimmest, it is fitting and proper to showcase your chickens and then traipse to the front yard for a broccoli hunt.

“These ones here with the little pink flowers,” the mf instructed the class, his cell phone on a mini-tripod with bendable legs, like Baba Yaga’s house.  “Can you see them?”

“All clear,” one of his most loquacious students typed back. 

“Oh yes,” affirmed the thus even further-galvanized mf, snipping broccoli florets demure as Audrey Hepburn.   

He held a fistful up to the camera.  “Nice, right?”  he said, giving both words a Nassau and Suffolk County together worth of long i’s.

“10/10,” came back a student response, online uproariousness equivalent to the scene in Fame where all the art school students take their dance rehearsal to the streets.

Thus emboldened, the mf snipped crinkly spinach and upright kales, and he even proclaimed his truth of truths — “Dandelions are food” — snipping delicate triangular toothy purple leaves.

And then the whole brandishing of the cast iron skillet, the pouring out of peanut oil, the addition of Kosher salt — so crystalline! — and the sizzling of the greens in hot, salty oil.  Oh, the sizzling.  The release of leaf steam.  “Get ’em crispy!” the mf urged.  “Crisp, crisp, crisp,” he repeated until the word began with a “k.”

“What is tofu, anyway?” the mf rhetorically flourished. Students typed things back: guesses, shrug-emoticons, answers wrong and right. “It’s what you make of it,” opined the mf.

Sesame seed oil.  Soy sauce — the mf held the label up close to focus on Low Sodium.  Let them see the ideogram, too.  Was this lesson in Asian solidarity?  It was if you wanted it to be.  Sesame seeds themselves, toothsome gold, released from the container like grace and forgiveness.

How did it turn out?  Yum, delicious.  He held the bowl up to the camera.  “Here is to the time when we can all dig in together,” he said.  That time is unlikely to come during the remainder of the school year, but I don’t think the mf was limiting himself to linear time.  The mf took a bite, two bites, three. 

He waited until he was finished chewing, on his best behavior.   “Yum,” he said. “Now, write.”

Published by MarkGozonsky

Mark Gozonsky has been writing stories and essays since he was a music snob prodigy in early-1970's San Antonio, Texas. Since then he has written about not only music but also baseball, gardening, teaching, parenting, cycling and the... glory of love. Lit Hub and The Sun have published his work, and so has the Austin Chronicle. He lives with his wife in Los Angeles, where he teaches English to some of the nicest kids in the world at an arts-themed public high school downtown.

2 thoughts on “The Mushroom Farmer, Book Three, Chapter 3

  1. “…a flying machine in pieces in the ground…”* I do so enjoy your writing. I am a tofu shrugger also, unless in Asian food, as you so delightfully created. The miracles of sesame anything: oil, halvah, bagel, sprinkled on your cold noodle salad . Dream on. It’s time for lunch.
    * I had to look it up. It was on the tip of my ears but not quite. Now the song is playing in my head. Thank you.

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