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Food Poetry In the Kitchen with Poets

Poets in the Kitchen: Ewa Chrusciel

in the kitchen with poets

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:

Arrivals

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

Bounced off

And then got irretrievably

Lost

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.

Ewa Chrusciel - Bożena Boba Dyga

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.

Categories
Food Poetry Poetry Bookshelf

Ewa Chrusciel’s Contraband of Hoopoe

Contraband of Hoopoe Book Review - anneliesz

It’s not a difficult thing to think that at a poetry festival, you might hear a poem that piques your interest. It’s an entirely different thing to hear something– a way of offering words to a subject of already well-tilled ground in a fresh voice that makes you beeline to the bookfair area and snatch up the sole remaining copy of that poet’s book. And so it was that I met Ewa Chrusciel, first through her reading from A Contraband of Hoopoepublished by Omnidawn and then later through sitting with her words and letting them journey inside me. I’ve read this collection several times and each reading offers new nuggets of insight. At the heart of Hoopoe is a collection exploring the immigrant experience. This focus on immigrants coming to the U.S., feels particularly pressing and timely right now,  one to be kept on the front burner.

Food factors into her poems in surprising ways. Take a cue from the title–contraband courses through the pages of poetry too. “Gummy bears, the patron saints of contraband.” (p. 43). Smuggling is a present theme in the poems and an ode to sausage paints a humorous picture of what sometimes gets taken away and becomes lost. Because make no mistake, a deep loss reverberates as a steady thrum even though joy resides in them too. “Smuggling will not seal the broken vases. It will make your grief one hundredfold, and carry it into other griefs.” (p. 53)

She asks important questions of the immigrant: What do they carry with them? What do they leave behind?  Her series on Ellis Island sometimes is arresting and in one instant, “Ellis X” is simply a single line–a question not easily answered. One poem is simply a list of the names of “the Righteous among the Smugglers,” naming the Cracovians who hid Jews in their homes– inspired from visiting an exhibit in the Museum Factory of Oskar Schindler.  Immigration might seem like a contentious issue currently, but Chrusciel reminds us in “Ellis XI” that “Both Ellis and Alcatraz at first served as miliary fortresses.” (p.70)

Fear of the immigrant comes from fear of the other. And this is where, a re-reading of the Sausage poem illuminates conflict of two ways to define the terms.  When you survey the poems, prayers pop up throughout them whether in title, “Split-Second Prayer through Customs” or in intimate lines where the reader almost feels like a voyeur, “Convert me back to wonder. Cure my heart of such morbid desires to come home.” (p. 13).

Full disclosure, I have a horse in this race. My parents both immigrated from other countries and reading Hoopoe, I circled back to those underlying questions: What did they carry with them? What did they leave behind? What did they smuggle? Good poetry makes the universal, personal. And, Chrusciel’s Contraband of Hoopoes is a crucial body of work for us to not forget the past, lest we be doomed to repeat it. It’s an offering of understanding and hope. Its mascot, the hoopoe, “brings silence to the world of noises.” (p. 20)

Categories
Food Poetry Poetry

Sausage Poetry by Ewa Chrusciel

Sausage Poetry | Kabanos Sausage Photo by Mike Dent

I buy a sausage at the airport before I leave Poland. Kielbaska, kielbasa,
kabanos, kabanosik. This, my transcontinental dowry. The sacrificial
baby of my tongue. Foreign gods hover over us. If God lets my sausage
in, I will eat it like a saint wreathed in incense, circle a table with
Gregorian chants. Folkberg variations. The baggage carousel spurts my
luggage out. With an air of conspiracy, I transfer this sausage from my
carry-on into checked luggage. I look around. I pray for my sausage
while I move towards customs. The Angelus trickles. The Angelus
salivates. St. George is about to put his spear through a sizzling
dragon. My luggage goes through a “sausage scan.” Can an old sausage
be born young again? The officer pulls me aside. The officer holds my
sausage to the light. His babushka trophy. “It’s a sealed sausage.” I
declare with pride. I’ve brought a new species. “But you declared: no
meats,” the officer says. “Sealed Sausage is not a meat!” Sealed sausage
is a sealed sausage!” I say, as the guardian angels of my sealed sausage
swarm under the investigation light. The officer blinks when I repeat
with determination: “A sealed sausage is a sealed sausage.” He looks
blinded. My hypnotic alliteration throws him back into the waters of
his childhood where eels jiggle Scottish dances. Oh, sweet detained
sausage. Saint of arrests, pray for us. May my new species have mercy
on us. Escape at the borders. Oh, oven bird, whose migratory song is a
sausage a sausage a sausage. Dear sausage of martyrs. Sealed patriarch.
Let the Virgin Liberty swallow it.

 

 

Poem by Ewa Chrusciel
Poem reprinted with permission from A Contraband of Hoopoe by Ewa Chrusciel (published by Omnidawn Press, 2014).

Kabanos sausage photo by Mike Dent.

Categories
Food Poetry Poetry

Long Live Gastronomic Poetry

mark strand

Mark Strand passed away in November. Somehow I always expect there will be a flurry of magazine covers and articles to eulogize poets with the same kind of attention afforded to celebrities. And, perhaps that might be the case if the world resembled Brattleboro, Vermont where a stranger walked up to a poet friend of mine, delighted to have recognized him and asked for an autograph. While I didn’t know Strand personally, I owe him a great debt.

During high school and college, I coursed my way through reading poetry—either for classes or for leisure. At the time I knew I wanted to write, but hadn’t completely decided on the form. Journalism had caught me in its net and I pursued it, working at the school newspaper as a features editor, senior reporter, and at one point as an assistant arts and entertainment editor. I loved the pace of the newsroom and the camaraderie. We were a family of misfits who asked questions and told stories.

I could never shake that absurd desire to push the Word beyond fact and into letting it play and carouse with other words though. So, under the tutelage of Jack Myers and in a room right off of the front door of Dallas Hall, I met with other students to workshop poems and fell into part of a poem by Mark Strand that is all brilliant wordplay and keen precision. I would return to it on occasion if I needed to be reminded of how words can cut and thrill.

Years later, when I experienced a crisis of raison d’etre proportions, I came back to poetry… and Mark Strand. When applying to poetry MFA programs, his name showed up high on a list of my influential poets. That bit of wordplay worked itself into an anthem cheering me on as I considered the course on which my life was racing. And his book on poetic form urged me on to attempt to write a good villanelle and pantoum.

Poet Charles Simic at New Hampshire Poetry Fest 2015

It’s a strange thing to live during a time where so many celebrities exist and are venerated for just showing up while others hunker down outside of the wide lens and do the work until the right time for the grand reveal. I didn’t know Mark Strand but have long been aware of the role he and poet Charles Simic have played in coining the term, “gastronomic poetry.” Heck, he wrote a poem in 1979 called “Eating Poetry.” It seems as though we would share that particular appreciation in common if we had ever met over glasses of good wine, thoughtfully prepared food, and a short supply of the right words.

Poet Jeff Friedman and Poet Ross Gay

Last fall, I happened to be in New England during the first New Hampshire Poetry Festival. Without missing a beat, I canceled plans in Boston and made reservations in Manchester so I could attend. Early on Saturday morning, I sat in the session listening to Boston area poets read, appreciating the different approach of each of the poets, especially Wyn Cooper and Anna Q. Ross. From there—and one of the big draws for me—a group of us assembled around long tables for a workshop on writing in open forms with Jeff Friedman. During my MFA experience, Jeff mentored me and we became friends. His poetry is ripe with food and he definitely falls into the foodie camp. Later on in the trip, I visited one of his writing classes as a guest and spoke about food writing and poetry. 

After lunch at a local pub, I sat in on a panel during the New Hampshire Poetry Festival about the poetry of lost voices and how the poets approached the writing process, seeding research and interviews in the process. An international poetry reading followed and made me a new fan of Ewa Chrusciel’s work, plus I enjoyed seeing my friend Ross Gay and getting to hear him read poems from his newest book made the afternoon unforgettable, especially a poem about a fig tree. To close the festival, poet Charles Simic read from his newest collection, The Lunatic and from previous works. Quickly, I thought back to an article by Simic in the New York Review. In it, Simic described gastronomic poetry’s genesis, “Both Mark and I had noticed at poetry readings that whenever food was mentioned in a poem—and that didn’t happen very often—blissful smiles would break out on the faces of people in the audience.” It’s a rollicking, fun look at how they intentionally started adding food in their poems. He draws several comparisons to cooking and poetry, before adding about Strand that, “[w]e were just a couple of short-order cooks who kept trying to pass themselves off as poets.”

I never had a chance to meet Mark Strand, but I wasn’t going to let an opportunity to meet Charles Simic pass. And so, I perked up as he read from the poem, “O Spring” in The Lunatic, “my chin high / Like a pastry cook standing / Next to a prize-winning wedding cake.” Later on, once I tucked the book into my bag and pulled it out in my hotel room that evening, I pondered how a mouth open in surprise might find “one tooth in front / Waiting like a butcher in his white apron / For a customer to walk through his door” in the poem, “With One Glance.”

Poet Charles Simic at New Hampshire Poetry Fest 2015

After the reading, when a short line had formed, I joined the queue to say hello and perhaps talk about food or poetry for a moment. In answer to how “gastronomic poetry” came about, he described that one evening, he and Strand were talking about the universal receptivity to food in poems. “I had a cheeseburger and a tongue-in-cheek idea to write poems that include the kind of thing everyone eats three times a day.” And with that, I thanked him and moved on.

Writing about food in poetry is one way I stay tethered to the form. Then again, there is a poetry in food that is equally compelling. In 2007 when I started the original inception of this blog, I called it “La Vie en Route” and used it as a place to chronicle great meals on my travels in the food business and what I learned along the way during studies for my poetry MFA. What I learned quickly and informed the transition to changing the blog name to “the Food Poet” is that all too quickly poetry gets elbowed out for the louder voices in my life. To tie me to it, I needed an anchor. Fifteen years ago, I began working in the food industry, but my passion for food started well before then. To marry two of my greatest loves in one spot of the internet might just keep me coming back to refill the tank of my soul. Blogs evolve as their people do. Some people take down their tents, opting not to continue blogging when life gets harried. Others opt to reimagine what their blog space might resemble as they transition to new careers or passions. I am still pulled by poetry and food here, and also cognizant that giving you a thoughtful morsel means more than slapping a post on the site just for the sake of consistency (though I wish I could blog more).

For months, we have worked to bring a fresh varnish to the blog, knowing activating plans always take longer than you expect and that hard work behind the scenes can lead to a better reader experience. We have updated the website to make recipes easier to search and to put a gleam of polish on the online edifice. The sections have been broken out a bit with a left sidebar search that invites you to plumb the pipeline deeper– I’ve relished reopening blog posts from years ago, finding what is written must have been at the hands of another person as we sometimes rediscover in reading our earlier voices. I hope you will find it pleasing to navigate the blog and that you might even discover some new-to-you compositions based on the way we have categorized the sections. When you do visit, you can count on food, poetry, and art a la carte. I send the heartiest of thanks to Michael for the beautiful blog design, Jillian for the lovely calligraphic logo, and Stephanie for being prescient enough to pull out the camera one afternoon and convince me to smile without a stitch of makeup on my face. My thanks also goes out more broadly to fellow poets and cooks who find symmetry in the line and saucepan, who pursue their love of the craft diligently.