“Hilda Blessing” by Irene Cooper

The famous chef hovered and hissed, “Perfect couscous requires the singular touch of a woman’s hands,” and just like that, Hilda was, in her soul, done with fine dining. Still, her body worked the line on behalf of a dozen more ardent and arrogant entrepreneurs and old guards before she figured out how not to give up on food. Despite evidence that food was giving up on people. 

Diners were finding it hard to savor a confit of duck with cherry balsamic glaze while visions of bloody buckshot and clouds of pesticides hijacked their consciousness. Menu items that had taken to viscerally illustrating their path to becoming food were an increasingly hard sell. With the restaurant industry collapsing from the inside, Hilda’s days in haute cuisine were finite. 

When offered the job, Hilda left her position as sous at an institution laden with Michelin stars to help create texture profiles for KE-Meal-ION Foodstuffs. KE-Meal-ION was the labored acronym for Kinetic Energy-Motivated Imitative Olfactory Network, invented and developed by Dr. Ludmila Nunez to bypass food-induced hallucinations.

 Before the visions, an early symptom of the virus was the loss of the sense of smell. Sufferers went from anosmic to parosmic, experiencing a formerly familiar smell as something else: soap smelled like garbage; toothpaste tasted like rancid meat. Actual food emitted odors so horrible as to render it uningestible. 

Olfactory issues were followed, for many, by aura seizures, a phantosmia familiar to certain epileptics. Shortly into the second wave, people started seeing pictures in their head as they ate, memories of the chemical-choked fields and slaughterhouses that had been sealed under the shrink wrap with the comestibles. These memories did not rise from the ingestors’ own stores; these were food memories, summoned by the ingredients themselves. Rapid Empathy Digestion—ultimately, the REDS—was the plague that played like bad dream and docu-horror all in one. 

Hilda had been hired for her expertise in sensory engagement, though there was some debate over the wisdom and efficacy of making the foodstuffs palatable. Environmentalists argued that flora and fauna had managed a way to send both an SOS and a warning, that to dismiss or bypass the phenomena would be to ignore yet another call from nature for humans to desist from their degradations. 

Message or not, the louder call was for treatment and cure. Dr. Nunez’s formula could be ingested as a powder or a wafer, but the company funding the research wanted to develop and package a line of lifestyle products. The thinking was, no one knew the long-term implications of the REDS, and if the condition was chronic, consumers would want to eat something that resembled what they had known as food. The bizarre hitch: the foodstuffs only worked when the eater was in motion. The formula could help consumers avoid impromptu exposés at dinner and digest in peace, but only to the aerobic rhythm of a stationary bike, elliptical machine, or treadmill. To circumvent the awkwardness of eating while exercising, the company was developing a companion line of equipment including luxury recumbent bikes with tray tables, flat screens, and premium audio.

It was a ground floor opportunity for a manufacturer with vision.

Hilda loved the lab—loved its cleanliness, its quiet, and its utility. Hilda loved, too, the freedom that came with a fully funded project. No GM pacing over the bottom line, cutting hours and bitching about food cost. No VIP customers holding a well-planned menu hostage with special orders and draconian dietary needs. Dr. Nunez was an ideal boss, clear with instructions and open to ideas. She respected her people (or seemed to) as professionals, did not poeticize her crew as a bunch of alcoholic pirates, good with a knife and destined for ignominy or worse, anonymity. Like the rock stars of the last century, cooks with culinary pretentions and limited connections suffered under a live-hard-and-die-young philosophy that looked and smelled a lot less romantic as knees and knuckles locked with arthritis, livers hardened and scarred, and blue-collar jobs fell away, to be picked up by younger, fresher meat.

To be truthful, Hilda wasn’t necessarily a true believer in the mission. Sickness— worldwide sickness—was a steadier barometer in her lifetime than health. People adjusted, but they didn’t change. Maybe, she thought, the earth had had enough. Maybe private showings like the REDS—one last, grisly gift from the planet—were how humans would finally get the picture. She liked the gig, though—the work was challenging, and the money was better than she’d ever pulled down as a sous. 

“Hey, Magic Chef, you ready for me?” In peg-legged gold brocade and a hand-dyed silk headwrap, Serge was, beneath their white lab coat, the most colorful member of the team. They’d been famous, in arts and entertainment circles, as an olfactory performance artist. They gave scent shows that were rumored to transform whole audiences to a state of euphoria, nostalgia, or mild frenzy, depending on the night. Somewhere in the shifting zeitgeist Serge’s specific brand of communal experience lost favor, and they’d dropped out of the buzz. Here at the lab, they’d been hired to synthesize scent for KE-Meal-ION, which was odorless, but, as far as Hilda understood it, functioned to stimulate new olfactory paths. Like her, Serge was commissioned to make the synthetic seem more organic. The goal wasn’t to make a pork chop smell like a pork chop, but to evoke the satisfaction of a pork chop—to create the feeling of wellbeing that the pork chop would have inspired, before actual pork chops brought on visions of filthy, crowded pens and massacre. 

“Ready and eager. I’m having a little trouble with the noodle, but the Bolognese is coming along. Or we could work on the fried chicken? Spaghetti seems like a mess to manage.”

“So comforting, though, those carbs.”

“Well, pseudo-carbs, anyway. You know, the only ingredient in this stuff I recognize is mushrooms—mushrooms and salt, which is more than I expected. I get the mineral, maybe, but how come we get to use real mushrooms? You can’t tell me fungi are the only organisms that grow trauma-free.”

“No, I doubt it. But Lu—Dr. Nunez—says, for some reason, they don’t communicate it. For now, I suppose.”

“Makes my job easier. Those babies are versatile. Funny how one real ingredient makes a difference.”

“Oh, Chef, trust me. Organic, synthetic—it’s all real, if we feel it.”


Hilda helped to simulate comfort food for three years, after which her contract was not renewed. With time and developments in food manufacturing, fewer people succumbed to the REDS. For those who did, KE-Meal-ION provided the necessary and short-term solution. It was not destined to become a lifestyle product, after all. Dr. Nunez had already accepted another position elsewhere. Serge had taken a leave of absence six months earlier, never to return. Hilda had a modest stockpile of money, and no plans. It wouldn’t be hard to leave behind the wet rag humidity of the American south. She’d go home, for lack of a better word. 

“South Dakota? No kidding,” said Dope, Hilda’s best friend. A biologist in another lab at the company, he studied the virulence of fungal pathogens in moths and used them to test antimicrobial drugs. He liked to say, if someone commented on it, that his nickname perfectly represented the funhouse nature of his inner fucked-upedness, how he took money to torture the winged insects—Lepidoptera— he loved, and then spent all of it on drugs. 

They were sitting at the edge of the rooftop garden of Hilda’s apartment building, looking out over the city to the Atlantic, a wavering blue line in the distance. Dope took the joint from Hilda’s fingers. “How come I never knew that about you?”

“I left there a long time ago. There’s lots you don’t know about me. For a scientist, you’re not a very curious person.” 

“That’s not fair. I’m quite intuitive. I intuited when we met that you weren’t the type to be overly forthcoming with personal history. And what do you know about me, anyway?”

“Let’s see. I know all your siblings served in the Coast Guard. I know your dad won Olympic bronze for crew, and your mother was a Georgia debutante who’s family made buckets of money in portable outhouses; I know your parents kept a copy of the Kama Sutra on a bedside table…Hm, I know you came home after a night of teenage debauchery and set fire to the house when you fell asleep with the stove on under a pot of fry oil; I know you have a weakness for underdog sports movies and, inexplicably, vegan rum raisin ice cream with bacon bits…”

“Okay, well, I like to share. Jesus, you remember more about me than I do.” He stubbed out the roach. “You got people in South Dakota? Are there people in South Dakota?”

“There are, and I do. An aunt. I lived with her from when I was ten to when I went to culinary school. With her and my uncle. He’s dead, now.”

They watched the as a glittering of lights defined the bay, and the smell of the air high above the exhaust of streets shifted from warm fruit to night-blooming jasmine.

“You’re not coming back, are you, H? Fuck, I’m going to have to visit you in the tundra, aren’t I?”


A fire burned some miles west of Hot Springs. The old house glowed sepia-tinged under an orange sun, while ash fell like the first fat flakes of snow. Hilda’s Aunt Clementine—Clem to anyone that knew her—sat on the porch as Hilda pulled into the weedy drive, calmly rocking in the face of what might have been the apocalypse, if one were to imagine such a landscape.

“This isn’t the best breathing air, you know, Clem.”

“Good to see you, Hilda. No, I suppose not. It’s not much better inside, I’m afraid.”

“Didn’t you get someone to put in the AC unit I sent?”

“I did. Makes such a racket, though. Come on, let’s get indoors, then. I’ll plug it in if you like. Though, can’t be as hot here as where you come from.” 

Nothing had changed, not in nearly twenty years. Hilda half expected her uncle to come wheeling into the parlor, his rough features softened, like the wood and chintz, by a fine layer of dust. Walter worked at Da Nang Air Base loading Rainbow Herbicide into airplanes for Operation Ranch Hand. When it was time to leave Vietnam, the Agent Orange he’d helped distribute over the food crops and forests of that foreign land hitched a ride stateside through his own protein. As bad luck would have it, he and Clem bought a house in Times Beach, Missouri, only to be evacuated in the ‘80s due to dioxin contamination. Horses and livestock, dead, children sick. Some said later it hadn’t been as bad as all that. They’d relocated to South Dakota, and were still waiting on settlement money a decade on when Hilda, sixteen, took a job bartending at PermaPax, the survivalist camp outside of Edgemont. The VA took care of Walter’s pain, but not the family’s suffering. They needed the money, and she passed for eighteen, not that anyone cared.

She’d come to them at ten, after her parents died. Her uncle had been unwell for as long as she’d known him, and quiet, often darkly so. Clem, her mother’s sister, was the pricklier of the two, but kind in her way. Never more so than at the kitchen table that long ago day, after the survivalists had locked themselves in their bunkers below ground, and the towners had dismantled and walked away with everything above. Walter had died a few weeks prior. Hilda tried to imagine a future, but all she could see was rubble, and dust.

“Money came in, finally.” Clem put a cup of coffee in front of Hilda and sat down. “Maybe you’d like to go to some kind of school.”

“That’s money for you to live on. I’ll be okay, get a job up in Deadwood, maybe.”

“Money’s what I say it’s for. A woman needs an education. You need to know more than how to pour beer for rich men. You want to help folks waste their lives on a good time, that’s your business, later on. There’s money for school. Take it now, while I got it.”

Hilda took the money and went to Scottsdale, to culinary school, and learned precisely how to pour beer for rich men, as well as sauté sweetbreads and layer an amuse bouche with paper-thin slices of heritage apple and truffle. In ensuing jobs she learned how to design a kitchen, manage a backhouse staff and balance a budget. Only to leap off the culinary career ladder, just as she was on her way up, to hide in a lab to make fake food. 

And there she was, back at the kitchen table. Her aunt was right, she thought—she should have gone to college. Or trucking school. Learned something useful. Something real.

“Hildy, I’m giving you this house. Not that it’s worth much—maybe the land’ll fetch a price. Anyways, it’s yours. The house and everything in it.”

“You going somewhere?” 

“It’s time, Hilda. It’s my time.”

The young woman felt everything inside her go tight. “Your time for what?”

“Vero Beach!  I bought a condo a block from the ocean.”

Hilda laughed, and all that was clenched, released. “Florida? You?”

“Why not me? I want to live on a nice beach before hurricanes and floods make a beach of this place. What with the fires and now these quakes, it’s already like living on the moon. I don’t want to die on the moon.”

“So, you’re giving me the moon?”

“Yep. It’s your legacy, God help you.”

The house wasn’t in such bad shape. Hilda gave it a good scrub, removed the heavy drapes from the windows, and called a local charity to pick up most of the old furniture. She opened a steamer trunk before dragging it out to the front yard, expecting to find winter coats caustic with moth balls, and found neat, dense stacks of cash, topped with a note: Do something with your life. Love, Clem. It was the first time in Hilda’s memory Clem had used the word love.

She sketched out a garden. She discovered the first mushroom while digging the edges of a plot in the field behind the house, in a neglected compost pile. Cross referencing her small personal library with sites on the internet, she learned its name: Panaeolus cinctulus, a common psilocybin mushroom. Hilda had never eaten a psychedelic mushroom, but remembered the story passed around culinary school of a former student who went on to open a restaurant in southern California that, before it was closed down, served appetizers dosed with magic mushrooms. The joke was that the customers were ecstatic, but no one could understand the Yelp reviews. 

Hilda dehydrated the mushrooms from the compost and ground them to a powder. She started out with the tiniest pinches in a soup. She felt good, a little floaty. Over the course of a month she increased the amount she added to the food until one day, she literally tripped out of her kitchen and into a teary hallucinogenic state that lasted over six hours, and felt like six days. Afterwards, she felt weak, as though she’d been hollowed out. She called Dope.

“You did how much? Good lord, H. I know it’s weird coming from me, but a little moderation, how about?”

“Yeah, it was too much in a month, I see that. But before this last time, I don’t know how to describe it, I felt…optimistic.”

“Sure. The hippie drugs’ll do that.”

“To everyone?”

“Huh. I don’t know. There’s a whole scientific circle that thinks there’s something to that concept, that mushrooms can save the world, if we let them.”

“Could I pay you to come out here on your next vacation and help me with an idea? I need a scientist. I need you. It’s probably not legal.”

“I don’t know, H—can you pay me?”

“As a matter of fact, I can.”

Dope made excuses to his family and spent Thanksgiving weekend with Hilda. He called in sick the week after that, and then begged off another week. It was enough time to write a blueprint for Hilda’s scheme. The night before his flight back east, Dope and Hilda sat in front of the fire, passing a bong and eating potato chips. 

“Did you know,” Dope said, brushing crumbs from his lap, “the woolly bear caterpillar eats poisonous plants to kill the parasitic eggs deposited in them by predators? Talk about rude, leaving your babies to hatch in someone else’s body. The trick is, though, that the woolly bear has to eat enough poison to destroy the eggs, but not so much as to kill themselves before they can transform and emerge as the Isabella tiger moth they are destined to become. Nature is wild.” He lay back on a pillow and giggled. 

“When I first met you, I didn’t know Lepidoptera meant butterfly. Or moth, too, I guess. The men who came into the canteen where I bartended—you know, the survivalists—the ones who all died when those fancy bunkers caved in from the earthquake—they loved to throw around these military terms they’d learned on the internet or wherever. DOPE stood for Data on Personal Engagement—turns out its a manual on sniper equipment. Those guys couldn’t find their ass with two hands unless a martini was balanced on it, but they knew the lingo. Probably owned all the equipment, too, had it hoarded in those stupid bunkers. Anyway, I couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to go by Dope.”

“Particularly a pacifist such as myself.”

“Discounting all those insects you infect and autopsy.”

“Violence for science. You’ve butchered your share of critters, Chef, in the name of culinary art.”

“Sure, yeah.”
“Do you think your project, best intentions aside, is, in its way, an act of violence?” Dope could, and did, wax philosophical, was given to long dissertations on the impossibility of true generosity without anonymity (his family, Hilda was made to understand, could be controlling about money); he could go on for hours about the inspiration for his scientific career—an acid-enhanced epiphany which stemmed from Nietzsche, who claimed humans were capable of “sniffing out the truth.” But Hilda knew (because Dope had simply asked it and said nothing more), the question was sincere, and begged an answer.

“Maybe? Does it matter, really, if it works? I mean, what if whole groups of people start to feel good, or feel better… Look at corn syrup. That shit used to be in fucking everything. People didn’t even know they were consuming it. All it did was make things sweet. Nobody felt better for it.”

“Sure. No altruism in corn syrup. Dosing populations with psychedelic drugs, though, some folks might take issue.”

“Yeah, I know. I hear you. I do. Dope—thanks for your smarts.”

“You bet. Just keep my family’s good name off the labels.”


Hilda leased a facility in Denver and equipped it with everything required to provide large-scale food service. She hired cooks and sanitation crew. (The sanitation crew was key: after the pandemics started to roll one into the other, the hottest entrepreneurial ticket was in take-out food service. Facilities for rent sprang up everywhere. Oversight was limited to cleanliness. No one questioned anything in a to-go box except human hair and rodent feces.) She lined up her purveyors and customized a delivery truck. She had a website built and brochures printed that advertised her mission: feed more people better for less money. She didn’t use the word vegetarian. She did list nutritional value, protein density, and ingredients for all meals, under her label, Enwilden. Her first accounts included an alternative high school and an assisted living facility. Response was positive. Business grew. Her big break came when a regional prison was forced to look for a supplier after their food service company went belly up and breached their contract. Hilda’s client list exploded.

She opened another facility in D.C., and one in Oregon. In five years, Enwilden expanded to thirty states, providing food services to prisons, work crews, senior living campuses, universities, middle schools, and high schools. She did not service K-5 schools, citing her own reluctance, despite her endorsement of a meat-free diet, of eliminating animal protein from the school lunches of children under twelve. She didn’t have a board of directors. She could say no when she wanted. 

On paper, Enwilden was a success because it delivered on its promises. Facilities could feed large populations of people relatively cheaply, while still providing top quality meals. No expired No.10 cans of pinto beans. No questionable meats. No prison riots over terrible food. Nutritionally, financially and ethically, Enwilden made everybody happy. 

Unbeknownst to almost everyone, Enwilden also made everybody happy. 

Mushrooms were present in the majority of recipes on Enwilden’s menus, and were listed on nearly every label. Not every meal contained the magic variety, but carefully calibrated micro dosing ensured that any given regular participant of Enwilden’s food services ingested a steady amount of mushroom-sourced psilocybin over the course of a month, term, or semester. 

And people were happy, though this was attributed to factors other than food service from Enwilden. After a long, dark age of mutual aggression, widespread despair, and loss of confidence in all political and social systems, people were coming around. Some invisible tide had turned. Voter turnout was up, and uncontested. Volunteerism thrived. Recidivism was down. Emissions were down. Hope, of all lost things, was high. A sense of euphoria washed over everyone, spilling over from the micro-dosed and onto the general population. 

Hilda saw the end, or felt it close, the day the military called, offering to contract with Enwilden for more money than was imaginable. She had long wondered what would happen if her experiment were extended to the armed forces. The idea was irresistible. She’d done the impossible already, keeping the deep secret of Enwilden to herself—untraceable supply chain, highly specific recipes and ingredient packaging, careful control of Enwilden’s proprietary seasoning. She could hear Dope laughing as she teetered on the precipice of her own wild success. She wished she could see him, let him talk her back from the edge. For to say yes to the military would be to say goodbye to control, and so to Enwilden.

She said yes. 

A year and a month passed before the inevitable. As in prison commissaries, each dining facility of the armed forces made a Dead Man’s Tray for every meal, a tray of food that is portioned, wrapped, and frozen in the event the meal has to be examined as a source of food borne illness. Hilda was surprised she wasn’t found out sooner. After the report came back stating that traces of psilocybin showed up as an ingredient in the seitan stir fry, Hilda was taken into custody. 

She liked her court-appointed lawyer. Her actual lawyer was busy siphoning cash to her employees and various organizations Hilda favored, before the lawsuits began. A large sum was headed toward a butterfly sanctuary in the southeast. 

“Ms. Blessing, while I admire your motives, no judge or jury is going to believe you did this on your own.”

“I didn’t. My friend, Dope, helped me. My Dope friend. My Dope friend the dope fiend, hahaha…”

“You mean Dr. Leo Cisneros, is that right?

“Yes. Galileo Cisneros. My dear, departed, dope friend.”

“I’m sorry for your loss. His death was drug related, a heroin overdose, was it not?”

“Maybe. I wasn’t there.”

“That’s what the toxicology report says. You maintain that Dr. Cisneros was the only individual to directly, with knowledge of your intent, help you develop Enwilden?”

“I maintain that, yes. But even he didn’t know the details of the operation, and never took an active part. Or any money.”

“Thousands of employees, and you were the only person privy to the psilocybin poisoning?”

“I didn’t poison people.”

“That’s the charge.”

“It was working.”

The lawyer paused. She put down her legal pad, stood up, and with her back to Hilda, said, “You know, it’s not my place, but you’re right, as far as it goes. as far as it matters. It was working. The only place it was destined to fail—because it was working—was the military.” She turned to face her client. “You might as well have armed them with pop guns and set them to hawking daisies in the airports, swap out the salute for namaste...What in hell is the armed forces going to do with soldiers who are at peace with the world?” The lawyer took a sip of Hilda’s water. “I apologize. Like I said, it’s not my place. I’m here to help you as best I can. I just don’t know how to do that.”

“No, I’m the one who’s sorry. You’ve got a tough job, here. I understand I’m going to prison. And that the food’s going to suck, hahaha…”

The lawyer didn’t laugh.

Hilda stared at the floor, took a deep breath, and let it out. She looked up. She really did like this woman, this person who thought her foolish and still wanted to help. “I only wondered, Counselor, if there were conditions under which people could be happier together. Or just—less abusive of one another, of themselves. That’s all. Lose their minds enough to give meeker, more creative impulses some air. If there was a way for more people to move in the same direction, you know, organically. Toward something better. I don’t expect to be forgiven for my methods.”

“Ms. Blessing, what, exactly, in your opinion, might have constituted ‘something better’?”

Hilda thought back to her one long mushroom trip, the one that had left her in tears. The scene her mind painted had been a tender childhood moment, in the woods, a fishing trip with her parents. In the vision, her father drew her attention to a woolly bear caterpillar, tipped black at each end. See that? Gonna be a long winter, Hildy girl. But it’s okay. We’ll be okay. In a flash, the insect spun itself into a ball of gossamer, then broke open to release a black-spotted body and wings the deep fiery gold of a newly risen sun. It flitted and lit on her open palm, and flew away.  It wasn’t a memory. Hers had not been a childhood of fishing with mothers and fathers, of campfires and sleeping under the stars. She’d come back from that trip, though, sensing the truth of something. Feeling some kind of peace could still be had, despite everything.

Maybe it was true. Or maybe other poisons had already burned through too much.

“I don’t know what I mean by something better,” Hilda said, at last. “Something real, I guess. The bright thing that feels so close you can feel its heat, smell it, maybe even touch it, right before you give up, or it gives you up, and leaves a hole in what you can know, who you can be, for the rest of the ride.”

She wasn’t with Dope when he overdosed, but she knew it wasn’t heroin. He’d been making trips to the desert to chase scorpions, to accept what he referred to as the vital agony of the sting in order to suffer the ecstasy of the toxin, to take a journey on a glass bottomed boat, as he put it, skim a world of infinite depth, beyond beauty, never to dive in, for if you did, so weighted in wonder, how would you ever surface?

Irene Cooper is the author of the novels Found & Committal, & the poetry collection, spare change, finalist for the Stafford/Hall Award for poetry. Irene supports AIC-directed creative writing at a regional prison, teaches in community, and currently serves as an editor for Airlie Press. SHe lives with her people and Maggie in Oregon.

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