Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Alchemy of Pie and Poetry and Travel

Thanksgiving Pies of Holidays Past
I still remember how insanely proud of these pies I was when I took this picture three Thanksgivings ago. One was apple and the other raspberry pear. I'd just learned that using cookie cutter leaves and stars could stand in for a top crust if one's skill level was that of a beginner. Mine was. These were my first pies completely from scratch.

My friend Wendy coached me on the facts of pie crust for two weeks. Each morning, we would drive to work together and she would impart pie wisdom to me:  the use of vodka in the crust for an essential flakiness or how not to burn the edges of the crust by covering them with aluminum foil in the final hour of baking. Each day I would find yet another ingredient --- a half bottle of vodka --- before grocery stores were allowed to sell hard liquor  --- a decent pie pan (one borrowed from Wendy) and the aforementioned cookie cutters. For me, the hardest part of baking is often collecting all the needed materials so I can actually begin.

This year I will once again create homemade pie for Thanksgiving -- this time it needs to be gluten free. I'd like to think that after enrolling in Kate Lebo's Pie School last summer and "graduating" from the class with a golden pie of blueberries, butter, and other delicious ingredients, I can handle this. However, doubt has already snuck in. At least until last night.

Last night I had the great pleasure of listening to Kate Lebo and Molly Wizenberg read their literary and culinary work at WordsWest #3. Molly is the gorgeous voice behind the blog Orangette which she has been writing for ten years. This makes her an elder in the blogosphere. Kate's new book is Pie School: Tales in Fruit, Flour and Butter. I suspect my Thanksgiving pie recipe will come from this amazingly tasteful book.

All day I've let myself dip in and out of Molly's book Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes From My Kitchen Table. As she mentioned last night at the reading,  Molly isn't as interested in food writing as she is in people's relationships to food. I get that. 

As I read the brief chapters -- almost like poems --- almost like blog posts, I feel as if Molly is my new best friend. It's not just that we both lost our fathers at a young age or that we fell in love (and fell hard) for Frenchmen, it's that Molly welcomes you into her world. I've now met her mother and her father, know about her sister's scones and the fore mentioned Frenchman. More than that, I know that Molly enjoys cooking the occasional meal alone and that the recipes in this book came out of hard work, focused attention, and a little experimentation. This is a woman who is a bit of a perfectionist but can also laugh at herself. I've never read any type of cookbook where I learned so much.

Both Molly and Kate are combining love of words with a love of creating food. It's like they are collaborating with different parts of their brains bringing together the intellectual and the sensual in very tangible ways. I'm intrigued with how the writing feeds the cooking and how the cooking -- or baking -- fuels the words. 

Several years ago when I was working on the book, The Alchemist's Kitchen, I went through a very long period when every poem I wrote --- or at least almost every poem --- had some type of food named within it. There were French pastries and cereal boxes, lobsters and summer picnics. They just kept appearing on the page. I don't have a good explanation for what was happening except that I was falling in love with the sounds of words and I was also looking for a new way to write. 

Food allowed me to move more deeply into image and sound, into texture, color, and taste. Because food is also very much linked to place, I also could return to Parisian bakeries and West African markets. In Bosnian, the word for tomato is "paradise." In South Africa I first tasted patty pan squash, my first oyster was in Seattle -- or at least the first oyster that I enjoyed -- I think I can remember the exact table at Ray's --- but that's another story.

Here is "Food For Fallen Angels," a poem from The Alchemist's Kitchen.

Food for Fallen Angels

If food be the music of love, play on

Twelfth Night, misremembered

If they can remember living at all, it is the food they miss:
a plate of goji berries, pickled ginger, gorgonzola prawns
dressed on a bed of miniature thyme, a spoon

glistening with pomegranate seeds, Russian black bread

lavished with July cherries so sweet, it was dangerous to revive;
to slide slowly above the lips, flick and swallow – almost.

Perhaps more like this summer night: lobsters in the lemon grove

a picnicker’s trick of moonlight and platters; the table dressed
in gold kissed glass, napkins spread smooth as dark chocolate.

If they sample a pastry ~ glazed Florentine, praline hearts ~

heaven is lost. It’s the cinnamon and salt our souls return for ~
rocket on the tongue, the clove of garlic: fresh and flirtatious.

Published in The Alchemist’s Kitchen, White Pine Press, 2010

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