Eating Poetry:Reading & Tasting
A review of Myra Kornfeld and Stephen Massimilla'sCooking with the Muse: A Sumptuous Gathering of Seasonal Recipes, Culinary Poetry, and Literary Fare by reviewer Caitlin Pryor.
Caitlin Pryor, Eating Poetry, Reading, Tasting, Myra Kornfeld, Stephen Massimilla, Cooking with the Muse, Sumptuous Gathering, seasonal recipes, culinary poetry, literary fare
on Massimilla and Kornfeld's Cooking with the Muse: A Sumptuous Gathering of Seasonal Recipes, Culinary Poetry, and Literary Fare
The history of poetry is almost as long as the history of food. And in the last few years, the confluence of food and literature has proven to be a subject of keen interest. Books like The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food & Drink (2012), edited by Kevin Young; Eating Words: A Norton Anthology of Food Writing (2016), edited by Sandra Gilbert; and the forthcoming title Eat This Poem: A Literary Feast of Recipes Inspired by Poetry (2017), edited by Nicole Gulotta, all attempt to simultaneously nourish both the stomach and the mind.
Cooking with the Muse: A Sumptuous Gathering of Seasonal Recipes, Culinary Poetry, and Literary Fare by Myra Kornfeld & Stephen Massimilla is one of the latest to belly up to the proverbial table. In their introduction, the editors describe the book as both a "cook's literary book" and "a book lover's cookbook." Cooking with the Muse lives up to this description, and the editors' collection practices endeavor to honor both cookbooks and poetry anthologies alike: no small feat, to be sure. This feast of a book includes nearly 150 recipes and as many poems, which are peppered with "Poet's Notes" and a number of longer essays which range from examinations of the Moroccan flavors of Keats's "The Eve of St. Agnes" to an ode "On the Poetry of the Onion: Nature's 'Small Forgotten Miracle.'"
With so many delectable dishes and dithyrambs to choose from, one hardly knows where to begin. I decided to eat my dessert before dinner, and dove into the recipe for the delicious Chocolate Tart with Salt and Caramelized pecans from the winter dessert section of the cookbook. Like a number of the recipes on offer here, the tart is naturally gluten and dairy free, and boasts a bittersweet flash of salt and savor with each bite. The crust, made of only coconut flake, orange zest, coconut sugar, and egg white, is light on the tongue but rich in flavor, an excellent complement to the chocolate and coconut milk-based filling. The final result—dotted with fleur de sel and homemade caramelized pecans coated in sugar, salt, and cayenne—is simple in presentation and stunning on the tongue.
The Poet's Note for this chocolate recipe, however, is one of the more anemic annotations in the collection: "Chocolate resembles the art of poetry," the editors write. Quoting Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, the 17th century marquise de Sevigne, they add, "It flatters you for a while, it warms you for an instant, then, all of a sudden, it kindles a mortal fever in you." Luckily, I was too intoxicated by the first bites of the slice of rich chocolate tart I'd just cut to notice that I was short on reading material.
There are, I must note, a preponderance of poems by editor Massimilla in this collection: forty-nine, by my count, as well as five additional poems co-written with co-editor Kornfeld. For example, William Carlos Williams's well-known "This Is Just to Say," the consummate poem about plums, follows the recipe for Seared Duck with Plum Sauce. But on the next two pages, we also find Massimilla's poem "Plum Summer" after the recipe for Plum Brisket. The speaker here is "all thirst and murmur / to savor, rivering the tongue, parting / the lips too absorbed to ask, // while consuming the universe, / do I dare?" These lines are so reminiscent of Eliot it's difficult to focus on their own meaning, and suffer by comparison to the nearby Williams poem. Yet the plum poems press on! After "Plum Summer," Massimilla also offers us "Elsewhere," a poem in seven short sections that presents images of a "plum-black filly" and "a Stellar's jay" that is "Fruit-blue, flecked with mist-light." I suppose I expected the editors to take on the roles of line cooks here rather than chefs de cuisine, so to speak. However, this hybrid book's title does promise us a [End Page 7] "sumptuous gathering," so perhaps this surfeit of poems on the same subjects is warranted.
Because of its hybridity, it's worth considering where the book's ultimate allegiance lies. Organized seasonally, Cooking with the Muse demonstrates the same respect for the distinct flavors of autumn, winter, spring, and summer as poets do when they extol the natural world in their work. At its core, however, Cooking is a cookbook. Its opening pages list simple cooking techniques and descriptions of ingredients; its large, glossy pages are designed to be read while hovering between the stove and the cutting board; and the many illustrations by Francis Estrada and vibrant photographs by Michael Grimaldi allow the book to appeal to the eye as much as the ear.
As I paged through the book in search of an entree to try, I thought more still about the collection practices on display in Cooking with the Muse. How exhaustive must one be when collecting poems that reference food and cooking? Which exaltations of the apple, for example, should be included with Spice-Baked Miniature Apples? Will a reference to Paradise Lost do? Something less expected? One might anticipate references to Plath's "Blackberrying" and Kinnell's "Blackberry Eating" adjacent to the recipe for Blackberry-Fresh Corn Polenta Tartlets with Ricotta Cream, for example, and there they are. But more wonderful by turns are the collection's unexpected moments, connections, and recipes. Along with the recipe for Sweet Pea and Cool Cucumber Gazpacho, we find Nazim Hikmet's "The Cucumber"; plated with the Massaged "Halloween" Kale Salad with Party Mix and Roasted Delicata Squash, we are served an excerpt from an old Celtic lyric which references a myth about "the fibrous stalks of the leafy kale plant" that "fairies ride instead of horses on moonlit nights," as the editors explain. "And like the taste of each stem's heart," the song instructs us, "The heart of groom or bride; / So shut your eyes, and pull the stocks, / And let the fates decide." Reading these words urged me to do what food and poetry so often call us to do: remember the story of myself.
I chose to follow this Celtic strain and cook the food of my people: Shepherd's Pie with Colcannon Topping. Prepared in individual ramekins, the stew that forms the bottom layer of this dish is redolent with rosemary, lamb, and leeks. Topped with colcannon (mashed potatoes, onions, and shredded green cabbage), I finished this dish with a sliver of luscious Kerrygold butter, and the result was divine: the piping-hot stew is kept at its peak temperature beneath its cap of creamy potato, making it a perfect dish to serve on a cold mid-winter evening.
My family has lived in America for generations, but for a moment, standing over the steaming, fragrant pot as I cooked, I felt, for once, like a link in a long, lamb fat-flecked line of Irish cooks who have no doubt done the same: inhaled the aroma of simmering stew and felt, blessedly, at home in the world.
Such is the power of food, and so too the power of poetry. Just before the recipe for this traditionally Irish dish appears an essay on Seamus Heaney's impeccable "Clearances," in which the poet reminisces about peeling potatoes with his grandmother:
When all the others were away at MassI was all hers as we peeled potatoes.They broke the silence, let fall one by oneLike solder weeping off the soldering iron:Cold comforts set between us, things to shareGleaming in a bucket of clean water.And again let fall. Little pleasant splashesFrom each other's work would bring us to our senses.
The rich cultural history of the potato is discussed before the editors treat us to a sumptuous close reading of Heaney's poem and his focus on what the work of cooking meant to his speaker, and, by extension, what food might mean to us as poets today.
While I cooked these two luscious dishes, struggling to create a proper mise en place in my tiny [End Page 8] apartment kitchen, I meditated on the notion that just as each word is its own little ecosystem and a poem is a whole universe, so too is the relationship between ingredients and recipes. As a poet myself, I was also struck by the ways in which cooking can mimic the creation of a poem. We have an idea of the final dish in our minds, gather the ingredients required to create it, and set to work. But just as poems can surprise us along the way, so too can recipes. Improvisational skills are key: the coconut crust for my chocolate tart began to tan along its fringe, so I slipped a sheet of foil over the pie plate as it baked. Later, my largest kitchen knife was not up to the task of halving the giant head of green cabbage I'd brought home, so I diced a small section instead. In the kitchen, we learn as we go along—a wonderful lesson I'd just as soon impart to my creative writing students as I would to a room full of novice chefs.
Though it is certainly more cookbook than poetry anthology, Cooking with the Muse still manages to embody poetry even on pages where no actual poems are present, and is an excellent addition to the poet's kitchen and the cook's library alike. "Living in our fast-paced, sound-bitten, 'virtual' age, in a culture where real, satisfying food—and poetry as well—have largely fallen by the wayside," the editors write, "we are becoming ever more aware of the need to keep in contact with the fruits of nature, the seasons, the earth, and the spirit within us." Reading and tasting this book allowed me to connect to that same spirit, and encouraged me to consider the ways in which cooking, memory, and poetry are connected. This was an experience I will not soon forget.
Whether you choose to bake the Pear-Pomegranate Cornbread Pudding, read Jane Hirshfield's "Pomegranates" or Linda Pastan's "Pears," or enjoy these delights all at once, there are countless ways to satisfy your hunger for beauty in all its forms in this enticing, elegant collection.