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Ten Reflections on Cooking and Writing

by Sean Singer

1. Readers should be producers of the meanings of texts, and not merely consumers of texts. When you cook the food you eat, you feel the food’s creation: subtle changes in textures, flavors, and ratios that were in your control as the maker.

2. The phenomenon of the “celebrity chef” and the “celebrity poet” suggest that we are merely consuming what sustains us, and that we need not participate in its meaning: an expert who exists on a high plane will tell us what we need. Yet, I am not convinced that Rachael Ray and Guy Fieri are good for food culture, and I’m not satisfied by a poem that’s like McDonald’s: sugar, salt, and starch.

3. What if there were no celebrity chefs, and more and better home cooks? What if there was no absurd professionalization of poetry, and more and better readers?

4. I taught myself how to cook about a year ago, though I cannot improvise. I am only skilled enough to follow a recipe. I use Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. Perhaps writing poems and cooking cannot be taught, but can be learned.

5. Food, like poetry, is political. So-called food deserts in poor, urban neighborhoods have almost no fresh food or vegetables, and too much fast food. Diabetes and asthma are epidemic. We know that, like poetry, there is oral transmission of recipes and those scraps that have been written down. When Elaine found the Soup Nazi’s recipes in her armoire, his genius was available to everyone. Sometimes this transmission is one of memory. For example, in Newark, there is one remaining Jewish deli, Hobby’s, on Branford and Halsey. I still crave the mustard-slathered rye and the pickled tomatoes. There are almost no Jewish people living in Newark. Each slice of pastrami reminds the diner of a lost city, one that exists only in the palace of memory.

6. Neruda’s ode spoke of the artichoke’s “warrior heart.” There is an element of fantasy and fiction associated with food: this is why restaurants are all about entertainment. The counter at Sushi of Gari on Columbus Avenue is not just about his artful jewels of omakase. The theatre of the experience consists of watching Gari make each delicate morsel: squid, ume, plum, shiso.

7. Is it moral to spend, say $300, on dinner for two? Or is a meal at a restaurant indistinguishable from other forms of entertainment? Is it moral to spend one’s life writing poems that perhaps 300 people will read, risking living in poverty and eating cereal for dinner? We know that few get the food and literature they deserve. Many live in poetry deserts without a fresh poem in sight for miles. They have never read anything not assigned to them, probably in high school.

8. If you can cook well, you can pay attention to detail; know which flavors work together and what the effect on the tongue will be. I don’t have any information on whether chefs are literate, but if you can write, you know which words work together and what the effect on the ear will be.

9. I read that James Merrill would give people a dozen eggs as gifts—with a line of poetry on each egg. Neruda described the salt mines as a “mountain of buried light,translucent cathedral, crystal of the sea, oblivion of the waves.”

10. If I could either cook well or write well, I would write well. Cooking is too time-consuming and the result is eaten in moments. Writing takes longer than cooking, but can be consumed over time, more than once. I once wrote that flamingo tongues were a delicacy at Roman feasts: so much of culture is not contained in our literature, but in what people ate. These are lost to the caverns of memory, the way the edge of the egg crisps in the pan, from translucent to brown to black. It is no longer the vehicle for new life; its energy is transferred from the ground to the grass to the chicken to the egg, and to the person sitting at the counter on Columbus Avenue.

 

Each month a contemporary poet presents three poems and one personal essay in which food is consumed, passed over, or reckoned with. Sean is our poet for May, 2014.

Sean Singer was born in Mexico in 1974. His first book Discography won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. His second book, Honey & Smoke, is forthcoming from Eyewear Publishing in 2015.

 

 

TIE Poet of the Month: Sean Singer

Red Beans and Ricely Yours

Louis Armstrong thin sliced hog’s head
cheese, souse, and horseradish, slices
of pickles—with his sisters—and the thin

tomato. Juicy cold the gravy burns
into the lull of the earth. It is Louis,

a dozen large raw oysters, and French
bread with the muff of crumbs

whipped with grits fried in butter
into squares, the veal of his head

peeking gut bucket. Don’t throw
away the vegetable pulp

it makes for an excellent
Creole omelette. Louis not lean
plump as claw meat, chopped with shallots

Yes I’m the Barrel stuffed filé
raw shrimp in a dark roux
arrived at giddy fire andouille

he fades into the smoke
celery-color fluffy as an oyster
till they curl, parsley and green onions

It is ham fat and thyme with bay
leaves flopped by the bay a carcass

dark and light, flurry of brass
and Harlem sets of livers and gizzards

She loves my baked chicken
corn bread dressing whole eggplants—
“Louisiana caviar.” She said ride my hips

Stirring constantly prevent scorching
Fiery skillet of daube glace Lil I love you

 

Each month a contemporary poet presents three poems and one personal essay in which food is consumed, passed over, or reckoned with. Sean is our poet for May, 2014.

Sean Singer was born in Mexico in 1974. His first book Discography won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. His second book, Honey & Smoke, is forthcoming from Eyewear Publishing in 2015.

 

Marcella Hazan, Culinary Luminary

Wednesday, June 4, 2014 at 6:00 pm 

Wollman Hall, Eugene Lang College65 West 11th Street Room B500, New York, NY 10003

 

Hailed as the godmother of Italian cooking in America, Marcella Hazan (1924-2013) did not learn to cook until she married and moved to New York in 1955. She began cooking for her husband using the Ada Boni cookbook, and became so proficient that in the 1960s she began teaching Italian cooking classes in her home. In 1969, she opened  the School of Classic Italian Cooking. Her first cookbook, The Classic Italian Cook Book, received widespread acclaim and commendation. It was followed by five more award- winning cookbooks.

Moderated by Andrew F. Smith, faculty member, Food Studies, panelists include:

 – Susan Friedland, former Director of Cookbook Publishing at HarperCollins

 – Michele Sciclone, author of The Italian Vegetable Cookbook and The Italian Slow Cooker

 – Cesare Casella, Italian chef and restaurateur (Salumeria Rosi & Ristorante Rosi) and Dean of Italian Studies at the International Culinary Center

 – Victor Hazan, Marcella’s husband and professional collaborator

Sponsored by the Food Studies Program at The New School for Public Engagement.

Free; No tickets or reservations required.

14 Pointers Toward a Better Food System: Connecting the (Local, Sustainable) Dots

Over the last couple of months I’ve been looking at regional food chains, focusing in on one link at a time (here’s the whole series). My purpose here has not been to make an argument about the value of local food. (That’s been done.) Instead, I started with the assumption that fostering regional food systems was worthwhile, and tried to take the next step by asking, how do we scale this up?

To read the full story follow the link to Grist.org

Cracking Crabs

by Tolly Wright

“Are you moving home?” This is the question I hear on a daily basis, now that I am graduating from college. I scoff at these curious acquaintances; I’ve been living New York for five years, I have friends and a job here, the Big Apple is my home. Still, I have to admit, Baltimore does sound a bit tempting.

My friends who have moved back to Charm City have found careers (not just “jobs”), have beautiful apartments (under $2000 a month), and enjoy $3 beers on the regular. Their obsession with the Ravens and the Orioles are not seen as a novelty. They are not fazed when they run into John Waters in local establishments. Yet, one major fear stops me from truly considering moving home and it’s not the notoriously high crime rate. I don’t know how to eat blue crabs.

I take a great deal of pride in being from Baltimore. My mother and father are Baltimoreans, as were their parents, and their parent’s parents. In fact, since leaving Europe, none of my ancestors, on either side, have been born anywhere but in the state of Maryland and within a close distance of the Chesapeake Bay. On my mother’s side this tradition dates back to the eighteenth century. She was born in the same Baltimore zip code she still lives in today. My father gets disgruntled anytime he is asked to travel outside the Baltimore beltway. The black and yellow-checkered city flag might as well have been stamped on my head at birth.

All this is to say, I should know the secrets to cracking crabs.

For all of the bad things Baltimore is known for—drugs, corruption, gang violence, STDS and more—blue crabs have continued to be our bright unifying beacon. We not only have access to one of the freshest supplies of the crustacean, but we also know how to cook them. No party is complete without an appetizer of crab dip or crabby melts and no restaurant goes without at least a crab cake on their menu. Any summer celebration involves a feast of steamed crabs served with our city’s favorite watered down cheap beer, National Bohemian, or as we know it Natty Boh.

I suppose I do know how to pick apart a steamed crab. I know that first I must pull off each of the legs and claws at the knuckle (the joint where the leg meets the body), pull the meat off with my teeth, and finger any remainders in the shell. Second, I take a hammer to the claws to crack open the shell, peel it off and get the most delicious juicy meat. Third, to get to the body’s contents I must shove a knife into the chink of the Crab’s armor—the thin point on top of the “apron” (the crab’s white underbelly). Once the shell is off, I remove the gills (lungs), the mustard (hepatopancreas) that many Baltimore natives will tell you is delicious (they’re lying), break the body in two, and eat all the good stuff. I can follow these steps to a science, but I’m as slow doing it as a yokel from the Midwest who’s never even seen the bay and certainly can’t define the words “brackish” or “estuary.”

I’d love to be able to blame my family for my deficiency, but it is not their fault I avoided this important practical lesson. As a child I refused to eat crabs cooked anyway. When my family went to crab shacks my mother would give me a dinner of buttered noodles or chicken nuggets before we left the house. My sisters and family friends attempted to teach me how to crack crabs, but when I touched the brown clumps of Old Bay spice that coated the food, I demand that I wash my hands. I’d claim the seasoning—a product of the Maryland spice company McCormick—had gotten into my hangnails and that it burned my delicate skin. Sometimes this was true, but usually I was lying through my teeth.

When I got to high school and finally started eating crabs it was almost always dishes with lump meat—crab cakes, crab imperial, crab casserole, crab Normandy. I occasionally ordered crab claws at restaurants, and became an expert at opening those, but anybody can do that—it takes no art. It wasn’t until after my senior year and with a slew of crab feast graduation parties to attend that I realized how insufficient my knowledge of crap cracking really was.

I was too embarrassed to ask my friends for help. I tried to learn how to open them by observing others, but Chris, my high school boyfriend—who was not even from Baltimore, but instead had moved to there from Canada—was so quick that I couldn’t keep up. Instead I opened the crab by using the memories of my family do it a hundred times before. It was a frustrating and slow task and when Chris wasn’t looking I pinched clumps off of the mounds of meat he collected. He eventually turned around, saw my carcasses, and grew exasperated by the amount of meat I was leaving in the crevices of the shell. While he dug out the remainders, I grabbed the claws from the crabs in front of him and ate my fill.

Now, with no kind-hearted boyfriend to take advantage of, I am weary of attending a Baltimore crab feast. Surely if I moved back to Mobtown, I would eventually be invited to a crab shack. What if I can’t do it? Would my menial skills mean I get less food than the all the others? Worse yet, would the other 20-somethings, many of whom could be transplants, mistake me for a non-Baltimorean?

Instead of facing that shame, I’m better off staying in New York where steamed crabs are too rare and too expensive on a young artist’s budget, and most of my friends can’t even tell the difference between girl and boy blue crabs. Here I can safely brag that I can open a crab faster than them. If I can’t, how will they know?

 

Tolly Wright is passionate about pop culture, Elizabethan culture, and the strange culture of her motherland, the city of Baltimore.  Her writing can be found in Time Out New York, The Villager, and other publications. Sometimes she remembers to tweet @tollyw.