On a cover of last week’s New York Times, a jagged thunderbolt line of people spanned one edge of the above-the-fold photo frame to the other. They waited in line for food and staples like bread. That image tugged at me long after I had left the corner store, quickly exiting with a dozen eggs and a brick of butter. It didn’t escape my notice that as I looked at the tightly packed pixelated line of people waiting to purchase bread, a bowl of bread dough waited at home, proofing on my counter. Even after my house filled with sweet, slightly sour notes of bread baking, I couldn’t shake the disparity.
A day before, while waiting at a stop light, I spied a homeless man taking shelter under a bus awning. Something about the way he clutched at his coat with one hand and buried his other hand in his hair arrested my attention. Even as he stared into the sidewalk with a look of desperation I have never experienced, I choked up. The ragged image kept my eyes open that night, as I flipped in bed trying to resolve my personal comfort with the knowledge of a homeless man asleep on concrete crosstown.
Earlier that week, a portrait by Lee Jeffries haunted me enough to push me into the web to be caught and stunned by the other photos in his Lost Angels series. In this collection of unbelievable captures, his photos evoke grit and raw emotion in the faces of homeless people he encountered and befriended in Los Angeles and London. Their faces tell their stories etched in hard lines that furrow in shadow. Some of the photos disturb and unsettle the spirit, but can you expect anything less from good portraiture of homelessness? It’s too easy to walk by a homeless person and look away or not see them, but what Jeffries does is provoke a response from his viewers while dignifying and lifting up the people in his photos. An elemental instinct draws my eyes in and keeps them locked on the emotion conveyed in the eyes looking back at me. Perhaps this consists of seeing basic needs unmet and feeling helpless to resolve them in a bigger picture beyond merely handing a homeless man a few bills.
Something about the way we all need the same things ties us together. Without food, water and shelter, how can we survive? Just as important, though, being known and understood in community and being loved keep us intact. What would happen if, then, we really took to heart and to hand the idea of treating our neighbors as ourselves? How would our cultures and countries change? Would a country usurp another’s sovereignty? Would we glut ourselves on excess while others starve?
I’ve been asking myself challenging questions as all the recent headlines jumble together in my head. Reading beyond hard headlines helps cultivate empathy with people we will never meet, letting their stories of struggle become our own for the two minutes it takes to read the article. That we might think of them well beyond the confines of the article continues forging a bigger community for us to be a part of, than the one we have carefully cultivated at home. To stretch ourselves and grow more into the people we will be is to not ignore injustice or stay silent about oppression. It’s to care about the welfare of the people of Crimea and the Ukraine even as the Academy Awards dominates the airways.
What we really need isn’t much: we need each other and perhaps a hunk of sourdough bread to remind us that a little naturally leavened yeast goes a long way and yields something bigger than itself.
Close your eyes. Squeeze them tight. If I implored you to think of just one thing that sets your heart alight, what would be the first image to shimmer into view? This is an easy one for me to answer and a hard item to give up for 21 days. Bound in hardback or pliant soft cover, I could be the first customer if eau de livre could be bottled and sold from the glass case at a boutique perfume counter.
It might not be hard to imagine that we become the children we have been. We get taller, rounder or more svelte, but some things don’t change. Whether tucked into my reading cave or braiding my adolescent legs above the bed while my eyes settled into slits from reading “The Fountainhead” until the wee hours, that kind of rapt attention books have commanded from me is only deepening with age. As such, when our church recently put out a challenge to fast from something we love for 21 days, the curious idea presented itself behind closed eyes- I decided to shelve buying books.
We don’t live extravagantly. In San Francisco, you would be hard-pressed to find everyday extravagance outside of a small subset of the city’s population. And yet, I had found a disturbing trend happening last year that involved whimsy and a growing collection of books to inch into the already bulging bookshelves. Instead of waiting and saving up, I had begun to become a book bag lady. Cookbooks lined the back wall of a kitchen counter only to domino cascade into a heap on the floor one too many times. The poetry wall shudders under the weight of all the slender volumes that are doubled up and stacked high. It might not come as a surprise that I once worked at a book store and then for a stint as a librarian (before the staff realized my gift of gab rivaled my affection for books).
I would want to say that all of the books in my possession endured my pencil jotting marginal notes or had the pleasure of being opened and read. As is the case for voracious readers, sometimes it’s too hard to choose which one to read at any time. One book gets toted along on the morning commute. Another sidles into bed as lamp light casts its glow into the dark house. More requirements present themselves- books requiring notes must be read outside of bed lest a pencil pokes the sleeping spine next to me unwittingly. Some books because of their heft do not get packed into the carry-on bag whereas I can’t imagine leaving others behind when off on a Mister Toad adventure or writing excursion. I don’t consider it to be book hoarding, since they often find their way into other peoples’ hands as the occasion calls for, but we purged the stacks twice last year and still they jut forth with titles that play the part of suitors, whistling and doing a dance to get some notice.
During the Great Purge of 2013, some difficult decisions had to be made. Some books from my graduate school capstone on intercultural relationships made their way into a focused collection at school. Given how hard they had been to cull together, I couldn’t imagine them not finding an equally invested home. Well-meaning cookbooks worked their way into new homes through an online garage sale held with friends last fall to make sure they too, would not lose their way.
What is it about a book that makes it the perfect gift? What is it about a book that makes it hard to part with? I have toyed with only buying food or poetry books- both subjects in which writing in the white space along the outer edge of the pages is part of the reading experience. I finally came to understand the role of the e-reader in my very stubborn physical book loving life. On it, I can rip through fiction and dig deeply into memoir. With audio books, I can work out and listen to a fantastic tale that transports me from the gym room to whatever circumstance the narrator depicts.
Twenty-one days without new books may not be a revelation for you- perhaps the thing you would give up would be different. This exercise of patience and self-control is curbing a pattern of mindless book-buying. At some point, even as an avid reader, you have to have a heart-to-heart with yourself about what stays, what goes and what will span the test of years. A friend proudly owns 400 cookbooks, but most of them are in the garage in boxes, which is a bit like a guitar that has taken on the guise of living room decoration with a coat of dust on its wood paneling. This can’t be my path.
In this 21-day journey, I’m reaching for books I haven’t picked up in years and showing discipline in buckling down to finish remaining chapters before adopting something new to supplement the end of things. Some books remain untouched as their time has not fully come into being just yet. Others play the role of reference guide, there to shed light when needed but sometimes just as neglected. After the 2013 Purge, we installed a stainless steel Metro knock-off from Ikea so my type-A personality could group cookbooks by category, deriving pleasure from their organized readiness for a cooking adventure. When the fasting comes to a close, I already know which new books will join the ranks. But this exercise has accomplished its aim. Do you ever give up something you love for a time period to really ruminate on a habit or pattern in your life?
by Maxine Kumin from “Nurture” published by Penguin Books, 1989.
This morning’s red sun licks dew from the hundred
California peppers that never set fruit in
my Zone-Three garden. After fifteen summers
of failure why this year do I suffer
the glut of inordinate success? They hang
in clustered pairs like newly hatched sex organs.
Doubtless this means I am approaching
the victory of poetry over death
where art wins, chaos retreats, and beauty
albeit trampled under barbarism
rises again, shiny with roses, no thorns.
No earwigs, cutworms, leaf miners either.
Mother’s roses climbed the same old latticework
trellis until it shattered under their weight
and she mourned the dirtied blossoms more, I thought,
than if they’d been her children. She pulled on
goatskin gloves to deal with her arrangements
in chamberpots, pitchers and a silver urn.
I watched, orphan at the bakeshop window.
It took all morning. Never mix species
or colors, she lectured. It cheapens them.
At the end of her long life she could reel off
the names of all the cart horses that had
trundled through her childhood, and now that I
look backward longer than forward, nothing
too small to remember, nothing too slight
to stand in awe of, her every washday
Monday baked stuffed peppers come back to me
full of the leftovers she called surprises.
When you’re a young poet starting out- this title still applies to me today- both tentative in your line breaks and brash in the conflicting belief that everything you write is good or hingeing on drivel, rhythm is found in repeated drafts and revisions.
One sultry summer in New Hampshire I had the privilege of landing in the living room of poet Maxine Kumin whose dog, Rosie trotted quietly from person to person, trying to make sense of all these new friendly fixtures in her familiar space. We each brought a poem to read aloud and Maxine gave us feedback on them, as well as talking a bit about her own writing process. To look back on this experience now and give it its full due is something that has taken several years to comprehend.
It can happen that in writing or photography or painting or singing or whatever form of creativity you pursue regularly, you get stymied by a cutting comment. Perhaps the discouragement comes from a keen desire for perfection that is not easily gained and does not come fast enough so you move on to something else assuming if it can’t be perfect, then, why bother? Working your way through negative feedback can be bristling and paralyzing. It can be said that the idea of “thick skin” applies to just such a circumstance. Take comfort in “Surprises,” then, as Kumin says, “After fifteen summers /of failure why this year do I suffer / the glut of inordinate success?”
It happened tonight that a writer whose work I admire shared a past experience of presenting written work to a colleague who tore it apart. I asked her how she got past that experience, to which she responded, I didn’t write for three years. It may seem extreme, but I get that impulse 100 percent. I also understood (and so did she) that the need to write eclipsed the quagmire that what’s written might not be good or perceived as being any good by someone else. We write because we must, right?
Maxine Kumin passed away February 7th at home in New Hampshire. I would envision her last moments to be what we would hope for anyone we care for- that they are spent with those they love encircling her bed. In learning of her death, I burrowed down again in her story and poems.
At a young age, she started writing poetry and has remarked that, “I didn’t stop writing poetry just because Wallace Stegner said I was a terrible poet. I went underground.” Thus began a friendship and writing workshop practice I always admired after Maxine and poet Anne Sexton met at the Boston Center for Adult Education in the 1950s. That the two of them workshopped poems on the telephone showed a diligence and created within me a desire to find a kindred spirit with whom I could share my work. This friendship between two prolific poets and their ability to figure out how to work on the work underscores the importance of community (even a community of two) for writers used to the solitary act of sitting at a desk typing away. It also inspired a friend of mine and I to attempt to bridge the great divide from Alaska to California to workshop poems using whatever technology is at our fingers.
Maxine’s love for animals is seen in the richness of detail of many of her poems. That she won a Pulitzer prize and is also known for her activism on behalf of women’s rights and minorities only adds to the importance of her vast body of work. A pink post-it note skims the top page of her poem “Surprises” in the book, “Nurture.” It seems a fitting poem to share at such a time as this. The story she tells is one that is universal and timeless. Why is it that sometimes when we court success, it does not come calling and other times when we couldn’t expect it, it comes? I think of her comment of looking “backward longer than forward, nothing / too small to remember, nothing too slight / to stand in awe of” and find her essence encapsulated there. Just as unscrewing the top of a red pepper can yield a surprise of stuffed proportions, in “Surprises,” she reminds the reader to be prepared for the things to come that can’t be expected. Her generosity and kindness live on through her poems and the indelible mark she left on so many young and old poets’ lives personally. While I met her just one time, she showed real grace and a passion for the written word that spurs me on. Rest in peace, Maxine.
We eat leftovers. They wheedle their way into the handwritten weekly menu as proof that no matter how busy a week becomes we can find homemade food at the ready to ably feed ourselves. They provide the backbone to a quick lunch with substance. But, leftovers get a bit of a bad rap, don’t they? Just last week over tea with a friend, she recounted that she leaves the leftovers for her husband, something I have done and depending on the dish, will continue to do as I firmly fall into the camp of some foods don’t get better with time.
We rely on leftovers- they fill in the gaps of one of us at band practice and the other taking a class. But, sometimes I just can’t be bothered with having the same meal several times in rote repetition like a record with a scratch that plays the same bit of track that you enjoyed the first time until it becomes annoying. What’s remarkable is that over the span of one night’s digestion, compelling cuisine takes on a second class status as leftovers. I have discovered, along with other home cooks, the way to make them the prep for tomorrow’s lunch.
Here’s the thing with leftovers and the aversion people bring to the brown bagged remnants, the quart sized-jar in the fridge or casserole dish with stair-stacked holes cut into the food. And, I want to be careful how I word this, the attitude to leftovers is indicative of first world problems. Where else is extra food considered something avoidable? When I worked at a restaurant, while putting myself through school, we wore metal pins on our uniforms, as a sign of our flair. I could have easily donned one that read “world’s worst up-seller” since the portion sizes served at the restaurant already were double what people could actually eat and more often than not, it pained me to scrape perfectly good food into the compost bin because a patron had met their fill.
Today, I want to talk about a way we can donate more than just a renewed sense of mindfulness toward our leftovers, instead focusing on an important cause. Nicole of The Giving Table invited people to donate their blog post today to the cause of “The Lunchbox Fund,” an initiative to feed South Africa. Encouraged to blog about lunch, and since my lunches consist of leftovers, here we are.
Did you know 65% of all South African children live in poverty. As evidenced through research by No Kid Hungry in the United States, we know that nourished children will do better in school by helping them stay alert and be able to retain what they are learning. I recently learned that nearly 20% of all children in South Africa are orphans, with approximately 1.9 Million of those children orphaned as a result of HIV and AIDS. These kids are left over from dire family circumstances. It makes me profoundly sad tinged with possibility.
Groups like The Lunchbox Fund identify schools or form partnerships with locally based NGOs or community organizations in order to evaluate and identify schools. They fund distributors to buy and deliver food, monitor the feeding scheme, implement a Project Manager, and deliver reports back to them for evaluation. In essence, they are helping radically address the food supply system for these children who might otherwise get looked over. Can I encourage you to consider that if you give $10, it will feed a child for a day. Giving overflows from a generous heart, so the amount isn’t as important as the practice and the response to the problem. Consider giving to The Lunchbox Fundand forgoing lattes for a week- doing good might just be the ultimate morning jumpstart.
It’s almost time for lunch and leftovers are on the menu. Join me for a bowl of Leftovers Chili?
This chili is perfect for serving on rainy or cold days (not that I’m complaining – we needed the rain that turned San Francisco into a wet wonderland this past weekend). This chili is a bit of a conglomeration of various leftovers. Taco Tuesdays makes extra ground meat than we can eat that night, so that gets added to the pot. The extra brown rice we make at the beginning of the week gets warmed and doled out into the bowls so the chili gets ladled over it. Leftover chicken or veggie stock gets used here too and unlike many recipes that only call for 1 tablespoon of tomato paste, this is a terrific recipe to use a whole jar of it or any tomato paste leftovers you might have lurking in the fridge. For garnishes, use what you have on hand. I give a few ideas of what’s in our fridge, but chili is open to creativity (ever try pulsing a chipotle from adobo sauce or adding some of the sauce to chili? Smoky goodness, right there.) These repurposed ingredients will feed you for lunch all week with enough to go in the freezer or to get repurposed another way.
YIELD: 6-8 servings
1 teaspoon grapeseed oil plus 1 tablespoon
1 red bell pepper
2 cups green lentils
1 onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 cup vegetable or chicken stock
1 cup water
32 ounce jar chopped tomatoes
1 cup cooked ground beef or ground turkey
2 tablespoons chili powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon sea salt
Preheat the oven to 425 and line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
Rub a red bell pepper with oil and roast it in the oven for 20 minutes or until you see the skin char slightly. Cool the red bell pepper. Once cooled, remove the stem and seeds inside. Place the bell pepper in a container with high sides and a deep well. Blend with an immersion blender until pureed.
While the bell pepper is roasting, pick through the lentils, discarding any small rocks. In a large heavy pot, cover the lentils with about 3-4 inches of water and bring to a boil. Lower the temperature to simmer. Cover and cook them for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, place a heavy bottomed pan over medium heat for 1 minute. Drizzle in 1 tablespoon of grape seed oil and swirl the pan until the bottom is coated. Add the onions to the pan and brown them for about 4 minutes. Add in the garlic, 3 minutes in.
Drain the lentils from their cooking liquid. Transfer the lentils back to their pot along with the onion, garlic and vegetable stock. Place the pot over medium low heat. Whisk together 3 tablespoons of water with the tomato paste until smooth, adding the rest of the water until you’ve reached one cup. Pour it into the pot once you’ve got a thick red sauce. Open your jar of canned chopped tomatoes and break apart the tomatoes with your fingers over the pot, pouring in the jarred liquid too. Add the cooked ground meat to the pot, carefully breaking up any initial clumps with a large wooden spoon. Stir in the chili powder, cayenne and salt. Cover the pot and let the chili simmer so the liquid reduces and it thickens up. Add the bell pepper puree to the chili.
Serve with brown rice. Garnish with a dollop of sour cream (or labneh or creme fraiche or Greek yogurt or…), grated leftover nubs of cheese (sharp cheddar works wonderfully) and minced scallions.
Wine and poetry might just be the perfect Valentine’s Day pairing. Roses might as well go the way of tired cliches. Believe me, my first job had me sweeping a floral arrangement boutique and shredding thorns off long imported stems for the reddest holiday of the year. Chocolate has cleverly edged its way out of a once pigeon-holed status of needing pink cellophane or red felt to adorn its outer packaging. People actually eat chocolate with increasing regularity.
But wine still carries with it a bit of fanfare even if the cause happens to be a delectable meal. Moreso, a bottle of sparkling wine typically gets uncorked for celebration and revelry. For many people, poetry has been sequestered to high school English classes or even funerals. Great lovers have always been poets (though their passion has sometimes exceeded their skill). Poems craft themselves from the world around them, clinging to the bits of our lives that exist in the untouchable ether. They do well to speak of things like love with its vagaries of expression from desperation to starry-eyed blindness.
Wine and poetry together make a party come together, even if it’s just a party of two. I teamed up with Jameson Fink, a friend who’s desire to demystify the aura of wine parallels my own aim to bring poetry back to the people who feel it does not fit their lives or hold any relevance. Jameson’s approach of “wine without worry” let us embark on a feat of pairing books of poetry with bottles of sparkling wine from the same country or state. To read his wine pairing recommendations and tasting notes, click on the names of the wines below. If you click on the book covers, you will be jettisoned to an online local bookseller to help procure the poetry portion of your Valentine’s pairing.
Peter Everwine comes from a long tradition of storyteller poets in the central valley of California, joining the ranks of Larry Levis and Philip Levine. What defines this book is the music coursing through the poems and the humanity of the poems. He writes “the girl on the Bullard overpass / looks happy to be there, getting soaked” and continues musing whether she has a place to go even as he hopes “she’s there tomorrow.” His pacing awakens the expanse of space inside the reader: “Everything lies open before me: Days. Blue distances. / The song that will unlock the gates of paradise.” The poem, “in time” speaks of the kind of love that exists even after lovers have been separated by dementia as the husband asks his unknowing wife, again, “Sweetheart, who am I?” I can’t help but also keep coming back to his poem, “The Rag Rug,” one that speaks of the love of a son and mother and the lessons she imparts upon her son even after she is gone. This book pulls me in gently and is one I know I will turn to frequently as it’s gotten under my skin.
After hearing Forrest Gander read a number of these poems at a recent reading in San Francisco, I snapped up the book wanting to see how these contemporary poems lay out on the page and also to read them in Spanish and in English. The title stems from the body of work within. The poems are the cure as they aim to break out of tradition and carve their own path of innovation resulting in panic. The cure for the panic is poetry. And, isn’t this true of love? Olvido Garcia Valdes packs into a tight poem on page 65 a scene taking place in a kitchen with two people who are barely speaking where, “[a]lmost nothing in common / but contradictions bind / and liken us,” where we can imagine how this scenario will play out because of its familiarity. This collection features gems like “Being in You” by Antonio Gamoneda, a poem perfect for Valentine’s Day that speaks of what love is and isn’t or his poem of marital expression, “Freedom in Bed” that laments leaving bed each day because he has to leave his partner. Olvido Garcia Valdes admonishes the reader, “ Give / your friends names, invoke soulmates. Don’t quit. Sunflowers / and crows stand watch over your heart.” Sandra Santana acknowledges the rift an argument can cause when she says, “It just ruptured our argumental / fabric, leaving an open / space for what might come.” Julia Piera crafts an ekphrastic poem written in response to a painting where, at the end, “THE LOVE THAT KEEPS ON GOING” can be tamed into words. Whatever season your relationship is in, “Panic Cure” has a poem for it.
If you have a fondness for surrealist art and count yourself a fan of Dali, Magritte or Frida Kahlo, you might find yourself pulled into the “intense and rapid dream” that is the “Illuminations” by Arthur Rimbaud, translated by John Ashbery. A collection of mostly prose poems, they contain bursts of enlightenment woven through a litany of seemingly disparate things. Rimbaud started writing at a young age and died at a young age of 37. During that short span of time, he sought to change poetry. The loose pages of what would become the “Illuminations” had an interesting start wherein Rimbaud passed them off to his ex-lover, poet Paul Verlaine, asking him to find a publisher for them. They also happened after he had formally taken his exit from writing poetry. Prepare to be whisked away while reading this collection composed of “crystalline jumble” that starts with “After the Flood” and ends with “Genie.” Considering these two poems play bookends to one another, they tend to speak to a deep hopefulness that the rest of the poems don’t readily follow. In “After the Flood,” the reader gets catapulted into the moving on into everyday life once the Flood had ended where “a hare paused amid the gorse and trembling / bellflowers and said its prayer to the rainbow through the spider’s web.” That the collection starts with this poem seems to belie Rimbaud’s exit of poetry, but the “Illuminations” would prove to be his final manuscript as he sought a livelihood in textiles. In “Genie,” the protagonist described evokes the kind of Christ-love that is called agape, where “He has known us all and loved us all.” One line that stands out in this poem is the hopefulness founded in “the abolition of all resonant and surging / suffering in more intense music.” Some claim that “Genie” is the pivotal poem of his and the kind of love of which it speaks is one we could all do well to experience.
WINE: Santa Digna Estelado Rosé POETRY: “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair” by Pablo Neruda, translated by W.S. Merwin
Some people save the best for last, and in this case, I might amend it to mean the “obvious” choice for last. Pablo Neruda’s repute extends well beyond the poetry-reading world. We saw a movie that loosely incorporated him, Il Postino do quite well during its run at the Academy Awards. His is the poetry I think of when looking for a love poem. While many of the tropes present in the collection of “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair” might seem familiar, he deftly used elements of the natural world to speak to te romantic one. Even the first poem, entitled, “Body of a Woman” begins directly enough: “Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs, / you look like a world lying in surrender.” Thus the “infinite ache” begins as the poems continue, some marked with eroticism like “I have gone marking the atlas of your body / with crosses of fire” or the admission “I want / to do with you what spring does with the cherry / trees.” Racy stuff. But, as you read further into the book, small lapses of regret or disappointment begin to appear almost unnoticeable at first until you head to the end of the collection where “[e]verything bears me farther away, as though you / were noon” finally approaching an unforgettable line that “[l]ove is so short, forgetting is so long.” Whether in need of poems describing the contours of the body, the depth of an awakened love or the devastation that comes when this kind of love ends, odds are high that you will find the poem you need in this collection.
Have you ever dedicated a poem to someone you love? Is there one you turn to with regularity?
I'm Annelies Zijderveld, the food poet. Welcome to this gathering of food, poetry and art for one seriously delicious party. I try not to take myself too seriously, though that is often a losing battle. My voracious appetite for eating and the intertwined twins of reading and writing has led me to work in food marketing for over a decade and gain an MFA in poetry. [Read more...]