March 21, 2021 by The Citron Review
by Eric Steineger
My wife is an ex-professional chef and author of a BBQ cookbook. She used to co-own a restaurant too. Some time ago, she parlayed her love and knowledge of food into a food writing career. She is a hard-working journalist who does a lot for our community, and she is an awesome mom and partner.
So, food is a big deal in our house, and we are fortunate to eat well. Our daughter’s lunchbox looks like something curated from a restaurant. A recent lunch included handmade spring rolls, local microgreens, perfect hard boiled eggs, and organic strawberries.
While she is usually in charge of dinner, I am in charge of the wine. We like to say that I am in charge of “logistics” a.k.a. alcohol. We are the kind of annoying folks that look at the menu first and then order the wine (pre-pandemic). I love to eat and drink. This is not a recent phenomenon.
First, context: I came to poetry late and after college. One day, I came across Gregory Corso’s Gasoline in a bookstore and was immediately struck by the energy of his verse. That led me to the Beats and some well-intentioned poetry in notebooks. Later, after my acting career ended, I started a new one: teaching, fueled by an MFA in poetry. Citron was started in 2009 by Antioch alums, and I got asked to join the team in 2012.
In between, I built on twenty years of restaurant experience—mostly as a waiter and some as a bartender. I worked at Joe’s Restaurant on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice when it had a Michelin star. French Californian cuisine. I loved eating through Joe Miller’s menu and talking about it with his regulars. I remember the California sanddabs garnished with tomatoes and avocados, best served with a glass of Chateau Montelena. The acidity from the chardonnay, which is more pronounced than in most California chards, cut through the buttery fish.
I loved the tempo of that restaurant and its intimate interior. There was Nico up front, a suave, affable Frenchman. There was Hector behind the bar, a man whose knowledge of spirits was encyclopedic, and there was Joe and his team who lived in the kitchen. The waitstaff, many of whom were actors, breathed food and wine and any one of them could look at a map of Burgundy and locate the Côte de Nuits.
When I think back to memorable moments in my life, a number of those moments happened in restaurants or someplace where food was present. Here is one from 2011 when Anthony Bourdain visited a Spanish tapas restaurant in Asheville called Cúrate. My wife had interviewed him, and I got to tag along. I wrote this poem in 2018 after his passing.
Letter to Anthony Bourdain
Whenever I listen to Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions on vinyl,
I think of you at Cúrate that night in Asheville, signing books
at the end of a monstrous line, five glasses in, charmed by
my wife who had interviewed you, who in her article led with
“I recently read the article—well—drunken rant in David Chang’s
Lucky Peach in which you, Wiley Dufresne (of wd-50), and
David Chang (of Momofuku) are all basically bitching and drinking.
Was that as fun as it seemed?” You, who remembered but preferred
to talk Stevie Wonder, the album she carried to store your autograph,
album that triggered the conversation that held up the line, your
expression, turning, and my impression: mansion of a man in a tall,
tatted frame of ruins made cool from bouts with fire, words, and
witness, what the French call témoin earned from years in kitchens
“on the line” like Eric Ripert and okay with that—not okay with
other trials: injustice, pretense, the Grateful Dead, apparently,
but hippies were okay because you were a hippy years ago
in Provincetown, younger than we were then, starting our careers
while letting go of some vices, and you, then, in Provincetown,
carving and dropping, waking up bleary on the beach, but on your way,
a trajectory pinching us now, the remnants of your voice
untrussing our need for a recipe when there are people nearby.
Bourdain’s passing in 2018 was a blow to food lovers everywhere. His book Kitchen Confidential was the reason my wife got into food writing. Thankfully, there are other food writers and food heroes and chefs who carry the torch every day. Jose Andres is one. Marcus Samuelson is another. The chef who converted her restaurant into a to-go bar to survive in the pandemic is yet another, and there are millions like her. I hope that more funds are allocated to restaurants soon or we might lose some permanently.
Food and poetry. Food is a kind of poetry: a synthesis of flavors, textures, and music. This synthesis does not have to be reserved for haute cuisine, either. There are taco restaurants and taco trucks in Asheville that are so good I have to make myself stay away, otherwise it would be embarrassing. Taco Temple: I’m talking to you. Tacos El Gallo: welcome back. Taqueria Muñoz: you especially. Your carnitas tacos, in the words of Al Pacino in Carlito’s Way, will make you want to “change your religious beliefs.”
This summer, I am going to San Antonio to visit my friend Alan from grad school. On the menu: you guessed it. And barbeque and Vietnamese food too. I want to visit the hole-in-the-wall few know about for a plate of honest food, sweating while I eat, standing, grimacing with pleasure from eating tacos on handmade corn tortillas with vinegary slaw and hot sauce and talk writing.
Food in Poems
Poets have been writing about food for centuries. One of my favorite food poems comes from the late William Matthews and his poem “Onions,” which was first published in Poetry in the late 1980s. Here are the opening lines:
How easily happiness begins by
dicing onions. A lump of sweet butter
slithers and swirls across the floor
of the sauté pan
Already, the sounds and smells of this simple act of cooking come alive with Matthews’s pen. This poem revels in the act making of food—in food as a lifestyle—not just a means of bland fuel. In food as transcendence. Anyone who can write about onions passionately is clearly a lover of food beyond having favorite dishes. Of course, few can write like Matthews. In this poem, one gets the sense that food happily infiltrates much of the narrator’s life.
I like how Matthews plays with sound in the first stanza and all through the poem, really, which mimics the sound of cooking and the way ingredients harmonize over heat. For me, the s sounds recall the searing of onions in the pan.
Notice how Matthews sticks with onions through the entire poem. There is only the cooking of onions; there is no main event as in “I cooked onions quickly to make way for the roast.” No. It is a celebration of a most basic vegetable; through intent and with talent, the mundane staple is rendered extraordinary.
For a family connection to Matthews and food and wine, you might read his son Sebastian Matthews’s poem “Buying Wine,” which can be found online. I used to work part-time at the Asheville Wine Market, and it is rumored that William Matthews once shopped there.
In Toi Derricotte’s “My dad & sardines,” the preparation of food is not the star, but rather the connection to her late father. The first part of the poem involves a reconciliation between her and her father; there is a poignant, organic quality to the first half of the poem (and the poem entire) in which Derricotte is figuring out the terms of reconciliation with her voice, a resonant chakra of the poem.
Whereas “Onions” begins on the cutting board and gets cooking, Derricotte does not get to food until later in the poem. Sometimes, food is the star of the poem or commands the most coverage; sometimes, food is a vehicle for pathos or realization. If we plumb the depths of our food memories, most of us can recall memorable meals: specific dishes, smells, or flavors that made us cry. But what also made those meals memorable was likely who was at the table—or who is no longer at the table. Here, something as quiet as a tin of sardines brings love back.
the first thing i want is to be able to
enjoy the little things again—for example, to stop peeling
down the list
last night, scouring
the cupboards, i found a
can of sardines that
must be five
I do not wish to spoil these poems, so I include only a few lines. What I will say is that tin of old sardines helped me see and experience her late father. I can picture his face and feel like I know something about his personality, his “… rakish / grin.” Food is the triggering event in this poem. The smell of sardines is distinctive and unforgettable, and so is her father.
In the previous two poems, food occupies a definitive space in the narrative. In “Onions,” the cooking of onions takes up the entire poem while the subtext is metaphor. In “My dad & sardines,” we come to food halfway through the poem and only after a realization by the narrator. In Harvey’s poem, we see food as inseparable from the daily phenomena that surrounds it. Food, while prominent here, is but one of many stimuli the author considers in her stream-of-consciousness.
Ultimately, the poem reads as a letter to a loved one who is absent at the moment, a letter she may not send, a letter that might be only for her. The poem begins grounded in physical imagery; movement follows.
Last night the apple trees shook and gave each lettuce a heart
Six hard red apples broke through the greenhouse glass
From such a beginning, almost anything can happen, and we learn about the neighbors who may not appreciate the curvature of the pear trees in the narrator’s yard, an ‘incident’ between starlings and strawberry nets, and finally the other’s letter. Miraculously, this poem evolves from a reporting of quotidian life into a kind of correspondence between neighbors, the natural world, and the two people separated by miles. Harvey manages a deft vulnerability in “In Defense…” The poem also made me hungry for fresh produce and fruit and lament the fact that our garden gets scant sunlight in the corner of the mountains in which we live.
Her skill with enjambment and transition is on display here.
It has always puzzled me that people coo over bonsai trees when
You can squint your eyes and shrink anything without much of
A struggle ensued with some starlings and the strawberry nets
So after untangling the two
The poem is written a single stanza and this excerpt is only part of it. Notice the middle two lines, how ‘a struggle’ speeds up the narrative by completing a thought while simultaneously beginning a new one. Harvey is no apologist in “In Defense of Our Overgrown Garden.” She understands that to have a bounty is usually a fortunate, wonderful thing.
Food Steps In?
Like many during the pandemic, I am considering my employment options. I hope to remain in academia until it is time to retire.
But there is also food and wine lurking in the background. Recently, one of my students asked me when it was that I first realized what I wanted to do with my life. I told him it took me a minute. After college, I moved to California to become an actor. I told him that while I was living in Santa Monica, I went to Wednesday night poetry readings with my friend Adam for years and realized I spent more time with poetry than anything else, so I might as well go back to school. I told him that if I had not gone into teaching, I would probably be managing a restaurant someplace and on my breaks, writing poems on the back of old menus. Didn’t William Carlos Williams write poems between seeing patients? It can be done.
Maybe I’ll get a job at a winery near Charlottesville and really learn something about winemaking. Maybe I’ll go back to school for a PhD while getting my hands in the soil. Maybe I’ll land a teaching job at a university in the Southeast. The future is wide open, but I better wrap this up because it is lunchtime, and there is some leftover gnocchi with local cheese in the fridge that is calling my name. I do not want it to go to waste, and I cannot return to Taco Temple for tacos al pastor for at least three days. It is better that way.
Eric Steineger is the Senior Poetry Editor and Zest Editor at The Citron Review. He teaches English at Mars Hill University. His poems and reviews have been featured in such places as The Los Angeles Review, Waxwing, Rattle: The Poets Respond, Tinderbox, Asheville Poetry Review, The Night Heron Barks, and Black Mountain College Studies. His chapbook, From a Lisbon Rooftop, is based on themes from Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet and is available at Plan B Press. He loves food and wine and hanging out with his family in Asheville, NC.