Thursday, March 26, 2009

Stealing Cakes from Ray

T.S. Eliot claimed, "good poets borrow, great poets steal." I would agree. I would also speculate this maxim applies to cooks as well as poets. A good cook will improvise, but a great cook can steal a recipe and reinvent it, tweak the tiniest of ingredients and bloom something, even the simplest of cakes, into something sinful. I confess. I steal all the time. Yet, I'd like to think of myself more as the innocent bystander type, rather than the main accomplice. I am not talented enough to carry out a crime alone or re-invent the creme brulee, not yet. Frankly, I think of myself in the kitchen as I do a writer : I am a revisionist. After teaching writing long enough, I know if you want to write well, then you have to read well. I read all the time, write a lot, but revise the most. Revision is really re-seeing, re-inventing and fundamentally an essential part of trying to clarify what you want to say. Revision is also an essential part of learning how to cook well.

Perhaps I have my midwestern background to thank for my revisionist approach. Maybe it comes from yet another maxim often under-heard at church potlucks. It is commonly heard at humid family reunions in the middle of July in mosquito infested lakes of northern Minnesota. This phrase is often muffled or said as an aside and the speaker rarely expects a reply in return. Perhaps you've heard this even out of the midwest by a midwesterner fumbling to compliment with the token phrase: "It could be worse." After this is said, expect a long pause by the speaker, followed by a shrug of their shoulders and almost always staring at their shoes or the sky.

Thankfully while living overseas, I didn't have to translate this phrase for any of my students in Polish, French or even Italian. No, the Poles would say, no, actually it can be worse. The French, they would argue what is worse for whom and the Italians, well, this as a concept doesn't even exist for them. Why should it? Why would an Italian even think about something being worse, when life is so good? What would be the point?

And frankly, what is the point in thinking about how something could be worse? Are midwesterners really the downers of this nation, tugging all us down as the great Bible belt of our country expands? Or are we the great realists ready for something really bad? Of course, I am biased. I was born there so I prefer to think of midwesterners as merely revisionists or ironic idealists. We appreciate something by stressing that it is good, by recognizing that it could have been bad, but it isn't. It would sound too cliche and vulnerable for someone while putting a spoon into a red jell-o mold with floating tangerine pieces or piling on another portion of a green bean casserole to say, "this is great, I've never had jell-o like this before" or "I cannot believe these beans aren't fresh?" Could someone really say, "when did mushroom soup become so good?" Nope. We return to what we know with our paper plates filled with slightly muted shades of green or more vibrant hues of red and respond with, "well, it could be worse."

However, it is preciously these kinds of food experiences which haunt me today and cause me to steal recipes--to resurrect my taste buds and believe there is more to flavor then salt and sweet. I have grown to believe canned mushroom soup is not to be trusted, ever and cakes don't have to be drenched in sugar frosting iced with phrases like, "happy retirement chuck" to be considered a cake. Cakes, as I have written about previously, can be bound by Spanish cheese instead of gluten and this cake that I share with you can be made with only seven ingredients and not one egg. I cannot say that this cake reminds me of anything I had at a church potluck and of course this is a recipe I have stolen. Ray Risho, a guru in our cooking school and community, made this cake for a class and I want everyone I know to make it.

Ray Risho looks like he came out of the streets of Damascus but with a Cape Cod accent. I love Ray because he greets me in Polish, calls me Amelia and teaches cooking classes with maps. He once did a cooking class on Lebanese Mountain cooking and brought in a faded atlas with a pointer and said, "Amelia, focus the television on this." Looking up to the audience, grabbing each person's eyes, he slowly said, "This, this is Lebanon. And I am sorry that we don't have a fresh goat to slaughter for you tonight." This was said in earnest seriousness. We may not have had a goat, but we ate some of the best lamb I have ever had. I have learned more from Ray than any other individual in the kitchen, because he doesn't just teach how to be a better cook, he teaches how to be a better human. For Ray, food is something to honor, savor, and really not how it can be worse, but how something simple can be the best. To learn that flavor has a history, it comes from a marriage of culture and language, and that cooking doesn't have to be complicated to be good.

And this cake is that, so simple it will surprise you. Ray made this for a Tuscany Cooking class and asked me if we should serve it with cream. I thought it needed a little something while reading the recipe on the page, but it doesn't. And Ray said, "Okay Amelia, you young people like things sweet, I'll whip up some cream." But the cream wasn't whipped cream with a dash of sugar. It was infused with saffron and pear juice with a bit of sugar. It was a trip in white. I'll let Ray keep his cream recipe to himself, but I have stolen and now will share his Fennel Cake recipe with you and I bet you won't be saying, "it could be worse" by the smells that will fill your kitchen or the flavors in your mouth.

Fennel Cake

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup ground almond flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup milk or 1/2 & 1/2
1 1/2 tablespoons of fennel seed

1. Preheat oven at 350 degrees.
2. Rub butter into a 9 inch spring form pan.
3. In a small bowl, combine flour, almond flour, sugar and baking powder. Mix well.
4. Gradually add milk or half and half.
5. In a small saute pan, dry roast fennel seeds. Crush seeds, slightly, using a mortar and pestle. Fold seeds into batter.
6. Pour batter into prepared pan.
7. Bake for about 30 minutes. Cut into wedges and serve.

Yields: 4 to 6 servings.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

City Horses and Houses made for Fields.

There needs to be a holiday called, The Day for honoring our Secret Vacation. A time when each person can leave, go where they want to go and it isn't secret in regards of doing something forbidden or hidden, just a time to go and be away, peacefully connecting to some space of quiet. As children, I think so much of play in forests or meadowed fields are times for being knights, giant spiders or casting spells, basically a time to be what you cannot be at school. As if your imagination connects you to some part of yourself that you only allow yourself to be in private. The place of restorative peace, maybe we do this as adults while we are on vacation. Vacations can be a time to be part of a foreign environment or culture and just observe, take walks, reconnect with a more private part of yourself while you visit odd sites often neglected by those who live there, sit longer in parks, bring back photos of yourself slightly tanner and more relaxed--to remind yourself that there exists another version of yourself, more reflective and a bit more likely to smile.

I once had a secret vacation where I visited a friend in London, while I was living in Rome, and for three days did nothing but walk the streets, sit in parks, drink pints before five in the afternoon and go to films. I cannot tell you anything about one museum or a national monument from that visit, nor can I indulge any historical facts or have even one photo. But what I do have are hours of doing nothing, but peacefully walking mostly through Northern London.

We'd weave through the boroughs and fumble upon blue plaques on houses left to tell us who had lived there and when. We found most of them by accident where famous writers, politicians, and even poets had spent some time. I recall coming upon a tidy little square in Camden, all of the houses white and almost identical gardens in each front yard. It didn't have the same smug sense of sterile living as a subdivision. The houses were well-kept, lived-in and for the most part seemed well-loved, all except one. This house hadn't been painted in years, the once rose bushes were just naked stalks, and the porch was a collection of forgotten wicker furniture, no grass in the lawn. It stood out. It didn't seem haunted or deprived as much as it needed to recoil from its surroundings. I couldn't figure it out. It looked like it could have so easily fit in, been part of the sensible lot, but the house or maybe its inhabitants refused. As I stared at the neglected lawn, my British friend, with a hint of sarcasm, miffed, "That's where your country's beloved poet lived." And sure enough, I walked closer to the gate and squinted to see the blue plaque inscribed : Sylvia Plath lived here from 1960-1961.

We walked on. Later, we passed more plaques of poets such as William Butler Yeats and made jokes about obscure plaque facts such as where Yeats had taken naps, sneezed, or simply had tea. It seemed silly and all the while we tried to forget about the lone house in Camden. Neither of us said anything about it, but I couldn't get it out of mind. How could such a beautiful house not recover or maybe it just needed to be let go, let it be put in some field to be overtaken by grasses and dust, the way barns can collapse and appear beautiful and slowly return to the wild. As if the souls of trees take them back.

Even today as I think about that house, my reaction is the same. That house needs to be set free somehow. Perhaps this is an odd leap (no pun intended) but this is how I feel about horses. In my mind, horses aren't meant to be kept as pets, saddled or even fitted for shoes, and they surely never seem fit for cities. Even when I see a horse behind a fence, they make me feel tired. I find myself sleepy, not because I'm overtaken by the bucolic vision of the animal, but mostly because I feel horses need to be wild. Aren't they tired too of being tamed?I am by no means suggesting animal rights here, horses go too far back for me to start fighting. They have been domesticated since 4000 BC and all except one breed in Mongolia is considered wild. There are even facts of equine intelligence with spatial discrimination and the chariot remains in North Kazakhstan are prized as some of the oldest facts of these animals living close to man. Horses are the ubiquitous force of civilized man, so perhaps my plight is more of a neurosis than a cause, more of my own myth than a collected fact.

Maybe I need to take a secret vacation and go horse back riding, but wait, I already have. I have taken lessons, gone on a camping trip where we rode horses into the Snowy Mountains, and still I just felt like I wanted to let them be free. Is it enough for them to be prodded and pulled by someone's foolish need to feel like a cowboy? Can some things never be tamed? Or maybe people like the horse whisperers and great Arabian or Mongol riders are merely trying to ride to another world, a world where wilderness reigns and where it is actually the rider at mercy to the beast.

Regardless of history or equine facts, horses, like poetry, thankfully do contain something of another world. I cannot speak about horses directly, but I do believe poetry takes us to a place in each of that we sometimes forget about, keep quiet or kept closed until we have some time to be quiet, take a vacation, take time away from noise and return to rhythm, either iambic or maybe even a canter. Sylvia Plath's famous collection, which a bulk of it was written in that Northern London home, was titled, Ariel. In the poem of the same title, she herself or the narrator becomes one with the galloping horse, merging to rise and run. Maybe she knew something about the nature and myth of horses too. I'd like to think so. I'd also like to think it is important to read and remember her poems, more than her house, the plaque and her neglected garden.

City Horses

In fields in the noon sun, they look tired
from all the work they haven't done,
left alone too long from boys who only fall
in love with women sixteen feet tall, screened
skin with lips that are nothing but light
fragments flickered red. Even in Montana,
horses look silly in cities, slowing traffic down,
parading some past, like a pow wow on a college campus
where the horses stand only in steel. Up river,
children grow in houses without barns, built on fields
that furrow trailer parks instead of growing apples
for Appaloosas. The west is an open space left
for one lone billboard to try and hold the hills
down with words burnt from some church's Christ
speaking down the barrel of a shot gun
held in the hands of someone's twelve year old
son. Maybe horses too, just need fields
to be alone, to just run.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Picking from Fields and Streams

My grandparents, the Doyles, lived in the same house, but spent most of their days separate in different rooms. They were fond of each other or perhaps a better way to describe them is that they had spent more than fifty years being married to each other, and perhaps stayed married because they worked--away from each other. My grandmother, Dorothy, spent her days in the kitchen making molasses cookies, fudge, and any sweet to fill us--while my grandfather, Cedric, spent his days in the basement, working gifts in wood. Cedric and Dorothy Doyle, about as Irish as names as you could come up without even trying. But try they would at about everything from gardening, sewing, doll house making to even vanities and armoires. Their house was a constant smell of brown sugar, sawdust and geraniums. Even in the summer with the windows open and the hint of humidity and fields being tilled, somehow the efforts of their individual pursuits bloomed throughout their house. Upstairs was fudge for Christmas and roses in summer and the basement was the sweet scent of cedar or oak. All year long regardless of which season, each of them worked on some sort of project. But most projects were to be given to loved ones, mostly to us, the grandchildren.

I'd like to tell you that all of us grandchildren know Dorothy's molasses cookie recipe by heart or each of us has Cedric's skill of clean lined furniture. But we don't, not directly. But I will tell you is that each of us does something inspired by these two and their quiet acts of kindness. Each of us has a hint of Cedric's humor and each of us, I believe, acts out of Dorothy's attitude of, if you want to eat well, then you need to learn how to cook well. And I'd like to think each of us, every spring grows something--either rows of beans or bulbs to remind us of simple joys in growing something and the knowledge that food comes from the earth no matter where you live. Each of us grandchildern keep a garden of sorts, some grow orchids, some have acres of squash and sweet corn. Gardening keeps our family closer, even if we are all spread out in cities, mountain towns, and Western fields. We grow either flowers or fresh vegetables to feed ourselves and to give, like our grandparents, to those we love. 

I work with someone who also has Irish grandparents, who like Cedric and Dorothy, have given him endless gifts. Lorn Biros might look like he has an Irish accent with his glinting eyes and rudy complexion, but he is American born, yet hasn't forgotten any of his family's homeland. His grandparents, Joyce and Burton Evans, both came from County Kerry. And like my own grandparents, they work in their separate rooms all day long. Burt was a milkman by trade, but now spends his time wood working and making cabinets and armoires for his grandchildren. Joyce also has a knack for fudge and has even written three cookbooks. So while I was preparing for a Saint Patrick Day Celebration, I knew exactly who to ask for insight.

I planned on making cabbage soup with bacon, soda bread and a gratin with tarragon and Dubliner cheese.  While I was trying  not to cut the tip of my finger off on the mandolin, slicing potatoes, Lorn came in the cooking school kitchen to tell me, " You know Emily,  none of this is really Irish food." 

"Greet, Lauren." I feigned an accent (choosing humor like Cedric would have instead of arguing) while he told me all my work was for naught. And I went back to slicing potatoes.

"Sure, maybe the soda bread, but my grandma told me everything has bacon in it, eeverlything." Lorn kindly joked, seeing my earnest attempts.

I said, "You know Lorn, I've never been to Ireland and all I remember from what my mom told me is that the Guinness is so good there, you drink it with every meal and the pub food is the best, but I don't know what else to make? I don't want to make corned beef, it's so...expected." 

Still slicing potatoes, I looked at the bowl full of white. I knew enough from history that potatoes weren't always the staple of the island. Food is really about what grows where and "traditional" food is mostly from what grows wild. So I asked Lorn, 

"What grows in Ireland, I mean what grows wild? What did your grandma tell you about the landscape?" 

It didn't take Lorn more than thirty seconds to tell me, "watercress is everywhere along the banks and thyme grows like weeds and of course there are cows for butter and meat, or trout in the rivers." Lorn's mind was racing and thankfully, not only was he thinking of details from his grandma's stories, he was also thinking of recipes too.

And here they are based purely upon geography, guesses and bit of creativity. These two spreads are worth making any time of the year. I have mostly Lorn to thank for putting me in the right direction, but somehow I also want to thank my grandparents, for passing on their belief in basic foods and their intrepid natures and their reliance on work. Maybe you could call it Irish stubborness, but I prefer to think of it as determination. I think Cedric and Dorothy would have agreed and probably Joyce and Burt too.

These are both wonderful on fresh Soda bread or on crackers and easy to make in a blender if you don't have a food processor. Enjoy with the love of Dorothy and Joyce. 

Smoked Trout and Watercress Spread

one 1/2 pound of smoked trout, about a six inch fillet
one eight ounce package of cream cheese, at room temp
1/2 a bunch of watercress, only the leaves, rinsed 
one lemon, fresh juice 
salt and pepper to taste

1. Cut up cream cheese into the food processor first
2. Crumble trout and then add the watercress and lemon juice.
3. Puree for one to two minutes
4. Add salt and pepper to taste, pulse the food processor for 30 seconds
5. Put in a bowl, cover and then chill. 

Can be made a day ahead.

Carrot, Honey, Thyme Butter

one large carrot
two tablespoons of honey, warmed
three tablespoons of fresh thyme
one, eight ounce block of Organic Valley Pasture Butter*, room temp

1. Puree carrot in a food processor, then remove any excess water from the carrot pulp.
2. Place the butter, honey, thyme and pureed carrot in a mixer and whip butter until smooth.
3. Serve on fresh bread

* try to find European butter, they are usually sold in a block form and tend to have a better flavor, especially for something like this recipe. I used Organic Valley but there are others just as good.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Blind Birds and Neck Braces

The night my husband slept in the hospital with a broken neck, I came home to an empty house dark and dulled by silence. It was past midnight, late September and windows were still open from earlier that day. Earlier that day, I had made a quiche, walked the dog, read a book and mopped the floors. It could have been a day that would have passed and been comfortably forgotten. But standing there in the kitchen with one light on, it seemed as if I was on an island. Far from family and too late in any direction to call, anyone. All I could do was start the dishwasher. Perhaps it was out of a need for normalcy or a response from being overwhelmed, simple tasks to complete in times of stress are satisfying. But I think I needed to hear water, any water moving to put me asleep. 

I grew up on a small peninsula, Leelanau Peninsula, and the fact that it is surrounded by Lake Michigan, countless bays and swollen with inland lakes, makes it feel more like an island. My parents live on a peninsula within a peninsula so water is not just part of the view, it defines every direction. Water is not a boundary, it becomes more of how you learn to place yourself. It's not just in a sense of physical direction, but also water defines time. Seasons are merely changes with the inland sea. November brings freighters off of the big lake into sheltered coves, February builds ice layered into frozen caves from waves trapped in sand, and August harbors warm currents for swimming. Time passes as the water changes, cycling yourself as you grow. Here, it is clear to see how we are water, ebbing and flowing, where you yourself move into constant change. 

Water has also given me sight in times of feeling blind, even if it was the faint sounds of a dishwater in a dark house, I could be reminded of something familiar. I could believe time would pass, maybe even have faith that there is something good to come from change, even if it is tragic. And it was tragic, my husband working in the woods where a Lodgepole pine fell on his head. Hours later, he was lying in a hospital bed with an IV in his arm, a broken neck and thankfully a refusal to be anything other than just kind. For two days, when he was awake, he just smiled, never a harsh or hurried word to anyone. He was gracious and proud even with a neck-brace on. The last day in the hospital I sat with him on his bed and gave him cups of water while we watched the sunset over the Clark Fork River and it was then, that I finally cried. Maybe I cried because I finally knew he would be okay. He would walk, he would ski, he would be still here and our time together would continue.

It will be six months tomorrow since the accident. It will also be seven years tomorrow that Greg, my husband, lost his father in an avalanche. But today, today is St. Patrick's Day. A day of feasting, drinking and remembering our noble islanders, the Irish. It is a day for many to remember their heritage, their homelands, and their relatives who crossed the Atlantic with nothing but hope to grow something more than potatoes. Not only was I raised on grassy dales surrounded by water, I grew up on Donnybrook Road. My heritage is more Irish than Dutch with my mother's maiden name of Doyle and my own feisty need to practice poetry. The connection of Ireland and poetry seems as seamless and as old as water shaping lands. An island where tragedies rise and are remembered as something not to be forgotten, but as some gift to by guided by, to find strength from, to sing songs and to above all to be placed in a poem. 


She finds a pigeon, dead 
on her way home. She's drunk,
swears she can find her front door 
by following the stars.

But there it is, feet curled, taut
with it's eyes gone. She picks it up
the still body, covered in gravel 
and warm. Cupping it's chest,

she feels an echo of a pulse,
a pebble skipped into a shallow pool.
She puts it in a box with rosemary,
not knowing what to do with anything

born-again. She feeds it oatmeal
and drops of water and waits
for it to do something. Fly,
coo or shit, but it just rocks

back and forth like this boy
with dark glasses she watched 
on a bus, who sang in perfect pitch.
Now she hears the song 

of a meadowlark without asking
the world its name.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

No Frosting needed for these Cakes

When I bicycle home, I pass a sign informing of Lewis and Clark's sojourn along the Clark Fork River. This sign, with dramatic language, sites their trial and tribulation of leaving Missoula and crossing the Bitterroot Mountains in the winter of 1806. But when the sun shines in this valley, I like to think of them before their mountain passage, sitting in the late sun soaking up the goods of the river. No one writes of their times of idle joy. Other days when this valley is cold, windy and grey, I imagine I am like Lewis and Clark, taking the river as far west as I can--to the convergence in town with the Blackfoot and Bitterroot, following the Bitterroot along into Idaho and then joining the Snake River onwards to the great Columbia and finally resting on the Pacific shores. As if I consult my inner salmon, what can I say, I am a water girl. I miss the sounds of water wide and moving more with the moon than the mountain's spring melt. 

My first trip to the Pacific Northwest was in late spring when my father, brother and family friends followed the path of the Hoh River trail all the way up into the Olympic Mountains where the goats, glaciers and a small spring merged. There we sat eating Nutella sandwiches and apples laughing at the eagerness of the goats for spring flowered greens. It was a lasting impression on all of us, especially my brother, who after this trip quit his job in Detroit and headed West with a windsurfer on top of his Honda CR-X. Like a salmon himself, he found his place along the Columbia surfing a warm fall and later snowboarding at Hood River that winter until he went to the city in the late spring where he later lived in for six years.

I have so many fond memories of visiting him in Portland, twice by taking the train across country, and even living with him for a few months in that city in the mid-90s which felt like it was still budding to be something, yet. Then, Portland was not as quite hip or hindered by anything other than the mass of young midWesterners looking for a new place to call their own. Portland still seemed all Forrest Park and Powells. Rain and Rodadendrums. And of course, filled with flavors and food I couldn't find in the midwest, not even in Ann Arbor. 

But despite all the good food in that city, there is still one meal that I covet more in my mind than mac and cheese from Montage or Saint Honore's chocolate crossiants.  It was back on our first night hiking the Hoh river trail. My brother had secretly put in his backpack a flank of salmon that we cooked along the sandy banks of the swelled spring flow. I think we all ate it with our fingers off of the aluminum foil with roasted garlic and salt. Simple. It was slowly getting dark and I remember climbing into my sleeping bag that night, hearing the rush of water, smelling cold coming into the tent and thinking why salmon are sacred. Somehow not just their bodies, but their travels and tribulations are like an explorer we reverie as a hero. As if salmon taught us the trick of wandering, but to always return home. 

This past week I cannot stop eating salmon. As if I have come out of hibernation myself and I am hungry for nothing but fleshy red sockeye or even the smoked goodness someone gave me from their guiding in Alaska. Last week, I made salmon cakes at work and every person who stopped by to taste told me how their grandma used to make them or their mother, as if only the ones who remember the depression or who came from some Midwest state cook canned salmon. Sure, it might be true. But if you add enough fresh ginger and basil, you won't be thinking canned anything. Brown rice is a good addition for an even healthier meal. Also, I made these as a sandwich with fresh tomatoes and cheddar on rosemary focaccia for lunch with left over celery soup. I also like to eat them on fresh greens with sliced avocado and a balsamic, mustard, gingered dressing with fresh bread for a weekday dinner.

Salmon Cakes

One can of red-sockeye salmon, drained 
Juice from one lime
One tablespoon of dijon mustard
1/2 cup of brown rice, cooked
3 scallions, use both the white and green parts
Six springs of basil, finely chopped
One egg
One piece of toast, crumbled or use bread crumbs (I prefer toasted bread)
2 tablespoons of ginger, fresh, grated or finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
salt and pepper to taste
One tablespoon of olive oil

1. After you drain the salmon, mix all of the ingredients together in a bowl, minus the olive oil.
2. (I tend to taste the mixture before I cook it to see if I needs more salt, tang or flavor. Canned salmon varies in saltiness, so I prefer to actually buy alaskan red-sockeye that has salt already added)
3. Add the olive oil to a skillet, don't let it get too hot. 
4. Make cakes by forming a ball first and then flatten with your hands before you put into the oiled skillet.
5. Cook the cakes for about five minutes on each side and serve warm.

If you have any left over, be sure to put some more lime juice in the mixture before you put it in the fridge, this will help it from becoming too dry.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

All Dressed Up to be Quiet

There's a slowing down to this world with poetry. A slow quiet somewhere, somewhere between a pause in prayer to a rise of a hyacinth in a glass bowl of rocks. For weeks a bulb will be set in water and do nothing but sit and slowly a bit of green will rise and before you truly start to question if spring will arrive, your whole kitchen will be filled with sweet, dumbing the dulled  winter. Just when you are close to giving up, cursing that white is never the shade of spring, a single bulb comes in bold purple. Poetry is like that, or as Joseph Roux stated, 
"Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes." It comes all dressed up to be quiet.

I can remember my favorite part of church was never the psalms or singing, rather I liked to sit in the warm pew and be silent. I recall how so many people could be sitting so close and be silent, even if for a few minutes be nothing more than a room full of breath. Simple. Simply placed like bulbs in a bowl--waiting to bloom. Perhaps it is a strange thing to state, that it is the silence in poetry that attracts me the most to it as a form. In person, I am not quiet. Yet, I know somewhere once I was very quiet. Somewhere we are all very quiet and it is that strange location of silence in ourselves that helps us find a place for poetry. 

I'd like to think that this place, this place of silence,  was first shown to me by my father. He is an architect by profession and so he walked me first through this world with a mind of shape as sense. I still draw trees the way he taught me at six and I have him to thank for poetry as simply being a way to explain the change in seasons. He is more artist than slide ruler and Autocad, but what he is more than anything is a worker. Maybe it is heritage, Dutch work-ethic and morality governed by a days toiling, but mostly I think it is work in his garden and his quiet admiration for the joy in tilling soil year after year for heirloom tomatoes, raspberries, and sweet corn to give to his family, friends who happen to stop by, and for random people passing through to see cherry trees in bloom. 

Everyday after work, my father from early spring to late fall, goes directly to his garden--not inside to say hello or check his mail--but straight to the backyard. As a small child, I would wait for him at the mailbox and we would go to the garden together, mostly quiet and always working from weeding to arranging rows and later during the warmer months, both barefoot, we'd pick something to add to dinner. I cannot say I recall many conversations from that time, mostly we would work. I don't remember ever being yelled at or scolded, I just followed along and didn't ask questions, mostly I tried to make myself useful. 

Sometimes, I even went to work with my father. I can recall sitting in the corner, quiet and watchful of meetings, conferences with clients, and aware that perhaps it odd I was there, yet somehow, my father included me. One early spring while at work with my him, we were to tag trees for a parking lot--actually my optometrist's office. My dad explained which trees were going to be cut and showed me how to tie a knot. While walking I found a tree, a birch, so solid and strong, I couldn't imagine it being anything else but tall. I explained to my dad that we couldn't let this tree die, it had to be kept. I really don't know how I argued my position or even if I was determined--but the point is, my father agreed. The birch would stay and I am grateful to say that I spent years going to that office and seeing the lone birch standing--the cement had been placed around it--to give it room, to let it stay alive.

And maybe the act of writing a poem is like that, finding something beautiful that you cannot imagine being anything else than what it is, so you try to slow it down, gather details and try to work at finding words to somehow reflect it, to work at silence. To get close enough. Or maybe Carl Sandburg said it the best, "Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits." Just a mix of flowers and food, beauty and butter. 

This poem is one I worked on many years ago. I lost track as to how many times I sent it out to be rejected. I had forgotten I had sent it to a journal in Louisiana where it sat on a publisher desk for close to a year. She wrote me a letter, telling me that she didn't want to publish it at first but there it sat on her desk for months and she would pick it up from time to time, during the floods of Katrina and during so much chaos and noise, but there is sat. I'd like to think that it was there like that birch tree all silent and quiet, but relentless to find a place to stay alive. I am grateful for her publishing it, but even more grateful that she wrote me a letter saying she didn't want to, but it was as if it didn't give up. It kept strong, silent and determined and to quote my father, I'd like to think this poem, "worked to make it work." 

Under the Bark

No matter the size of my hands, I can cover the sun.
But I cannot hold the light that passes
through my fingers like morning through poplars
planted to block the wind.

Once, while collecting kindling with my father,
he cut the tip off his finger, wrapped his bloodied
hand with an old shirt, told me not to look.
We walked back. He pulled the cart of wood

without saying anything about the blood
blooming in his shirt. He only told me
that November hangs heavy. Darkness
can make a man forget how to feel.

And yet, I watched a blind man in Rome
run his fingers past Daphne's marbled thigh,
cupped her breast as if he was holding
his own heart

to the sun. It seemed he felt the beat under the bark
of her and believed that light could move.
The way marble can become skin
and blood and sun a kind of chipped memory.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Celery Soup and French Cartoons

I don't think I have ever recovered from Watership Down. It seems quite harmless, a story about a group of rabbits on a journey for safer pastures. Along their quest, these humble hares find obstacles such as rat infested cemeteries, snares, and mute humans. Sure, sounds bucolic. The two main rabbits are brothers and the younger one, Fiver, is a small runt with poor eyesight. Now, I don't need to apply Jung psychology to figure out my intense fear for Fiver's survival. But in first grade, these Oxford English speaking buck-toothed rabbits sacred me. While Fiver, a poorly sighted rabbit, barely scraped through fields of barking dogs, I scooted off of my carpet square and hid under a desk for most of the movie--cupping my hands around my fogging glasses. 

You see, by age three I had glasses. It wasn't first diagnosed by a teacher like, "Emily squints in class while looking at the chalkboard." No, I needed glasses to see seven inches in front of me. I needed glasses to walk around and not fall. I was born small, the last of three and preferred to watch Walt Disney television three inches from the screen. So, outside of not speaking with a British accent, I really identified with the protagonist's tragic flaws of smallness and poor eyesight. I'd like to give credit to my mild blindness as being an asset to my creativity, because if you cannot see something, then you make it up. I would also prefer to remember walking around running into things as being an early seventies soothsayer--using blindness to see beyond this world. But I can't. Basically, I was born severely far-sighted and small. Not prophetic like the British rabbit.

So as I hid in my first grade classroom behind fogged up Cinderella Gumdrop glasses, I was terrified and yet something very important began as I watched that dark and violent sophisticated journey. It was my first exposure to epics tales--the idea of descending into some darkness to rise into the light--or as the film would show--search for an English garden of Edenic bliss and stay there. Besides the natural setting of the cartoon, there was a mythical quality about their plight and their reliance on perseverance, intelligence, and humility. These qualities I'm attracted to in writing as well as in people. 

This past week, I was reminded of these qualities by yet another cartoon, "l'homme qui plantait des arbes" or The Man Who Planted Trees. Like Watership Down, it is a simple tale with allegorical qualities. The author, Jean Giono, lived most of his life in Provence which is where the story is set. The plot is about a young man who travels by foot into the Alps and finds nothing but barren villages and ruthless winds. Basically, it is like the adult version of The Little Prince, or if the prince was really a man on earth instead of on a barren planet with a fox and a random rose. Okay, maybe it is not like that, but it is a journey of a man walking in search of beauty. He walks farther and farther into desolation and becomes severely dehydrated until he meets a lone shepherd. This shepherd, Elzeard Bouffier, gives the traveller some water, feeds him some soup, and gives him a place to rest. Elzeard is a quiet man who spends his evenings after supper counting acorns, carefully dividing them up into groups of ten. Later we find out, that this shepherd has planted over 10,000 oaks in this barren region and well, as the title aptly says, he is, as you may guess, the man who planted trees--but I won't tell you what happens from here. The whole cartoon is done in colored pencil and the artistry is whimsical, timeless, and with a resonating message. A tale worth telling in any language.

As I was watching this lovely story, I couldn't help myself by imagining what kind of soup this shepherd might have made or would have liked to have made for his visitor. I decided that it would be Celery Root and Apple Soup with crumbled Bacon and Cheshire. Perhaps I am just trying to merge two culinary worlds, French and English, with this recipe like I tried with this short narrative on these two cartoons--both tales which for me represent this idea of middleWest. The idea of middleWest is the humble pursuit in perfecting your passions in order to share them with others. For me, I am learning to cook and sharing the recipes so others can try it at home and I'm also trying to write well--so I can entertain and maybe one day, before I go completely blind, I might enlighten others too. 

But regardless of loose allusions to cartoons and this idea of middleWest, this soup is a wonderful Saturday meal with fresh bread, have it with a spinach salad with orange slices and hazelnuts. If you want to have a heartier soup with a grainer texture, then leave the apple peels on. If not, peel your apples for a smoother more traditionally French tasting soup de jour. And yes, this recipe is from Bon Appetit, but I added the Bacon and Cheshire touch. If you can find it, try to get Neal's Yard Dairy Cheshire. It is lovely. 

Celery Root & Apple Soup with Bacon & Cheshire 

1/2 stick of butter or 1/4 cup
4 cups, 1/2-inch cubed, peeled celery root
3 cups, 1/2-inch peeled and cored Granny Smith apples (from two apples)
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
4 cups chicken broth


3 ounces of bacon, crumbled
4 ounces of Cheshire, shredded 

Melt butter in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add onion and cook until translucent about 8 minutes. Add celery root and apples and cook for about 15 minutes, but do not brown either apples of celery root--stir occasionally. Add four cups of chicken broth. Cover and bring to simmer. Reduce heat to medium low; simmer covered until celery root and apples are soft, stirring occasionally, about 25 minutes. Remove from heat; cool slightly. Use an immersion blender and puree soup to desired consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish with bacon and Cheshire and serve.

The simple soup can be made one day ahead and I have found it does well with time. It just gets better. I'd like to think Elzeard too just kept this over the open fire and then let it cool and ate it for days with crusty bread while counting acorns. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Why midgets aren't allowed in Poetry

David Sedaris doesn't write poetry. Well, not under the heading of bard or poetess, but I must admit I have more of his visual descriptions logged in my head than any other writer. I can tell you exactly where I was the first time I read Me Talk Pretty One Day. I was standing in a small book store with my brother when I picked it up and both of us laughed so hard we had to buy the book because we had cried all over it. From completely exposing his family, even his own grandma, glorifying and gloating their neuroses and adding in his own painful childhood memories--Sedaris basically does what any poet tries to do, but really, he's much more sly. He draws you in with vivid and quirky descriptions and secretly--while you are too busy laughing --does Sedaris dare to also include--sentimentality. Sure, he uses humor, hyperbole and even throws in midgets, but what attracts me most to his poetic ability is his fearlessness inclusion of saying something, saying something simple about love, loss, depression, loneliness and even death. But he does this by doing what few poets dare to do, he does this through humor. Maybe humor is just too hard or maybe we find it hard to place in poetry. But maybe, poetry needs some humor.

I've mentioned previously about Jack Gilbert and his daringness to go into darkness with more attention to light than any poet I have yet to read. He has years of dedication to this task of not shying away from what is ugly or unfortunate, but rising like some old dusty phoenix to remind us to "risk delight." Yet in his own words about humor, Gilbert states in "Metier" from his book, Refusing Heaven.

The Greek fisherman do not
play on the beach and I don't
write funny poems.

And it is true, his forte or metier, is not humor. (but this is sort of funny, no? I mean can you really imagine a group of men in all black with white hair playing with a beach ball?) When asked directly in an NPR interview as to why Gilbert doesn't write "funny poems" he responded, "because so many people who write poems make it easy on you. it's not getting to the inside of things." This I might argue. Humor, if done well, can get so far deeply into "things" that we laugh by our surprise. Perhaps our laughter is but a response to a shock of how true something is, we laugh because we can relate. Good comedians make unlikely connections find some similarity. Sound familiar? Like the definition of metaphor, maybe? Maybe humor is just the layman's use of metaphor. Maybe.

No, don't get me wrong. I'm not talking about limericks, bawdy verse or jokes for that matter, but poetry that uses humor as a means to mask the fact that the poet is daring to say something perhaps even sentimental, is truly rare. Yet, truly needed. Richard Hugo once wrote, "a poet must dare to risk sentimentality," it is a means of connecting to the audience and why not say something that hopefully might mean something to someone, especially someone beyond your own family who has been thankfully gracing you with their patience in reading your writing for years. But more importantly than audience is the fact that Poetry usually makes a really bad first impression on people. Poetry comes in all dressed in scarves, ascots, and tweed heavy with allusions on its breath. It is time to wear a new cocktail dress Poetry.

Even worse than the genre are the first impressions by the ones who write poetry. Most people think of poets as sad people, alone in their houses with cats on their laps who just respond to phone calls in rhyming couplets. Hell, how do you think I felt living alone for years, short and dark haired with a first name of Emily? Tough. Poets are people too and they can even be funny. Does anyone remember Dr. Suess or do we just think of that as childish gibberish? Didn't he say a lot more than just green eggs and ham? Didn't he start so many of us as budding poets sounding out silly rhymes marching up and down our stairs. Where did we go? Did we all end up attending conferences with people who are terribly malnourished, heavily medicated and well, as you might guess, not very funny? I confess, I have been to writing conferences and had I not gone with my dear friend Eric Smith, I would have come down with a four day bout of boredom and intimidation.

We attended an AWP conference in Austin, Texas, together and selected to go to a session titled "Humor in Poetry." We went mostly to see one poet, who is not only funny, but down right hilarious. Like Sedaris, I laugh out loud while I am reading him, yet the beauty in his lines like "cats are nothing but lizards in fur suits," is the fact that by the time you end a Bob Hicok poem you are surprised by the risks of sentimentality and emotive quality that you are also feeling besides a sore stomach. Yet sadly, Bob Hicok did not show up. I think I may have known why, no one else there was really funny. Sure, they were clever and really liked how clever they were, but they didn't risk anything. They were as Gilbert stated, "making it easy" on the audience. There were some chuckles from the crowd, but certainly no tears or moments of pain in the reality of what they were saying. Nope, just really smart people showing how smart they are, which is really never funny. Luckily, Eric and I practiced first lines all having the word side-ponytail in them. Something, to distract us and to practice our own attempt at humor in verse.

And so I may have dug myself too deep with my litany of what is or isn't funny. I wish I could unearth one of those side-ponytail poems instead, but this poem will do. But if you can, find Bob Hicok, Tony Hoagland, Austin Hummell, and Gabriel Gudding and introduce yourself to a version of poetry worth falling in love with and laughing too.  

Scent of Newlyweds

I keep my windows open at night in late April,
smell the honeysuckle down  my side 

street, and let it cloud by head as I sleep.
When my boyfriend come over and stands

outside my window, I poke my head out
for the heady scent and hear his voice

mingling the way bees meet, head deep
in pollen with their stingers hidden

but alert. His hand waves and falls
and I think of my father's hands parting hair

from my brow. My boyfriend, virtual husband, pushes
our olive skinned child in a pram,

sings over cars and exhaust. I say, meeting him,
"that scent is too heavy, the word honeysuckle clogs

my throat." Happy to have been clever,
I see him squint. "This isn't honeysuckle,

it's jasmine," he keeps walking. Suddenly, the flowers,
I mean the jasmine, smell like a garland of fish heads

around my neck. Now they keep me up
at night, alone and awake to the drone 

of the newlyweds who live below me,
who seem so much louder with the windows shut.