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May Market Report, by Stacey Harwood-Lehman

One of the best things, or maybe the best thing, about teaching Food Narratives at the New School is learning about the customs and cultures of the students. Over the years I’ve had students from all over the United States plus Israel, India, Thailand, the Philippines, China, Brazil, and elsewhere.  I’ve had American-born students with strong ties to their Syrian, Korean, Haitian, and Italian heritages.

And it’s not just the nationalities that are represented. This semester, in addition to having students enrolled in the New School’s celebrated Food Studies program, other of my students are pursuing degrees in fashion design, illustration, drama, and music. My youngest student is 19; two are sixty, one of whom spent 30 years in the military before becoming a professional chef.

This mix of backgrounds and disciplines would be interesting in any classroom; imagine what each of these students brings to our discussions of food and culture.

Here’s an example: One of the stories we study is The Pas de Trois of the Chef, the Waiter, and the Customer by the underrated Robert Sheckley. It is a story I encountered as a college student myself. The narrative is told three times over, each from the perspective of one of the title characters. The action takes place in The Green Jade Moon, an Indonesian restaurant in Ibiza that specializes in rijsttafel or “rice-table,” a Dutch-Indonesian invention comprising 15-20 small dishes around a centerpiece of rice.

The first time I taught  “Pas de Trois . . .,” I couldn’t have planned it better: two students were recent arrivals from the Philippines able to both confirm the authenticity of Sheckly’s depiction of Indonesian dishes and to educate the class generally about the foods and cooking methods of their home country.

A couple of weeks ago, Rozanne Gold, the award-winning chef, cookbook author, journalist, and philanthropist, visited to talk about the language of food and menus and the physiology of taste, subjects about which she is an expert. To say that Gold is a superstar in the world of gastronomy would not be an overstatement and I think my students realized how lucky they were to spend time with her.

As an added treat, Rozanne brought her signature Venetian Wine Cake, a fragrant, flavorful cake that she bakes daily and the recipe for which is a closely held secret. She passed the cake around the room, instructing students to describe it based on its observable qualities. As the dish moved from hands to hands, I watched my students faces and listened to them sighing with pleasure as they experienced its inscrutable scent and like code-breakers tried to decipher its ingredients.

M., from Bombay, leaned in and inhaled deeply. All at once the expression that crossed her face changed from surprise to recognition to sadness. “It smells like home!” she said. “It smells like something we make at home!” She was thinking of ghewar, a confection from northern India, typically made in the fall, for which the ingredients and method of preparation have little in common with Gold’s cake. And yet there was no denying M’s unmediated reaction; one whiff and for an instant she was home.  The link between scent and memory made manifest.

As I write this I’m at my mother’s bedside, in a hospital in New Jersey. She is 90 and has decided to refuse tests and treatments for metastatic cancer. This means only one outcome and I am unspeakably sad.  I’m reminded of Chang-Rae Lee’s essay “Coming Home Again.” My friend, the poet Angela Ball, recommended it to me years ago and it is the first reading assignment of the semester. Lee writes about his experience of cooking Korean food for his dying mother, food that she mostly declines as she approaches the end of her life.

When we discuss Lee’s essay, we focus on his masterful use of language and his storytelling ability. We talk about the food, and how a first generation immigrant might reject the food of her parents as she tries to assimilate. In that sense, it is a universal American story.

We skirt around a discussion of grief and death but this year, one of the older students was touched by the essay and spoke emphatically about the importance of getting to know our parents before it is too late. He described his regret at failing to do so with his own mother. “I’m telling you,” he said, “If you don’t you’ll be sorry.” To most of the students, who are young and who haven’t yet faced such a loss, he was describing an abstraction and they had nothing to add. But in the months since, as my own mother’s health deteriorated, I have often thought of his remarks and have done my best to heed his advice.

featured image via https://restaurantblauw.nl

March Market Report, By Stacey Harwood-Lehman

Have you heard the one about the man who wanted to win the lottery? Every week he went to synagogue to pray. “God,” he said, “I know I haven’t been perfect but I really need to win the lottery! Please help me out.” A week went by and he hadn’t won the lottery so he returned to synagogue. “Come on God, please let me win the lottery.” Another week passed, still he didn’t win the lottery. “You’re really disappointing me God. I’ve prayed and prayed. Just let me win already.” Feeling hopeful, the man walked outside. The clouds parted and the booming voice of God came to him from above: “You’ve gotta help me, Moishe! Buy a *&%$#@*^ ticket!”

I thought of this joke recently when I read a story by Grace Bonney, who runs Design*Sponge, one of my favorite blogs. She and her wife, the chef and cookbook author Julia Turshen relocated from New York City to a rural community in the Hudson Valley where they’ve made themselves a lovely home. I’ve followed Design*Sponge for almost as long as it’s been in existence and have marveled at how, over the years, Bonney has grown as a writer and editor and businesswoman and by how she’s made it part of her mission to be inclusive in her coverage of the people working in the design world.

Grace Bonney, second from left, receives a welcome donation.
Grace Bonney, second from left, receives a welcome donation.

My estimation of Bonney went up a couple of notches when I read her recent post about her volunteer work. Shortly after she moved upstate, she became involved in the local food pantry, a food delivery service, and a crisis intervention organization.   It didn’t take long for her to learn how desperately young children and their families need healthy food. “Most of the food that food pantries receive is past or just-about-past due, and it’s illegal for most charities to give out expired baby and toddler food,” writes Bonney.

Instead of shrugging and carrying on, Bonney reached out to Agatha Achindu, founder of Yummy Spoonfuls Organic Baby Food, and asked for a donation. Achindu more than obliged; she donated enough baby food to supply Bonney’s home county for at least three months.

In other words, Bonney wasn’t afraid to ask.

In my own experience, I’ve learned that asking for help is oftentimes a mitzvah, a good deed for both the asker and the giver because by asking, you’re giving someone the opportunity to be of use.  Of course one must be prepared to be turned down, for any number of reasons.  At the same time, it’s likely that those who ask the right question of the right person will get the answer they want. And unlike the man in the joke, if you can show that you’ve done your part, you might be rewarded with more than you’ve imagined possible.

January Market Report, by Stacey Harwood-Lehman

A cookbook is a historical and political document.  Think about it. Pick up any cookbook and you will learn as much about the economic forces of its time as you would from any history book. What do the recipes tell you about the demographics of its preferred audience? What is their class? Their social standing? How accessible are the ingredients and challenging the preparation? I’ve often wondered why definitive histories of a period tend to leave out the goings on in the kitchen.  If we don’t know what people were eating and how their food was prepared during this war or that upheaval, we’re missing a big piece of the pie, so to speak. Browse the cookbook shelves of a bookstore and you learn about current economic and social trends; visit the shelves of your local library and you’ll be amazed by once popular diet trends that are now obsolete.

A sub-genre of cookbooks that can teach us about the time in which they were written is the “charity” cookbook compiled by women and sold in order to raise money for a cause.  The first such cookbook was A Poetical Cookbook, written over 150 years ago for the 1864 Sanitary Fair, to support those wounded, widowed or orphaned by the Civil War. The practice of selling cookbooks to raise money has thrived ever since.

Jan Longone, curator of American culinary history at the University of Michigan Hatcher Library points out that no matter what the specific cause for which charity cookbook raised funds, the underlying purposes began as “women helping themselves, helping other women to help themselves, helping still other women help themselves and finally blossomed into women taking on the role of helping to solve all societies ills. All the time learning how to organize, to write, to publish, sell ads to sell cookbooks to run a business and to network.” In other words, the making of a lowly cookbook helped women develop life-saving skills.

Fast forward to today’s digital and social-media world. What does a cookbook for a cause look like in this environment? One recent example, and one to which I contributed, is the New Economy Chapbook Cookbook Volume I: Inexpensive Healthful Hopeful Eats for 2017.  

Here’s how it got started: Last November, poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi posted on Facebook: “Pals! I’m making an adventure of these slightly tight economic times. What are some meals you love to make that stretch across a few days? If you place a recipe and a little bit about the meal here I thought I’d copy them (with your name of course!), put them together, and maybe make a little cookbook chapbook we can “sell” for $2 (or more if folks wants) donation receipts to an organization that fights food scarcity. I bet we could raise a bunch for folks in need. I’m thinking we could call it The New Economy: A Poets’ Cookbook.”

The response was overwhelming and enthusiastic as one “share” led to another. Instead of women gathering in kitchens and living rooms to type and collate, today we have laptops connected virtually; instead of mimeograph machines and staplers, there’s print-on-demand.  The New Economy Cookbook Chapbook is a digital cookbook filled with recipes by home cooks who know how to write and how to stretch a dollar to feed friends and families. Plus, unlike “charity” cookbooks of the past, which tend to be local, this one boasts recipes representing culinary traditions from around the world. It is large! It contains multitudes!

Plans are in the works to print and sell hard copies of The New Economy Chapbook Cookbook. Meanwhile, you can download a copy for your personal use. Even better, explore ways that you can print copies and sell them to raise money for a favorite organization, preferably one with a mission to end food scarcity and insecurity.

What’s for dinner? I’m starting with Kaveh Akbar’s Vegan Fesenjan, an Iranian stew made with walnuts and tofu and served over rice. Salâmati!

feature image via Stacey Harwood-Lehman 

December Market Report, by Stacey Harwood-Lehman

Domino sugar ad, 1950s
Domino sugar ad, 1950s

In January of 1974, a five-pound bag of sugar cost 85 cents; by year-end, just in time for the office cookie exchange, the price of the same five-pound bag increased to $2.35.  The trend was driven by a complicated combination of geopolitical events, including bad weather that wiped out crops, changes in domestic subsidies, import quotas and tariffs, along with a growing national sweet tooth.

I was aware of the price-hike and the reasons behind it not because I was a preternaturally astute observer of market forces but because I worked after school and on weekends as a cashier for Shop-Rite supermarket in our largely working-class neighborhood. Where there had once been rows of yellow and white Domino sugar bags, shelves were empty. Cereal, candy, bottled juice, cakes and cookies, baking mixes, even TV dinners with their gelatinous desserts, were now out of reach for many customers. With soaring prices, the market behaved as if there were a shortage. Management cut back on inventory and over the course of the year customers who would typically buy one bag of sugar every couple of weeks hoarded it whenever word circulated that another price increase was on the horizon. For a short time, my store rationed sugar at one 5-pound bag per customer.  Some families gamed the system by having each spouse and child march through the checkout line alone with a single bag.

For some of us, myself included, it was the best thing that could have happened. At the time, I took my coffee with three teaspoons of sugar and drank a lot of soda. During weekend lunch breaks, a friend and I would share a smoke and to satisfy the inevitable hunger attack that followed would devour a bag of Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies. There was no combination of sugar and fat that I would turn down.

My consumption of all things sugary had to stop. Over time I weaned myself of sugary drinks and sweetened coffee. It helped that nutritionists were finding an audience for their claims that sugar was detrimental to one’s health. They encouraged consumers to find alternatives, like fresh fruit for dessert and fruit juices or plain water instead of soda. Newspapers and magazines published recipes for sugar-free desserts. The sugar crisis of the ‘70s marked the beginning of my interest in healthy eating.

Alas, in the forty-plus intervening years, sugar and its evil sibling high-fructose corn syrup, continue to be a mainstay of the American diet. You find it in the obvious places but also hidden in processed foods like bottled salad dressings, canned soups, hot dogs, bread, and even in nut butters. While sugar alone has been cited as the cause of obesity and the associated illnesses (heart-disease, diabetes, and certain cancers), Gary Taubes, (The Case Against Sugar Knopf, December 2016) writes in the Wall Street Journal that the evidence for the hypothesized chain of cause and unfortunate effects—eat sugar, become insulin-resistant, fatter and diabetic and then die prematurely—is ambiguous. It will probably stay that way. The National Institutes of Health have never seen the need for the expensive clinical trials that would be needed for a rigorous study of the issue.”

We do know with certainty that those whose eat a lot of processed foods are not as healthy as those who don’t and processed foods are where sugar lurks (along with other dubious ingredients). The good news is that the Food and Drug Administration recently approved a change in nutrition labels that will require manufacturers to list how many grams of sugar have been added to a product and what percentage of the recommended daily maximum that represents. Curious minds want to know, everyone else should know.

 

November Market Report, by Stacey Harwood-Lehman

Via NYPL Digital Collection of WPA Art
Via NYPL Digital Collection of WPA Art

Can you believe it? It’s time to start thinking about holiday gifts. Thanksgiving is upon us, and the shopping season will begin in earnest with the dreaded Black Friday mayhem.

Here’s a thought: if you’re here, it’s because you’re interested in food. You care about how your meals are prepared, where your ingredients come from, and whether there’s enough healthy food to go around. Last year’s suggested gift list comprised organizations that provide direct services, in the way of training and meals, to individuals and communities.

This year, I’m turning my attention to organizations that work on a national and global scale to make sure that policies that protect our food supply are furthered in Washington. They are our eyes and ears. We need desperately to make sure these organizations flourish. Oftentimes they help us take direct action to influence government and industry. You can look over their websites and subscribe to their newsletters before making a commitment to membership.

Once you’ve made up your mind about where to direct your dollars, you can buy a membership or make a donation for yourself and on behalf of friends.

Center for Science in the Public Interest CSPI is the first organization that captured my attention decades ago. I like its straightforward approach, its commitment to research and action on nutrition, food safety, and health. I just renewed my subscription to Nutrition Action Healthletter and added one for a friend. You can do the same.

Environmental Working Group  Tucked into my wallet is a laminated card that lists on one side the EWG “Dirty Dozen,” the fruits and vegetables with the highest concentration of pesticides; on the other is a list of the “Clean 15,” the produce that is typically free of pesticides. It’s a handy list that I consult when I visit farmers markets and grocery stores. The EWG’s mission is to be an advocate for public health. It’s an organization that is worth supporting. And this year the EWG has a holiday gift basket that comes with a tax-deductible donation of $140. or more.

The Natural Resources Defense Council’s overall mission is to protect natural resources here and around the globe. It continues to sound the alarm about the dangers of climate change and backs up its claims with scientific research. In the area of food safety, the NRDC pushes corporations and policymakers to reduce harmful chemicals in our food. It fights for stronger pollution controls on industrial farms and helps small farmers safeguard their crops against climate change.

ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. It states that its mission is to “expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions, using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing.” We need the kind of in-depth reporting that ProPublica is committed to supporting. A recent story revealed that the “farm-to-table” label is often misleading if not completely bogus. We need these kinds of exposes to keep our institutions honest.

“Action creates / a taste / for itself” writes the great poet Kay Ryan in “That Will to Divest.” Let’s get started.

October Market Report, by Stacey Harwood-Lehman

Attention culinary historians of the 2516!  If you think you know what we’re eating today by looking at our food blogs and Instagram feeds, think again. Those perfectly lighted snapshots are more likely to document the occasional splurge or special occasion indulgence than our daily bread. We don’t take pictures of the bowl of Cocoa Puffs we devoured after a late night at the office.

According to a team of researchers at Cornell’s Food & Media lab, what you see when you stroll through the galleries of art museums will tell you more about the artist’s wish to paint the perfect oyster or the landowner’s desire to impress the Monarch than what they had for lunch.

The Cornell researchers examined 750 Western paintings of food and meals made between the years 1500 and 2000.  When compared to the foods most readily available and served at the time of the paintings’ composition, the researchers discovered that artists were more likely to depict foods coveted by the rich or those with religious or symbolic significance than what the hoi polloi ate for supper. While today’s culinary scene places a high value (and price tag) on the local, a painting circa 1600 might include ingredients (spices, shellfish, tropical fruit) that would have had to travel great distances in order to grace the table of a status-seeking benefactor in landlocked Germany.

Even when they put aside paintings of banquets and lavish still-lifes to focus on 140 painting of small meals, the Cornell team found that many of the most common foods were left out of the frame. They speculate that in some instances, the artist may have painted, say, a lemon, because reproducing it in oil on canvas presented an appealing challenge.

In other words, you can’t rely on art for news (though you may die for lack of what is found there, said William Carlos Williams).

Another aspect of the Cornell study worthy of note: When it was first published, mainstream and niche media reproduced the #FoodPorn tag that headlined the Food & Media lab announcement of its findings.  Almost every news story, from those in the daily papers to those in “Real Simple” magazine, included “Food Porn” in its headline. When I picked up the study, I was hoping to find a useful definition of the term but such was not the case. In fact, there’s no mention of #FoodPorn in the study.

Nonetheless, it made me think about what we mean when we attach the #FoodPorn label to a photograph or a Food Network episode.

The term was first coined in 1979 by Michael Jacobson, co-founder of Center for Science in the Public Interest who used it to connote “food that was so sensationally out of bounds for what a food should be that it deserves to be considered pornographic.” Depictions of food are pornographic when they invite us to gaze at what we cannot have or recreate, like an elaborate multi-tiered cake decorated with gold-leaf. But the pleasure of looking is fleeting. This month’s glossy photo spread is supplanted by next month’s spread and they all end up in the recycling bin.

It is, however, crucial to remember that the very term pornography implies a moral value judgment that may be appropriate to adulterous fetishism, say, but not to food and cooking. I’m reminded of W. H. Auden’s observation about literature and pornography. To paraphrase: The former can be read in a number of different ways whereas when one “attempts to read pornography in any other way than as a sexual stimulus . . . one is bored to tears.”

Every time we encounter a work of art, familiar or not, we are rewarded anew. We may notice a detail, a slant of light, an adept brushstoke, a subtle shading, that we hadn’t seen before. Or we may feel like we’re renewing an old friendship.

None of the paintings studied by Cornell’s team are #FoodPorn. They’re works of art that have survived for generations.

You can find out more about the Cornell study and the Food & Media Lab here.

feature image via The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

August Market Report, by Stacey Hardwood-Lehman

Surely this has happened to you: One day you have a knotty research question. You begin with, say, Wikipedia. You click on a footnote link, one click leads to another and before you know it, it’s tomorrow!  How you landed where you are is a mystery.

            It was by just such a series of virtual leaps that I discovered the rich but relatively brief history of Jewish egg and poultry farmers of the early-to-mid twentieth century, most of which were located in New Jersey.   

            A few more clicks and I happened upon The Land Was Theirs: Jewish Farmers in the Garden State by Gertrude Wishnick Dubrovsky (1992, University of Alabama Press).  The book captured my attention not only because of the subject matter but also because my mother’s maiden name is Dubrov, and her ancestors were indentured farmers to a wealthy estate owner in Russia. Perhaps my own interest in farmers and farming is bred in the bone.

          I had always assumed that all Jewish immigrants to America went to cities, found work, and stayed there. If we eventually moved out to the suburbs, our work was still city-based. I didn’t imagine Jews settling in rural communities and making their living in agriculture. Yet there has been a continuous, if small, Jewish farming presence in the U.S. for more than 100 years.

            Jewish immigrants began settling on farms in the late 19th century with the help of well-meaning Jewish institutions and individuals.  While these early attempts to establish farms mostly failed, some survived and eventually prospered and went on to make important contributions to American agricultural life. 
            Gertrude Dubrovsky came from one such family. She grew up on a poultry farm in Farmingdale, NJ, the exit to which I pass when I drive south on the Garden State Parkway to visit my mother. The farmers, many of whom had arrived in this country to escape persecution, had relocated out of New York City where life was a struggle and they couldn’t find work.

            During their prosperous years (and prosperous is relative when talking about a family farm), the farmers created thriving communities, with schools, synagogues, and community centers. They created social, cultural, religious, and economic organizations. Many of the farmers were highly educated with professional degrees in law, medicine, psychology, economics.  They put their degrees aside and left New York City to become farmers.

            While farming is hard work, these new farmers managed to cultivate their intellectual lives.  Discussion groups were forums to exchange—and debate— ideas in a civil and mutually respectful ways. They invited scholars to lecture and lead some of these discussions. According to Dubrovsky, the guest speakers included Irving Howe, John Berryman, Langston Hughes, and Paul Fussell. Albert Einstein was among those invited. Though he declined, he expressed great enthusiasm for the “Jewish farmers! Real farmers!”

            These days, whenever I visit my mother, I think about taking a detour to Farmingdale even though I know that none of the Jewish egg and poultry farms survived the post WWII changes in agriculture. Small farms were bought out by “agribusinesses,” large farms that had the financial capacity to buy lots of land and to modernize and mechanize many aspects of agricultural work. Poultry farming moved west. At the same time, the government withdrew price supports for egg farms. Did Anti-Semitism play a part in this decision, which hastened the end for the New Jersey farms? The case has been made. In any event, the farms are gone, and along with them a fascinating piece of our agricultural history.

July Market Report, by Stacey Harwood-Lehman

My husband’s recent diagnosis of celiac disease came as a complete shock to both of us. He had been experiencing many months of debilitating symptoms that had been attributed variously to chemotherapy, post-surgery recovery, and an intractable infection. Doctors told us that his symptoms would wax and wane and that he might just have to live with them. 

Finally, and almost as an afterthought, his oncologist Dr. Dean Bajorin ordered the simple blood test for celiac (“highly unlikely, but we may as well be sure.”). Within a week we had a preliminary diagnosis, within two, it was confirmed by a biopsy.

The treatment: eliminate all gluten from his diet. Forever.

"Gluten-free" by Deanna Dorangrichia
“Gluten-free” by Deanna Dorangrichia

At first, I was reeling. Ever since his surgery in 2015, I had been feeding him precisely the wrong things to feed a celiac sufferer: lots of pasta, bread (especially bagels), simple stir-fries doused with soy sauce, the occasional breaded and sautéed veal cutlet as a treat. I had assumed that these meals would be easy for him to digest when, in fact, they were destroying his insides.

I also assumed that going gluten-free would present a major sacrifice. Turned out that I was wrong. Yes, restaurants are a challenge: There’s a big difference between ordering a gluten-free entrée and one that is “celiac-safe.” The danger of cross-contamination is real in a restaurant that doesn’t have a dedicated space for preparing its gluten-free offerings. My friend Sloane Miller, psychotherapist and specialist in food allergy and celiac management, advises those on restrictive diets to plan ahead and speak with a chef during a restaurant’s slow period. It’s quite likely that you will be happily accommodated in many establishments. During our recent stay in Ithaca, NY, we visited the Heights Restaurant in late afternoon when the restaurant was closed but while the chef was prepping for dinner. We told him of my husband’s plan to meet a colleague for lunch. “Don’t worry,” said the chef, “you’ll have an enjoyable meal” and my husband did. The staff at the fashionable Nix, on University place, was so well versed in the needs of a celiac customer that we knew we could relax and enjoy. Sloane was right, you do have to be careful, but your dining-out life needn’t be over with a diagnosis of a food allergy or celiac.

Cooking at home was less of a challenge. In fact, other than purging our kitchen of all products with gluten, there was very little we had to change. For most of my adult life I’ve avoided processed food and this is where gluten is likely to hide. But there’s no gluten in fresh vegetables and fruits, fish and meat and poultry, potatoes, rice and other grains, like quinoa, that I’ve been preparing for decades. Giving up beer was easy and our occasional martini or Manhattan or Champagne cocktail is just fine, thank you.

Grocery stores now have devoted prime real estate to gluten-free items, proof, as my husband says, that he’s “on the most fashionable diet.” Alas, many of them are disappointing and filled with ingredients with unpronounceable names and too much sugar. A gluten-free bagel tastes more like cotton batting than the real thing. “Just because they’re gluten free,” says Sloane, “doesn’t mean they’re healthy.”

I seek out the small local producer: 1 2 3 Gluten-Free in Ithaca, NY, sells delicious baked goods (along with heritage fruits and vegetables) at a local farmers market. The ceramicist and baker extraordinaire Deanna Dorangrichia surprised me with a delivery of outstanding and healthy snacks along with their recipes, so I can make them myself. 

Going gluten-free certainly isn’t for everyone and I’ve read that doing so can even be harmful. Still, for my husband it’s an absolute necessity. The silver lining is that the treatment doesn’t involve nasty medications with side-effects that are treated with even more medications, and on and on.

We simply do what we’ve done for a long time: eat fresh, simply prepared meals made with locally raised and grown ingredients. Delicious. 

June Market Report, by Stacey Harwood-Lehman

School’s out for summer!  Congratulations to all graduates and to those still in the midst of their studies, for completing another semester. It’s time for swimsuits and sunscreen.

For the second time, I taught “Food Narratives” to New School undergraduates and continuing ed students.  In the past, I had conceived of food narratives in literary genres—poetry, non-fiction, journalism, and fiction.  While such works remain prominent on the syllabus, I have broadened the scope to include food narratives in visual art and music. Finding the right approach was a challenge, but I arrived at a formula that the students seemed to embrace. 

The art critic and award winning biographer Mark Stevens (de Kooning: An American Master, with Analyn Swan, Knopf, 2006) once told me that when you look at paintings of meals and food you can almost always be certain that the food will look great, delicious. This comment stayed with me and when I encountered a

a series of poems by Sandra Gilbert that appeared in The America Scholar I decided that it would be exciting to add a section on visual art to my syllabus. Gilbert’s poems are about paintings of meals by old masters, ranging from the gory (Goya’s Saturn Devouring One of His Children) to the sexy (Manet’s, Déjeuner sur l’herbe).  Here is the opening of Gilbert’s poem about the Goya “First he swallowed the screams. / They were bitter, stringy, hard to chew, but he seasoned them /with the sweet dark curls & managed to get them down / without gagging . . .” The poem stands alone but to appreciate it fully, one must view the painting and be familiar with myth that inspired its brilliant creator. You can find Gilbert’s poems here.

My students embarked on a treasure hunt. I instructed them to visit a museum or gallery, view a painting of food or a meal, and invent a narrative to go with it. Although there is no shortage of material in New York City, I compiled a list of favorites that they could use as a starting point. As luck would have it, the Studio Museum in Harlem had just launched “Palatable: Food and Contemporary Art” an exhibit that considers how contemporary artists of African descent use food to explore politics, memory, heritage, race and culture. (The exhibit is on view through June 26).

It is sometimes said that the artist provides half the work; the reader or viewer supplies the rest. My students proved this assertion with their lively responses to paintings. They wrote poems, short stories, and essays, each quite different from the other even when contemplating the same masterpiece. One student viewed Willem Claesz Heda’s Still Life with Oysters, a Silver Tazza, and Glassware as depicting the prelude to lovemaking, interwoven with a disquisition about the aphrodisiacal power of the oyster; another imagined the violent demise of a relationship. Joachim Beuckelaer’s Fish Market, inspired in one student a light verse with rhymes worthy of Dr. Seuss, and in another a short story about a morning in the life of a Fishmonger’s wife. 

Summer is time for the outdoors, but we will have rainy days along with days of intolerable heat. Find respite in a museum and let a painting transport you to another world, another life.

featured image via the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

April Market Report, by Stacey Harwood-Lehman

“. . .  at the midpoint /of summer, /the tomato, /star of earth, recurrent /and fertile /
star, displays / its convolutions, /its canals, /its remarkable amplitude /and abundance, . . .”  from Ode to the Tomato by Pablo Neruda

It wasn’t until I left my childhood home in a suburb of New York City to attend college that I ate my first real tomato. Growing up, the only tomato I had ever tasted was available year-round from the grocery store, packaged in plastic wrapped cardboard three-packs. They looked anemic and tasted like cotton batting. No wonder I hated tomatoes and refused to eat them unless they came in the form of a sauce, from a jar. 

Then, one day, a friend took me to a roadside stand on a rural stretch near Albany, New York. “I’m about to change your life,” he said when we got home.  He sliced open a beefsteak tomato, sprinkled the cut side with salt, and handed it to me. He was right. The flavor of that first real tomato is imprinted on my taste memory.

Photo by the author
Photo by the author

Roadside stands are commonplace in rural parts of New York and probably elsewhere as well. Oftentimes they run on the honor system. The farmer displays produce on a wooden table with a tin can beside a handwritten sign that lists the prices for the day’s offerings.

In New York City, we can count on roughly 50 farmers markets to approximate the experience of visiting a roadside stand.  This year, the New York City Greenmarket is celebrating 40 years of making fresh produce available to city dwellers. Here’s how GrowNYC Executive Director, Marcel Van Ooyen describes the first market day:

Forty years ago this July, Greenmarket founders Barry Benepe and Bob Lewis organized a small group of farmers to truck their fresh produce into the city and set up shop in an empty parking lot across from the Queensboro Bridge. It was an experiment of sorts; to see if New Yorkers, dwellers of the concrete jungle, would respond positively to buying farm fresh produce from the region in an outdoor market space. When the farmers’ tables were empty within a few hours, it was clear that they had struck a chord with residents.

GrowNYC is planning many activities to mark this anniversary. You can read all about them here. I’ll be part of the celebration by once again serving as the market’s poet laureate. New School poetry professor Elaine Equi’s “Flavor of the Month,” her celebration of rhubarb, is going to kick things off.  You’ll find some of last year’s poems here.

Of course the best way to celebrate the market is to shop there. I promise that if you do you’ll never eat an out of season tomato again.