I have never met a group more reliable to have a good meal with–and it should be said, a few drinks with–than poets…Poets tend to love the details, the process of food, the languid hours of a good meal–meaning not just the vittles but the talk, often loud, that accompanies it.
This may also be because the best poems, like the best meals, are made from scratch. Both rely on the seasons, but also human history; both also consist of tradition, on knowledge passed down either from books or from generation to generation, hand to mouth. In poetry, there are few shortcuts, but there are secrets. Food and poetry each insist that we put our own twists and ingredients in the mix: we make each dish, like a good poem, our own. With any luck, the result is both surprising and satisfying, exactly what we wanted, perhaps without even knowing it.
However, we know well the ways in which our society has abandoned good food, and too often poetry entirely–as if it grows without water and light, and that our neglect won’t reveal itself. “Can one be inspired by rows of prepared canned meals?” asked Alice B. Toklas, who knew her way around both poetry & a kitchen. “Never. One must get nearer to creation to be able to create, even in the kitchen.”
“You cannot be really first-rate at your work if your work is all you are.
So I suppose the best piece of advice I could give anyone is pretty simple: get a life. A real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house. Do you think you’d care so very much about those things if you developed an aneurysm one afternoon, or found a lump in your breast while in the shower?
Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over the dunes, a life in which you stop and watch how a red-tailed hawk circles over a pond and a stand of pines. Get a life in which you pay attention to the baby as she scowls with concentration when she tries to pick up a Cheerio with her thumb and first finger.
Turn off your cell phone. Turn off your regular phone, for that matter. Keep still. Be present.
Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love, and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure, it is work.
Get a life in which you are generous. Look around at the azaleas making fuchsia star bursts in spring; look at a full moon hanging silver in a black sky on a cold night. And realize that life is glorious, and that you have no business taking it for granted.
It is so easy to waste our lives: our days, our hours, our minutes. It is so easy to take for granted the pale new growth on an evergreen, the sheen of the limestone on Fifth Avenue, the color of our kids’ eyes, the way the melody in a symphony rises and falls and disappears and rises again. It is so easy to exist instead of live. Unless you know there is a clock ticking.
I am tired of the tundra of the mind,
where a few shabby thoughts hunker
around a shabby fire. All day from my window
I watch girls and boys hanging out
in the dark arcades of desire.
Tonight, everything is strict with cold,
the houses closed, the ice botched by skaters.
I am tired of saying things about the world,
and yet, sometimes, these streets are so
slick and bold they remind me of the wet
zinc bar at the Café Marseilles, and suddenly the sea
is green and lust is everywhere in a red cravat, Read more »
There is a second hand shop in our neighborhood whose opening hours are impossible to predict. An aged proprietress lives above the store and opens only when the mood strikes; she is selling the mismatched detritus of her life. “I always loved buying things,” she tells me in a Brooklyn-tinged warble, “But now?” Her eyes rove strings of colorful beads, a crystal decanter, a wicker lamp. “What am I going to do with all this?”
I have unearthed many a gem in her store, usually sold for a song–a heavy pitcher winking with bright red roses, a set of six, flared champagne coupes. I particularly loved a juice glass, mottled with ivory and canary yellow flowers. It was a small but distinct pleasure–to fill that glass and watch the flowers pop. Read more »
The expired weeks since Christmas have stretched long–a barrage of travel and too many nights that lasted until morning. I will unravel the contents of those weeks some time, but not yet. For now, I just want to remember the holiday we spent in France, with family that will soon officially be my family.
The details of so many fêted meals blur together now, but I can tell you that there was foie gras d’oie, served alongside heady-sweet, wine-poached figs. It was an especially good year for figs in the garden. Comme d’habitude, the whole roast goose traveled no farther than the farm down the road, its rearer a family friend. Read more »
It is past four o’clock in the morning and I am still awake, up to nothing in particular except listening to a plunking blanket of rain beat and tinker onto the skylight above our bed, down the mansard roof. The man I love more than yesterday, less than tomorrow, more even than vanilla-peanut butter ice cream sleeps fitfully in the bed beside me, taking up more than his fair share of sheet real estate, but no matter.
We are in Paris, in the attic room of a narrow gray hotel tucked onto an unremarkable street in the 3eme arrondissement. The room is small, comically so, but in return we have a view—a true panorama of Paris’s shabby-chic, sprawling skyline, the expanse of grays, charcoals, and creams, the embarrassment of clay chimneystacks, like so many upturned flowerpots abandoned in a garden row. The Sacre Coeur stands alone, rising ivory on a distant hill, hazy at the edges in the somber light, a neat little postage stamp of a cathedral. We have a small balcony, and I move from the bed to stand outside as the rain softens, following the white lights that lick the wet road, slick as oil after hours of rain. Read more »
When the weather dips below freezing and the sun sets in the afternoon, I make hot chocolate. It seems only fair. A warm mugful of rich, dark dessert fortifies against such conditions. My version is a compromise between the chocolate I used to dip churros into at three in the morning when I lived in Madrid–that is to say, a melted chocolate bar–and the insipid powder I knew growing up. (True fact: there is such a thing as diet powdered hot chocolate. I do not recommend it.)
It was the Frenchman who first introduced me to proper hot chocolate, made with milk and bar chocolate. Before I met him, I had no notion that hot chocolate could be anything more than the disappointing combination of sugary chocolate powder + water. But one icy weekend afternoon, when were were still living in Paris and the sun failed by four o’clock, he walked into the kitchen and clanked a pot onto the range. “I am going to make some hot chocolate,” he said. “Would you like a cup?” Read more »
I oscillated hour to hour on whether or not to post this essay here–it is not the kind of writing I normally share in this space. Regular readers will know how much I care about whole foods, and that the farmers market is an essential facet of my cooking life, but I do not usually bring policy into the conversation.
Ultimately, I am posting this because I think the issues at hand are more important than my fears you won’t like what I have to say.
I recently spent a few days with a group of people who could not think more differently than me when it comes to food. After that experience, I needed a way to vent my frustrations, collect my thoughts, and clarify my views. If you already agree with what I write below, excellent. If you agree and are looking for a way to broach the subject with the people in your life who disagree or simply don’t know, I hope this essay aids that conversation. If you think I am totally full of cow manure, well, we are just going to have to agree to disagree. Either way, if you would rather simply read about a happy-go-lucky, apple-parsnip cake laced with rummy raisins and warming spices, click hereto jump ahead. Read more »