Half Recipes For Anxious Loneliness: A Recipe for Mushroom Wafu Spaghetti
In adolescence, weekend lunches meant fending for ourselves. On certain Saturdays, my sister and I ate wafu spaghetti together.
This is Half Recipes , a narrative recipe column by Nina Coomes on what it means to feed and care for yourself and those you love.
– 4 ounces of spaghetti (plus salt for the pasta water)
– 8 ounces of mushrooms (I like a variety, pulling from various containers of enoki, shimeji, and maitake, but one container of button mushrooms would also work just fine)
– 2 tablespoons of butter, divided. (But if you use more, that’s okay too.)
– 2 cloves of garlic, minced
– 2 tablespoons of soy sauce
– optional: 4–5 shiso or perilla leaves, julienned
1. Fill a widemouthed pan (like a sauté pan) with water. Set it on the stove and tip in half a handful of salt. It is good to use a wide pan instead of a pot because the water will boil faster. This is important when you are hungry on a Saturday, a little past when you would usually eat lunch.
2. My anxiety has always felt like rising water, and these days the water that usually laps my waist is up to my shoulders. I do not know how I let it get this high. My face is tipped, my feet pointed. I force my shoulders down every ten minutes. The water inches higher. It is not the refreshing sting, the briny familiarity, of ocean water, but rather the dull dark of the lake at high noon, when the feet of a hundred swimmers have stirred up silt from the bottom. I am afraid that when the water covers my face, I will see nothing.
3. As the pasta water heats, go to the cupboard and get out a pack of spaghetti. No fettuccine, no corkscrews, no blunt shafts of rigatoni. Measure some in your hand, about two handfuls, as you are cooking for two. Set aside.
4. I began making wafu spaghetti in adolescence, when weekend lunches meant fending for myself. I didn’t mind, even liked the independence, especially when there appeared some sort of unspoken code between my sister and me: Saturday, half past one, our bodies were drawn into the white-countered kitchen by the magnetic promise of butter and soy sauce. This incongruous food—Italian, American, Japanese—filling our incongruous bodies. I won’t tell you it was a codified ritual. Never was spaghetti made trite by articulation: It was a pleasure akin to looking across a crowded room, catching the eye of the person you’re with, and wordlessly agreeing to leave early. On certain Saturdays, my sister and I ate wafu spaghetti together. That’s all.
5. The beauty of wafu spaghetti is that it can be topped with pretty much anything: a plastic carton of natto spiked with spicy mustard, whipped into a fury; radish sprouts collapsed in an elegant heap; Korean gim scissored into ribbons; salty confetti of cod roe; lush slices of avocado. Today I am topping mine with mushrooms left over from an Asian grocery store haul: a handful of shimeji, enoki, and maitake mushrooms. Shimeji are the most classically mushroomy of the bunch, soaking up flavors and providing meaty mouthfeel. Maitake’s thin, tiered caps crisp beautifully in a pan for added texture. Shimeji is thin and stringy, with a distinct fermented taste. But if all you have are plain button mushrooms, that’s fine too. Make sure to cut them evenly, into slices that won’t take too long to cook.
My anxiousness causes me to push people away. If I cannot speak, at least I can cook.
6. I want to say that anxiety is a relatively new thing for me, a product of the Covid-19 pandemic and its constant emphasis on the nearness of death. But if I think back carefully, I can remember something my eight-year-old self thought of as the Bus Stop Feeling. I would feel it as a rising sensation, a flat nausea that would begin in my feet and rise up the column of my body, rendering me stock-still and speechless as I waited for the school bus to lumber up the street of our first American home. I would force myself to laugh and chat on the bus, but underneath it all was an anxiety that lapped at the edges of all my interactions. These days, there’s no driveway, no yellow bus, no peeling faux-leather seats. Instead, I am an adult at home, at my family’s table, on a phone call with a friend, trying very hard to breathe. The water rises and I find myself wishing only to be left alone. If isolated, I could stand very still and try very hard to wait for the water level to fall. Eventually, the water will come down, puddling with scum. When I can wade, when I can lift my feet above the wet, when I am dry, I will be ready, whole, a person who can make conversation again.
7. When the water is roiling, slip the spaghetti into the pan. Set a timer for eight minutes, or whatever is al dente based on package directions.
8. Put an unoiled nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms. If using button mushrooms, just all of them at once will be fine, but if using shimeji, maitake, and enoki, add in this order: first, shimeji. After three minutes, maitake. After five minutes, enoki. The idea here is that the mushrooms will dry fry in the unoiled pan, releasing water, thus intensifying their woody flavor. When they release their water, the mushrooms will make an adorable squeaking noise. Once the mushrooms seem suitably brown, lower your heat to medium-low and add in a knob of butter and your minced garlic (two cloves, or more if you feel you need the immune system boost). When the garlic is fragrant, add soy sauce. It will burn a little, but that’s alright.
9. Drain the pasta, making sure to keep a cup or two of reserved pasta water. Toss your cooked spaghetti into the pan where the garlic-soy-butter-mushroom mixture is cooking, and add pasta water until the mass reaches your desired consistency. I like my pasta a bit soupy, so I add a half cup or so. Add a second fat domino of butter. Turn off the heat and toss. Inhale the yeasty golden steam.
10. I feel ashamed that my anxiousness causes me to push people away. I think about my sister, who calls me to check in and ask why I have been creating space between myself and others. I feel choked for words—how do I explain to her that I am caught in an erratic tide? That there is no rhyme or reason for the rush of dark water, but when it comes, I am certain that I will only burden those I love, gulping for air as I do? That it is easier, sometimes, to be alone in the flood? Over FaceTime, I see in my sister’s face, her lips turned bud-like and quivering. It is a face I know well from childhood, from years of sleeping in the same room, keeping each other anchored with the other’s presence. I feel guilt, and a kick of determination, wanting to force my way up and out of my water. I try to speak, but in place of air, a wave rushes in.
11. If I cannot speak, at least I can cook. I can move my hands and chop the gnarled lump off the end of a bunch of mushrooms. I can crush a bulb of garlic so the papery skin slips off, and I can mince it so finely it is almost a paste. I can use a spoon to measure out blocks of butter, swirl it as it fizzles. I can measure out the pasta and give it a bath of bubbling salt water. I can return, for a moment, to those carefree days when it was the weekend, and my sister and I had nothing to worry about but homework. When no one was home and we were hungry, ravenous even, and this wafu pasta was a way to edge closer, to share warmth, to be together, even without words. Part of the lie of anxiety is that we cannot be around other people when we are so afraid, when sometimes it is their closeness that might prove an antidote. When I am breathless, when I am ashamed, when the water is rising and I cannot call out, perhaps I might invite you to eat spaghetti with me. I could offer up this plate.
12. Divide the spaghetti into two plates, making sure to dish up equal amounts of buttery, garlicky mushrooms for each. Top with slivered pieces of shiso or perilla. Ask: Is this enough? Can this be enough, for us, for now?