Poets in the Kitchen: Ewa Chrusciel
The Food Poet: Food & poetry have certain commonalities. How do you describe the poetry of food?
Ewa Chrusciel: We are Infinite and we are made of our small cravings. Poetry of food implies that kind of contradiction and longing in us; the desire to belong; the desire to carry with us our childhood flavors. Food is often inseparable from our identity. The sausage poem was at the threshold of my Contraband of Hoopoe book. My book transpired out of smuggling a sausage (called kabanos in Polish, the name for lean, partially dried sausage) over the border. I was caught and the drama of the situation originated my first poem of smuggling, which led to the whole book. I got interested in what other immigrants carried with them or sneaked across the borders, so I went to Ellis Island and Tenement House in New York City to research the things the immigrants carried. (And sometimes they had live goats and barrels of pickles with them!)
Immigrants do not like to throw away cheese wrappers, glass jars with their favorite jam. They have meaning, even the food. The food is metonymy. It stands for something bigger, for a bigger longing in us.
We take great risks to smuggle our favorite food across borders.
TFP: How would you describe your cooking style and who has influenced it?
EC: I have an eclectic cooking style. Only for Christmas and Easter do I prepare traditional things – pierogi, borscht, etc. Otherwise I borrow from here and there – Asian, French—you name it. My husband, Eric DeLuca, made up this Polish-American salad after visiting my dad’s little farm in Poland where we collected black and red currants. He called it Borek Stary Salad, after the village where the farm is located. The ingredients are: fresh, in season corn—steamed & shaved, black currants and red currants, fresh-squeezed lime juice, and a hint of Vermont maple syrup. Simple, but incredibly delicious!
Today, I am thinking of cooking buckwheat grain with Feta and Zaatar (a spice mirepoix that’s universal) and for dessert: wheat spelt flour apple pie (recipe given to me by Polish friend Dorota Zając).
TFP: If we think of mirepoix, it is the essential building block of ingredients that form the foundation of flavor for many dishes. What would be the essential ingredients of your mirepoix?
EC: My literary mirepoix would be images and syntactical structures that cause bewilderment, a surprise. I was always drawn to a metaphysical conceit in which incongruous images are “yoked together by violence” (Samuel Johnson), and yet via these improbable images some metaphysical truth is conveyed in the poem. Another ingredient in my mirepoix would be metaphors (or images or ways of thinking about reality—which metaphors in fact are) smuggled from my native culture.
TFP: Are there any people, cookbooks, chefs or websites that are your go-to resources for cooking?
EC: For desserts, I go to the Polish food blog: Moje Wypieki (there is English version of recipes available there too.
I also like the cookbook Mighty Spice Express, by John Gregory-Smith.
I have a book in Polish by Bogusław Deptuła on literary dishes—dishes inspired by literary works, such as Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past—just to mention the most famous cooking inspiration for literature. I had a desire to bake madeleine cakes after reading Proust’s famous description of them. Madeleine cakes are a springboard for involuntary memory. They, in other words, are epiphanic.
TFP: In Contraband of Hoopoe, food weaves its way into your poems through the contraband sausage you’re worried about in customs or the idea of filling your belly with pierogi to your grandmother’s bigos that “smells of the Lithuanian woods and hunters.” Food is deeply connected to the place you are leaving. How does the food of your childhood ultimately make the journey with you to America?
EC: Food, again, is inseparable from the sense of belonging and from our identity. My grandmother used to chase my brother and me with huge chunks of peasant bread and honey. That’s how I remember love, as chunks of bread with overflowing honey and friendly nagging, “Eat eat eat!” To nourish somebody means to say: “do not die,” which in other words means, “I love you.” Here is a poem of mine written originally in Polish and translated into English by Karen Kovacik. This is, by the way, the only Polish poem that I smuggle—in mistranslated (by me) English form—into my book in English Contraband of Hoopoe, as my tiny act of contraband. Below is Karen’s version:
Rzeszów Ode I
Grandma of flower pots
dressed up in gold foil.
Designer of shabby interiors:
your hula hoop skirts lie
flipped up on the lawn.
Queen of the oven and drawers
stuffed with candy. Hysteric who scarfed
hunks of bread upholstered in honey.
Countess of church carnivals.
Czarina of household complaints,
cicada of suitors,
hippo of hypochondria,
curator of covert farts.
My posthumous bride
now interred in a vat of poppyseed:
How can I find you again
in the bog of this world?
Here is another poem from Contraband of Hoopoe, recently featured on Lauren Camp’s radio show Audio Saucepan on KSFR (Reprinted here with permission from Contraband of Hoopoe by Ewa Chrusciel, published in 2014 by Omnidawn).
Before I leave for America, my dad comes to the airport with a dish of pierogi. He entices me to eat them. His way of making sure I smuggle the whole of Poland in my belly. I am pregnant with Polish wheat, with poppies and goats. To feed others is to say “I love you.” Do not die. I sustain you. I give you a piece of my earth. The long tread of a farmer in a field? Furrows and raw wind? The hidden nerves inside each loaf? How this bread whispers. It rustles and creaks. A walk in the woods, the kneading and molding of your hands.
In another poem, about bigos, from this book, the food becomes a symbol of the liquidation of borders. Bigos is said to have been introduced to Poland by a Lithuanian Grand Duke who in 1385 became a Polish king, Władysław Jagiełło. He served this dish to his hunting party guests. Polish linguists, however, trace the word bigos to a German, rather than a Lithuanian, origin. The word bigos comes from the word begossen – to douse, as bigos was doused with wine. We also have an idiom: ale bigos – “What a mess.”
To quote a recent review by Karen Kovacik of my book, “The poem shows that what is assumed to be Polish can actually be the product of centuries of linguistic and cultural blending […] Bigos the word and bigos the dish challenge nationalist efforts to depict Poland’s past as monocultural and monolingual, when in fact, only after World War II, when Poland’s borders were shifted west, did the country approach cultural homogeneity. For centuries, Poland was home to Lithuanians, Jews, Ukrainians, Russians, Byelorussians, Prussians, Swedes, and more.” (Karen Kovacik, The Contraband of Culture: Polish Women Poets on Migration, Borders, and Language (Honest Ulsterman, 2016)
TFP: You’re reading a book of poetry and stumble upon a poem that inspires you to create a dish. What is the poem and what is the dish?
EC: To continue the theme of bigos, if you read the Polish national romantic epic Pan Tadeusz (full title in English: Sir Thaddeus, or the Last Lithuanian Foray: A Nobleman’s Tale from the Years of 1811 and 1812 in Twelve Books of Verse), first published in 1834 in Paris, you might be more than inspired to make bigos.
Here is an extract from Book 4, which features his masterpiece (translated into Polish by Marcel Weyland):
Pan Tadeusz Book 4: Diplomacy and Hunt
“In the pots warmed the bigos; mere words cannot tell
Of its wondrous taste, colour and marvellous smell.
One can hear the words buzz, and the rhymes ebb and flow,
But its content no city digestion can know…”
Another dish I would like to make is inspired by a poem and a movie. Osip Mandelstam, in one of his poems, mentions the Russian fish soup ukha. Here, ukha is the symbol of nostalgia for Russia.
This dish is also a powerful correlative for love and betrayal in the fantastic Italian film, Io sono l’amore (I am Love) by Luca Guadagnino.
TFP: When you think of food and poetry, do any specific poems come to mind?
EC: A contemporary Polish poet, Tomasz Różycki’s Dwanaście Stacji, translated into English by Bill Johnston: Twelve Stations. His description of a grandson taking a journey to see his grandma for a dish of pierogi is both hilarious and nostalgic, as well as allusive to the aforementioned national Polish epic by Adam Mickiewicz, Sir Tadeusz.
Also, there is a poem by Szymborska, Onion, in which that vegetable is an example of idiotic perfection and consistency that we humans, fortunately, as the poem proves, do not have.
A Scottish poet, Craig Raine, has a poem under the same title in which an onion evoked the memory of past love.
Onions makes me think about my uncle, who used to visit us and eat all our onions from the cupboard at night. Here is one of my first poems written in Polish and translated into English by Katarzyna Jakubiak:
An uncle from America paid us a visit
He was dressed in a tight blue container
Of a metallic flavor
It was the first time we’d seen him
Buttoned up, and the sight gripped us.
Right by our throats
Only his blue water lily
Drifted, unbuttoned, maybe somewhere
Else and not on time
Uncle would drop in unexpectedly
And in the night steal his way to the cupboard
To eat all our onions
This time, he dropped straight from his flight
In through the window and not without help
Because he was dressed in this tight blue container
He settled among the laborious
Plots of wreaths, maybe now
He was just an unknown
Instrument in its case
Later the men from the special brigade
Tossed him like a birthday boy
It seemed as if
He’d fallen from the sky straight
Onto a trampoline
And then got irretrievably
Here, the onion stands for my uncle’s idiosyncrasies and eccentricities; his ontological mystery, but also his mysterious death—viewed in terms of a musical instrument by the speaker of the poem, who is a child.
TFP: Do you ever find yourself influenced by food when writing poetry? Are there any foods or drinks that are part of your writing process?
EC: The ginger beer, Regata, helps me to be on my toes when I get tired. Sometimes a glass of good red wine in the evening is an inspiration as well. In mornings, mostly strong espresso, and a croissant or some other cake. From time to time when I want to reward myself for writing, I will have pistachio cream or Fat Toad Farm caramel sauce (made of goat’s milk) before returning to the ink well. If I am under the weather, but still want to work, Metta Tea (from Metta Earth Institute in VT), which has organically grown and wild-crafted nettle, milky oats, lemon balm, red clover, calendula, tulsi, sage, seems to help.
TFP: What books are keeping you turning the pages right now?
EC: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Polish book, Esther, by Stefan Chwin
Miguel Manara by Oskar Miłosz
Life Work by Donald Hall
TFP: Is there one dish that you’ve always wanted to make but haven’t quite tackled yet?
EC: The Russian fish soup called ukha that I mentioned before.
Also risotto, lamb roast, and Polish poppy seed cake (eaten during Easter in Poland). Cardamom Swedish rolls—I am a sucker for cardamom. Lastly, some of my husband’s grandmother’s recipes, for example zucchini bread.
Author photo by Bożena Boba Dyga
Ewa Chrusciel is a bilingual poet and a translator. Her two previous books in English are Contraband of Hoopoe (Omnidawn Press, 2014) and Strata (Emergency Press, 2011) and the third one: Of Annunciations is forthcoming in Fall 2017 with Omnidawn Press. She also published three books in Polish: Furkot (2001), Sopiłki (2009), and Tobołek (2016). Her poems appeared in numerous journals and anthologies in USA, Italy, and Poland, such as Boston Review, Jubilat, Colorado Review, Il Giornale, La Freccia et Il Cerchio, etc.Her translations of American and Polish poets appeared in numerous anthologies and journals in USA and Poland, as well as in book publications. She translated :White Fang” by Jack London, “The Shadow Line” by Joseph Conrad, and “More Stories from My Father’s Court” by Isaac Bashevis into Polish. She also co-translated with Milosz Biedrzycki selected poems of Jorie Graham into Polish.
She is an associate professor of creative writing and poetry at Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire, USA.