Poetry And Food

Poetry And Food

My Dinner with Dubie: Secrets from the Iowa Writers' Workshop Cookbook
Matthew Gavin Frank
The Poetry Foundation

Recently my wife, Louisa, and I had our friend, the poet Norman Dubie, over for dinner. Knowing Norman's eclectic literary tastes, I assumed that his culinary cravings would be demanding and, likely, strange. So I set about cooking a complex meal I thought would rival his poetic quirkiness.

I had recently returned to academia after a 15-year stint in the food and wine industry, which took me through an obsessive series of jobs driving ice cream trucks, running an Alaskan diner adjacent to a bowling alley, launching an avant-garde catering company (read: chicken liver ice cream and frozen salad cubes), sautéing hog snapper in Key West, designing menus for Julia Roberts's private parties in Taos, New Mexico, picking wine grapes and mopping cantina floors in Barolo, Italy, and searching for ways in which to suffuse the edible with the stuff of poetry. Perhaps, I hoped, this dinner with Dubie would finally provide some direction.

Since I didn't want to bury myself in the kitchen all night, I felt a three-courser would suffice. We'd start with seared sea scallop with lychee nut-sesame sorbet, parmigiano tuile, and lavender oil. Then, for a second course, we'd have Pacific red snapper with sweet corn glaze, baby bok choy, roasted shallot, and red wine-macerated cherries. We'd finish with revisionist Caprese salad for dessert.

I had been reading Dubie's The Mercy Seat, his collected and new poems from 1967 to 2001. Many of the poetic collisions, subversions, and juxtapositions therein inspired, in some semiconscious way, the dishes I wanted to prepare for him. I love these poems for their drama, their characters, their social conscience, and their hilarity. Norman once told me: "Dude, all my poems are jokes."

Every so often Norman lifts the veil and steps, larger than life, center stage. I could only hope my scallops would accomplish the same sort of theatrical curtsey, directly, as a Dubie poem does in addressing its audience. His poem "Oration: Half-Moon in Vermont" is a great example of this. It ends:
In a year the owl will go on a shelf in the shed
Where in thirty years there will be a music box
Containing a lock of hair, her rosaries,
Her birth certificate,

And an impossibly sheer, salmon-pink scarf. What
I want to know of my government is

Doesn't poverty just fucking break your heart?

Reading this for the first time, I felt like someone had just pulled the chair from beneath me at the junior high lunchroom table again. I was similarly disarmed and abashed, and delighted. The line break after the "What" is essential to this effect, this surprise. If I could replicate such successful indulgences on the plate, if I could force upon the framework of the Caprese salad elements of dessert--basil ice cream, buffalo mozzarella syrup, oven-dried sweet tomato and tomato rock candy--surely the man would nod, satisfied, his ample belly bucking with half-digested versions of his owl on the shelf in the shed, his salmon-pink scarf. . . .

When 7:30PM came, I turned off all four burners and flipped the oven dial to warm. As I neurotically checked and rechecked the range, making sure the burners were indeed cooling, Louisa started the car. Norman Dubie does not drive, so we went to pick him up.

After a quick five-minute jaunt we reached Dubie's apartment, an anonymous little claptrap located at the end of an alley behind a laundromat. We knocked on the door and heard a hurried, disheveled "Just a minute!" from the other side. Not surprisingly, Norman was running a little late.

He opened the door, his sternum-length white beard unfurling into the windy night, clad only in a one-piece ankle-length black nightshirt and black cowboy boots. This was a familiar sight. Many nights, Louisa and I meditate with Dubie, a devout Tibetan Buddhist. While Dubie dressed in his bedroom, Louisa and I surveyed the apartment, looking for any new Buddhist artifacts among the living room-turned-shrine. Having collected many such artifacts over the years, he has resorted to suspending new posters and clippings and weavings from his ceiling with string, often joking that when he dies, the place will have to be detoxed with chisel and flame.

Dubie soon reemerged and absentmindedly rummaged through a cabinet above his fossil of a stove. With a quiet aha! he took down a well-worn, water-stained copy of The Iowa Writers' Workshop Cookbook and passed it to me with one word: gift. The book smelled like the inside of my late grandmother's purse--all clove and camphor. In this tome, published in 1986, beneath dried splatters of decades-old grease, various graduates of the esteemed workshop render their favorite recipes replete with pinches of the lyric and literary quirks. Howard Nemerov provides his recipe for Eggs Maladict (substituting Spam for ham, Kraft mayo for hollandaise, and so on); Tess Gallagher reveals her Pears à la Carver ("Move swiftly to the table with the remaining pair of pears. Tell Carver: that's all there is. He will want to eat yours first. Tell him that's fine."); Charles Simic waffles (the verb, not the noun), "My recipes are top secret. The C.I.A. and K.G.B have tried for years to get them from me. . . ."; and Dubie details the recipe for a loaf of the corn and cheese bread that he often ate as a child growing up in Vermont and New Hampshire. The introduction, by Peter Nelson and Connie Brothers, discusses how "a good poem . . . will be like a good recipe, with the proper ingredients, hopefully fresh, in the right proportions. . . ."

Food and poetry have long shared this nebulous relationship rooted in their mutual ability to nourish mind, body, and soul. Much of the best poetry, like Norman's, finds a way to comfort as it agitates: the comfort often in the reminder of what it means to be human, living on Planet Earth today; the agitation in the reader's guided navigation out of some benign complacency and into some species-based awareness, like How to Love, or What to Eat, or How to Love What You Eat.

The poetry editor of "Alimentum: The Literature of Food," Cortney Davis, affirms, "The best foods are layered--we notice the hint of rosemary behind the muscular taste of tomato or the suggestion of oak that appears moments after the swallow of a fine wine. . . . Some foods taste better left-over--the second-day helping of turkey and stuffing at Thanksgiving. Poems must be multi-layered too, and they must last not only through the second serving, but through many readings, offering us . . . another revelation, another way of looking at ourselves. . . ."

As a master of the dramatic monologue and a lover of food, Dubie knows: In our attempts to replicate the recipe or voice of another, on the plate or in verse, we extend a communicative lure to artists past, their histories and their obsessions. When we prepare (and, by default, reinterpret) a classic lobster thermidor, communicating with its 1891 inception on the Boulevard Saint-Denis in Paris, we are in effect creating our own elegy, our own dramatic monologue of the gustatory sort, the dead speaking to us in vocables and edibles and, dare I say, tongues. This breed of stratified discourse compels us to return to certain dishes and poems again and again, at various stages in our lives, seeking comfort or challenge, defining ourselves as readers, or eaters, based on the different ways in which we collide with the art at different times.

When Dubie himself collided with the evening's revisionist Caprese salad, he didn't close his eyes, didn't moan, didn't say anything close to "Hey--you know what?--this dish reminds me of my poem 'Oration: Half-Moon in Vermont.'" Instead, he confessed that he fabricated his corn and cheese bread recipe for the editors of "The Iowa Writers' Workshop Cookbook" while "a little drunk over a pay phone in a bar." In that bar, I picture David Mamet hustling pool and John Irving honing his pickup lines. I picture myself trying too hard, feeding Julia Roberts a teaspoonful of arugula granita, which she promptly spits at Irving's feet. "But somehow," Dubie said, swallowing the last mouthful of my basil ice cream, "it works. That corn and cheese bread, dude. It works."

Perhaps the connection between food and poetry is this simple, residing in a yellowed copy of "The Iowa Writers' Workshop Cookbook" stinking of clove. Perhaps this simplicity eluded me when attempting to prepare a complex three-courser that would speak to Norman Dubie's poetic flights of fancy. After dinner, Dubie, the man who in his poetry communes with the likes of Georg Trakl, Margaret Fuller, and Vincent van Gogh, leaned back in his chair and said that next time, cheddar cheese corn bread and glazed carrots would be fine.

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