A "poetry blog" post that is actually about "poetry." (Mostly)

Today, on my way to the gym where I would be visualizing myself chased by brain-hungry zombies in order to run two miles, I tuned in to NPR for my brief drive. Amanda Hesser, author of The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century was the guest on The Diane Rehm Show discussing the process she went through to edit and compile her cookbook.

It was an interesting lens through which to consider poetic accessibility, I thought, and my brain immediately starting noodling around in those concepts as they spoke.

Possibly we’ve talked accessibility to death. I get that. I feel that in a lot of ways. But I want to follow this thread and see where I end up when using this cooking ideology as a crutch.

Hesser describes her cookbook as “not like an academic book in any way; it’s really a useful cookbook.” (Italics mine) Here is the beginning of a values divide. On one side, we have utility; on the other side, academe. Since the cookbook is unlike an academic book in any way, we can also phrase this by saying academic books are not useful.

Is poetry useful? Yes. As many of us know, Americans gravitate toward poetry at specific times: to commemorate an event, to celebrate an experience, to understand their emotions. The most popular form of poetry is the greeting card. This is also the most commercial and best selling form. It is entirely accessible; in fact, it’s only goal is to transmit meaning. The desire to be artful is often secondary, or even less important than that; perhaps we’d say the desire to be visually artful would be a primary or secondary goal.

But we don’t really consider greeting cards to be poetry. Perhaps they are simply “poetic.”

When I tuned in, Ms. Hesser was discussing the idea of “accessibility” in her cookbook. Hesser noted that the New York Times has sought to publish and promote recipes that are “accessible” to American cooks of all stripes. A listener had just called in to take her to task on this concept, citing recipes in the New York Times that required exotic ingredients unlikely to be found in various non-New York cities around the country.

This, the listener claimed, was not accessibility, but a means to limit participation in the cooking.

Does inaccessible (or, perhaps, “differently accessible”) poetry divide and conquer American readers in a similar way? Does it ask us for things—knowledge of specialized facts, familiarity with artistic traditions or methods, literary expertise—that the general public either don’t have or can’t get?

Do our readers in Indianapolis struggle to understand the purpose of syllabics? Do Kentuckians shrug their shoulders over prosody? Does alliteration make Alaskans altogether up-in-arms?

The idea of there being an exotic ingredient that is both essential and unavailable is such an interesting concept to me. It also brings up the question of what the purpose of this art form is. The obvious purpose of cooking is nutrition—let’s consider that to be like poetry’s ability to communicate information through language, which the brain digests as the body digests ingredients.

But anyone who’s eaten well knows that food has an emotional component as well—“comfort food” can transport us through time (like the lyric?) and build both physical and emotional sensations in us. I think we agree that good poetry (not all poetry) does this as well. Some poetry simply nourishes us; other poetry builds a response on an additional level.

We obviously don’t need cooking to survive. Many foods can be eaten in a raw or unchanged state. But it wouldn’t be enjoyable that way. Langauge, too, needs no poetry, but we appreciate poetry because it uses language in a way that pleases us emotionally and aesthetically while fulfilling our basic human needs.

Aesthetically, cooking takes into account taste and smell, certainly, but also the concepts of presentation, plating, portion. As these are fairly external concepts that don’t directly contribute to the purpose of cooking (to the nutritional value), but that are essential to the overall impact and meaning of the dish. Perhaps this is like form—how much poetry we serve to our readers, what adornments we give it.

Accessible cooking probably relies on common ingredients—the onion, for example, is probably the most accessible ingredient in cooking. There’s very little you can cook (aside from deserts…which are light verse?) without the onion. It is required of the cook to build flavors in most cuisines and dishes. And because language has common phrases, words (clichés?), it too relies on the accessible aspects of it to build basic meaning.

Exotic ingredients….? I’m back to that. Ingredients available to some, not to others. I face this problem often when I cook, since all DC grocery stores are one step up from a dollar store. I often can’t engage with dishes I want to cook because I don’t have access to the necessary ingredients and can’t make an appropriate substitution. Suddenly, those dishes—those flavors, those processes—are kept from me.

The early Modernists were a lot like gourmet cooks. Their ingredients were facts, figures, quotes, mythological allusions, etc. Their purposes was to build a poetry that encased the world’s great knowledge in artful garments. If you were an informed reader, this was amazeballs. If you were a gas station attendant with an 8th-grade education, you probably weren’t reading a lot of Eliot and, if you were, you weren’t enjoying all the flavors of the dish.

But then again, I’m not sure Pound et al were very concerned about having a wide reach for their work. They were more interested in cooking for their choir, to mix metaphors.

Accessibility relies on shared resources. But how do we draw lines between using highly shared resources (like cliché) and highly specialized resources (like invented syntax, grammar, obscure or non-narrativity)? One democratizes the art form; the other reserves it. One widens the readership; the other narrows it.

Of course, not all poetry is inaccessible. Accessible poetry certainly takes care of itself and finds its own widening audience without much effort. It’s the other kind, the narrowed kind, that needs our help. How can we help these other traditions? How can we put delicious but strange poems in front of readers (eaters?) so that they will at least take a bite, see if they like it, stay for the whole meal?

Some cooking tips

In my quest to cook and eat healthier (except when stressed, when I eat Skittles in a gross and shameful quantity), I’ve discovered a few handy ingredient swapping tips.

Whole Wheat Pasta
When I first started eating this, I didn’t like it. I thought it tasted dry and had a sort of sandy texture to it. But now that it’s been ALL I’ve eaten for a while, I love it. I actually sort of prefer it. The same thing happened to me with white and brown rice. Once I made the switch, I liked the healthier version a lot more. Now pasta is a bigger part of our diet, which is great, since it’s such a simple meal.

Favorite dish: Whole wheat pasta tossed with vinaigrette, diced tomatoes, chickpeas, and feta

Potatoes get a bad rap. They’re full of nutrients and, if you’re good about how you accessorize them, naturally fat-free. Bread and pasta made with potato flour is healthier than the white-flour equivalent and much tastier too.

Favorite dish: Gnocchi with fresh sauteed green beans, grape tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and pesto

Breadcrumb substitutions
Whenever a recipe calls for breadcrumbs, you have two healthier and tastier options. When the recipe is like meatloaf or meatballs and calls for breadcrumbs to act as a binding agent in the mixture, you can substitute quick-cooking oats instead. While the mix will look like you dumped meat into a bowl of cereal, the finished product will not have visible oatmeal all over it, I promise.

Panko breadcrumbs are a healthier (and all-around better) substitute for traditional breading. Yum! A third option is to grind up whole wheat crackers and use cracker meal, but I rarely do this because it still involves a flour step.

Favorite dish: Italian-seasoned meatballs made with oats and herbs.

Eggs are the best breakfast. Because they’re so high in protein, they keep you feeling fuller longer and magically prevent you from over-eating later in the day (seriously). When I eat eggs at 7:30, I don’t get hungry for lunch until 1:30. If I eat cereal at the same time, I’m hungry at 11.

Favorite dish: scrambled eggs with Chipotle Tobasco

Cottage cheese
Fat-free cottage cheese is another miracle food that keeps you feeling fuller, has good vitamin content, and is high in protein. Plus, it cries out to be combined with all sorts of healthy stuff: dried fruit, whole fruit, peanut butter, even herby stuff like pesto. You can mash it into egg salad! You can use it to make lasagna (if you live in the midwest)!

Favorite dish: cottage cheese with dried cranberries

My Food Shame

One of my most embarrassing confessions: I’ve only just recently eaten an orange.

I was sort of famous among my former colleagues for having never actually eaten an orange in my life. If someone in the office was peeling an orange, even if it was in another room, I could smell it and it would make me nauseated. Despite this, I have often enjoyed other orange things, like orange sherbert, orange soda, even orange juice, including the occasional Screwdriver or Sloe Screw Up Against the Wall.

It’s often embarrassing to let people know I don’t eat oranges, or endure having orange eaten in my presence, so I keep pretty mum about it.

A couple months ago, I attended a work-related event at which a fruit medley was served. It looked delicious, but it contained….blood oranges. Not wanting to be rude, I took some of the salad, trying to avoid the blood oranges without drawing attention to myself. I was unsuccessful and ultimately had two of the little sections on my plate.

When I look at an orange, I don’t see fruit. I see the veins like housefly wings; I see alien eggsacks from science fiction films, I see internal organs. The blood orange was even worse–blood mauve, veiny, fleshy.

But I was a good boy. I was a grown up. I ate those two little sections of blood orange right up. And it wasn’t awful–I liked the tartness, but the texture still bothered me.

Yesterday I bit the bullet, so to speak, and tried making pork tenderloin with an orange and red onion salsa. I bought the oranges–I even peeled them myself!–and coarsely chopped them, then added the ingredients. I made the black beans and rice, I made the pork…and then topped it with the salsa. There was no going back.

Until I tasted one of the orange bits. I nearly puked. Needless to say, I scraped it ALL of my pork and ate around it.

But I could still taste it, slight undertaste in everything on my plate, circling like little tastebud sharks…

The Murderous Mandoline

No, not the musical kind…

…this kind:

Some of you know I have a fondness for cooking. Mostly I’m only able to complete meals when someone else is eating, typically the lucky/unlucky person I love. But in an effort to be healthier and keep grocery bills down (prepared foods cost more than their ingredients, have more sodium and fat, and generally don’t taste as good), I’ve been trying to cook more.

I do most of my prep work on Sundays. Chopping, thawing, slicing, reducing, etc. It’s easier to chop ten vegetables for five days than it is to do two a night, I say. So yesterday I prepped for:

Chicken pita pizzas (an old favorite)
Barbequed flank steak and cheesy cauliflower
Chicken with corn & black bean salsa
Smothered steak burgers with shoestring potatoes

Everything was going fine until I had to slice up the potatoes. I got out my trusty mandoline only to find that a key component of it was inexplicably lost in my move to DC: the safety gripper. The gripper has little teeth that sink into whatever you’re cutting to give you traction as you move it through the two-blade cutting surface (one blade cuts horizontally, while several smaller blades cut vertical strips at the same time). Needless to say, running a starchy potato through a mandoline takes both strength and traction. I had one but not the other and so…

…the mandoline bit me. Bit my thumb to be more precise. Right above the little knuckle crease on the inside of it, where there’s sure to be plenty of healing-preventing movement and discomfort.

And it was pretty deep. It was “little flap of skin” deep. It was “my thumb instead of an onion” deep. It was the kind of deep cut that doesn’t bleed right away, that you wonder, “Well, now what?”

And then gushing blood. Luckily, none of it on my prep area. I got a strappy band aid on it right away and looped it tightly over the wound. The first band-aid lasted through the rest of my prep, and the second one got me through til this morning. I think I will be okay. In about a week.

I am a very clumsy person. I am often covered in small cuts and bruises because I constantly run into furniture, corners, sharp edges, or worse, I publicly trip over things. I once tripped over a cement block wall and then, five minutes later, realized I had a seven-inch gash running down my shin that was white in a few places. Stupidly, I did not get stitches and have lived my life since with an enormous but crowd-pleasing scar there. If you ask me, I’ll tell you a dude pulled a knife in Chicago.

And, because Jen Lowe reminded me of it, here’s an appropriate poetic companion for today’s tale:

Sylvia Plath

What a thrill –
My thumb instead of an onion.
The top quite gone
Except for a sort of hinge

Of skin,
A flap like a hat,
Dead white.
Then that red plush.

Little pilgrim,
The Indian’s axed your scalp.
Your turkey wattle
Carpet rolls

Straight from the heart.
I step on it,
Clutching my bottle
Of pink fizz. A celebration, this is.
Out of a gap
A million soldiers run,
Redcoats, every one.

Whose side are they one?
O my
Homunculus, I am ill.
I have taken a pill to kill

The thin
Papery feeling.
Kamikaze man –

The stain on your
Gauze Ku Klux Klan
Darkens and tarnishes and when
The balled
Pulp of your heart
Confronts its small
Mill of silence

How you jump –
Trepanned veteran,
Dirty girl,
Thumb stump.

What Cooking Teaches Me about Management

Over the past five years or so, I’ve really devoted much of my free time to teaching myself to cook. I’m no chef by any stretch of the imagination and I live in the shadow of my mother, who’s like a gourmet in her own right, but I do all right and I’m committed to getting better at it.

Tonight I’m cooking flank stank marinated in red wine vinegar, soy sauce, shallots, garlic, and thyme, for example.

But I realized, having just come from a board meeting at work, that cooking has done a lot to inform the way I look at running a business.

1. You have to have a plan before you start, especially when trying something you’ve never done before.
Amateur cooks really have to use recipes religiously when learning to cook because they provide structure to the endeavor, but they also train cooks how to think about a dish as a whole. Recipes encourage sequencing, which is akin to strategy—understanding how step a leads to step b and so forth. I’ve said about 80 times this month that it’s easier to chart a course than it is to turn the Titanic.

2. You have to know what you need before you start.
A mistake I sometimes make is not reading the ingredient list thoroughly enough, or not preparing something to be chopped or whathaveyou before it gets into the pot. It’s a good reminder to myself to understand what resources will be required to accomplish a task in my organization, to think critically about what we have on hand, what we’ll need to go out and get, and what needs to be transformed before it can be used.

3. The ability to improvise is an art in and of itself.
Although having a plan is critical to starting, things don’t always go as planned. Anyone who’s ever managed an event can assure you of that. And true for cooking, too. If your eggs are expired or your greens wilt unexpectedly, knowing what you can substitute without a loss of flavor, quality, or color is important. A friend of mine who also loves to cook was telling me about a show he watches where the host teaches you the science of cooking, explaining, for example, how mayonnaise exists in an emulsion without separating. It’s through lessons like that, by understanding how ingredients work together, that cooks can make smart choices.

4. Patience is more than a virtue, it’s required.
Once you’ve put all your effort into the dish, sometimes you just have to let it simmer before you can dive in. Baking works this way and it’s often just a leap of faith from raw dough to finished pastry. To paraphrase an adage, watching the pot won’t make it boil. It’ll probably just get nervous or uncomfortable.

5. Multiple levels of evaluation are essential to revising formulas.
When tasting a new dish, you think about its color, its aroma, its flavor, its texture, even how well the dish goes with different side dishes or beverages. Thinking critically about each factor discretely and collectively provides the cook with essential insight into what works in the recipe and what needs to be addressed. A program or organization is no different.