The Poet Tasters

by Max Watman

Mary Ann Caws. The Modern Art Cookbook. Reaktion Books 2013. 300 pp. $39.00

Kevin Young, ed. The Hungry Ear. Bloomsbury USA 2012. 336 pp. $17.00 (paper)


I’m trying to make Allen Ginsberg’s borscht, but it just ain’t happening. I’ve got his recipe: “Boil 2 big bunches of chopped beets and beet greens for one hour in two quarts (1.9 litres) of water with a little salt and a bay leaf, and one cup (190 g) of sugar as for lemonade. When cooked, add enough lemon to balance the sugar, as for lemonade (4 or 5 lemons or more).” I’ve got everything I need. I read the recipe three more times, although it’s not much of a recipe.

I have a soft spot for Ginsberg. I met him once, briefly, and as a tween I read Howl and Kaddish (in their original black-bordered Pocket Poets editions) with slavish intensity, over and over, wondering at the rhythm and trying to astrally project my twelve-year-old self to the City Lights bookshop circa 1955.

We should be hunky dory; we should be having Ginsberg’s borscht for dinner.

Sitting at the kitchen table, with the cookbook open on the gingham oilcloth, I started doing math and mentally making less borscht. What if I just made an experimental batch, with one beet? I imagined a cup of water with an eighth of a cup of sugar, a chopped beet, its rough leaves, and half a lemon burbling away on the stove. Ginsberg’s borscht sounds terrible.

Borscht is a simple soup, renowned for its curative properties and especially good for hangovers. Usually, in addition to beets, it has beef broth and shredded cabbage, maybe some carrots and an onion. Some people make it with beans, but I never have. There’s always a bay leaf or two and some acid from lemons or vinegar. Not four or five lemons, mind you, just a tablespoon or so per quart of stock. In places where they make a lot of borscht, I bet there’s a different recipe in each house. Borscht is as variable as chili, as red sauce. You make it the way you make it. You might make it differently every time.

Just don’t make it the way Ginsberg did.

The recipe comes from Mary Ann Caw’s The Modern Art Cookbook, which pairs recipes attributed to artists with paintings, poems, diary entries, and excerpts. For instance, in the chapter devoted to appetizers one finds “Helen Frankenthaler’s Quick and Heavenly Hors D’Ouevres,” a dish of cold, raw mushroom caps smeared with cheap red caviar, sprinkled with “parsley or dill” (this might as well read “something from a plant,” so different are parsley and dill), and topped with either a single caper or a drift of poppy seeds. It sounds far enough from heaven to make me breathe a sigh of relief that I never ended up at Frankenthaler’s house for the violet hour. On the opposite page there’s a painting—Summerscene, Provincetown—with a vague mushroomy shape in the lower right corner, but I don’t think it is a mushroom.

The advantage to the book’s format is that it allows you, after recoiling from a recipe, to gaze upon some art. When I concluded I would not be making Ginsberg’s borscht, I admired Vasili Nikolaevich’s painting Family Eating Soup, presented en face. It’s a very nice picture, with lots going on, and I’d never seen it before. I grabbed my pencil and wrote, under Ginsberg’s recipe: “I’m thinking this would suck. Should I correct as I go?” Then I closed the book and walked away.

When he asked me to cover The Modern Art Cookbook together with an anthology of food poems, Herb Leibowitz, the editor of Parnassus, expansively suggested that I tackle the former in participatory mode rather than review it straight. In a similar spirit, I agreed, reasoning that Julie and Julia-ing the food of artists might be fun. So I found myself with the job of cooking Ginsberg’s borscht. Or rather, I realized, of finding something to cook in the book.

Roy Lichtenstein’s recipe for grilled striped bass calls for a “large striped bass, 5 to 7 pounds/2.2 to 3.2 kg,” which is to be deboned and scaled. Someone might be able to bone out a striped bass and leave it whole, but it would take some fancy knife work—I couldn’t do it. It makes much more sense to cut out the filets, or score the fish and grill it whole, bones in. At any rate, I’m supposed to grill the bass for twenty minutes on each side.

The last large striped bass I grilled had been pulled from Long Island Sound by a friend of mine and weighed thirty-five pounds, give or take. Cooking it took a while, but not forty minutes. You could cook a five-pound fish over a candle in forty minutes. If it takes you forty minutes to grill one, you don’t need a cookbook, you need a Boy Scout manual to teach you how to build a fire.

I found myself wondering if overcooking was somehow Lichtensteinian. The painting next to the recipe is called Blue Fish, though it looks more like a striper than a bluefish. (The fins aren’t right for either fish, but the shape of the head and the tail is more that of a bass.) It’s lifeless, rendered in strong, flat blue, with a pinstripe pattern behind it that makes it look as if it were stitched onto the pocket of an Oxford. But to suggest that Lichtenstein took his cooking cues from his painting style would be to imply that he saw the world in halftone, and had conversations with people as if they were comic book characters. I can’t imagine that was the case.

I assigned myself the lamb stew à la Henry Moore, thinking that if these artists are taking cues from their art, Moore’s style should show through in his stew. Made with mushrooms, pearl onions, sour cream, and white wine, it didn’t sound all that good, and I balked at using the excellent shoulder chops I had on hand.

Bolts of panicked despair began to crack through my mind—would there be nothing in these pages I wanted to cook? Man Ray’s potlagel— a garlicky Romanian eggplant spread—looked straightforward. The recipe, however, called for cooking eggplants in a microwave for eight or nine minutes. The first commercially popular microwave (Amana’s countertop Radarange) was brought out in 1967 and Man Ray didn’t die till 1976, so it’s possible that this is a late recipe. But it doesn’t feel right, does it? Is it a surreal gesture?

A few recipes seemed promising, such as Picasso’s “Scramble in Sea Urchin Shells.” After breaking open sixteen urchins and reserving the best corals, one scrambles the rest very softly in a double boiler with six fresh eggs; then one pours the mixture back into the shells and garnishes it with the reserved corals and a sprig of chervil. I look forward to the day I find myself in possession of sixteen urchins, but even if I decided to use them to make this dish, I doubt I’d go to the trouble of putting the scramble back into the shells. The recipe makes me hungry, and it makes me want to eat with Picasso, a feeling reinforced by his delicious-sounding herb soup, the recipe for which includes the wonderful instruction to “put the radishes aside to serve them with salt later.”

That’s a three-course lunch I’d love to have: herb soup, scrambled eggs with urchin, radishes with salt (and butter, of course: I can tell from these recipes that Picasso is no fool, that he knows how the radish loves a smear of butter). We could drink bracing Montrachet, and eat outside, and talk about gambling.

In reading the recipe for “Brecht’s Favourite Potato Bread,” baked for him by his second wife, Helene Weigel, I have a similar sense of connectivity, albeit one less flattering and aspirational.

Apparently there’s a painting by Chagall in Brecht and Weigel’s last house in Berlin (now a museum), in which Brecht is pictured lying on the floor while Weigel hustles a platter of baked goods from an oven. She wasn’t particularly motherly in Mother Courage, but she ran their house and kept her recipes. The Brecht house in Berlin serves up renditions of her fried chicken to tourists.

Although I’m less adept at spotting the flaws in recipes for baked goods, this one looked off. Weigel claimed, in an annotation to the recipe, that if you omit the potatoes you’ll end up with Viennese Striesel. But in what sort of recipe are four large mashed potatoes optional ? Still, I decided to give it a try, though I halved it.

Pre-potato, the batter was rich with butter and eggs and sugar, and as I whirred it together in the stand mixer it reminded me of Dutch pancake batter, but with yeast. Adding the potatoes brought the thing together, and I could see promising webs of protein stretching in the bowl. The batter seemed more like okonomiyaki, though far too sweet and with too much citrus zest. It rose well, breathing and expanding in the bowl, its excited yeast filling my kitchen with wonderful, haimish aromas.

Yet it stubbornly remained more batter than dough. The recipe called for me to “make two long loaves” (one loaf in my case, since I’d halved it). I tried to form the batter into a sort of a bastone shape, but it crept outward, being runny. While the “loaf ” rose on the jelly-roll pan, it also expanded, becoming as flat as focaccia. After it had more than doubled in size, I slipped it into a four-hundred-degree oven and splashed some water in, hoping the humidity might make the bread crusty (as the recipe specified) and give some good oven spring. It was my last hope for vertical action.

No dice.

The pancake puffed up, but not much. The result was a chewy, flat bread with a crumb reminiscent of brioche. Too sweet and too stretched out with potato, it was heavy where it should be light, wet where it should bounce. It was a drag, this bread. How many potato breads had Brecht tried before settling on this one? How bad were the Weimar potato breads?

In her introduction, Mary Ann Caws quotes a passage from Richard Olney’s famous book Simple French Food :

The painter-cook analogy does not seem too far flung to me . . . Rules in cooking are not iron-cast . . . They are merely the expression of a well of experience formed and enriched over the centuries, reexamined, modified, or altered in terms of changing needs . . .

She then comments, “No one is claiming—who would think it?—that painters always eat well.” However much painting and cooking might have in common, a talent for one does not suggest a talent for the other. Can you imagine a book in which modern poets are asked for their opinions about pruning hydrangeas? Would you want to read about the fiddle music of neurosurgeons? The quilts of race-car mechanics? The favorite poems of cooks?

In this culinarily besotted age, that last idea might actually fly, but I think it’s safe to say that the results would be less than inspiring. I’m interested in what Gabrielle Hamilton reads, and maybe Anthony Bourdain, but odds are I can skip the favorite ballads of Emeril, Guy Fieri, or Bobby Flay. To flip the thing the other way, it takes only a glance at Claes Oldenburg’s Sculpture in the Form of a Fried Egg to convince me that I want no part of his cookery. I will take my eggs fried in fat, not irony.

None of which stops anyone from making art about, or writing poems about, food. Consider The Hungry Ear, in which editor Kevin Young has brought together a hundred and fifty-eight poems about food and drink. His selections are weighted heavily toward post-World War II America, but he also includes poems by H.D., Edna St. Vincent Millay, and even Baudelaire.

Young says some strange things in his introduction. I think I know what he’s getting at when he says that “the best poems, like the best meals, are made from scratch.” (Not-from-scratch food is equivalent to plagiarism and cliché, right?) When he writes, however, that “we know too well the ways in which our society has abandoned good food, and too often poetry entirely,” I’m left feeling that he and I don’t read the same papers.

I was at the 7-11
I ate a burrito.
I drank a Slurpee.
I was tired.
It was late, after work—washing dishes.
The burrito was good.
I had another.

Perhaps it’s unfair to accuse a poem of the mundane of being mundane, but I’m not sure this qualifies as a food poem. After pausing here, in this 7-11, to revel in the frozen burritos, I wished I hadn’t. I’ve done enough of that on my own.

I’d eat blackberries with Galway Kinnell, though:

I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strength or squinched or broughamed,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.

What strikes me is that the berries don’t fall unbidden— they are “almost unbidden.” There is intent, and that makes the whole implicit parallel of black-art blackberry-making and poetry interesting. Much more interesting, certainly, than Terrance Hayes’s “Sonnet,” which consists of a fourteen-fold repetition of the line “We sliced the watermelon into smiles.”

Like Kinnell’s blackberry bushes, The Hungry Ear does have some sweet fruit, nestled among prickers and thorns. I like Billy Collins’ poem on osso buco and I like having a Coke with Frank O’Hara. There’s good stuff on drinking from Larkin and Roethke, and I love James Wright’s “Two Hangovers.” The first hangover sounds like despair itself: “And all those old women beyond my window / Are hunching toward the graveyard,” the sufferer thinks, and he’s so frayed that “The filaments of cold light bulbs tremble.” In the second hangover, however, he laughs at a blue jay bouncing on a branch, seemingly abandoned to “entire delight, for he knows as well as I do / That the entire branch will not break.”

There are too many poems about potatoes—oh, you know, they grow slowly underground, you keep them in root cellars to help you get through the cold months, they can surprise you when you dig them out of the earth, etc. There are too many poems about fruit and vegetables. If you’re a poet and you find yourself thinking about fruit and vegetables, you might want to go back to the well and see what else you’ve got, lest you come up with something like Mary Swander’s “Ode to Okra”:

Take me in, sweet meat, teach me the secret
of your stalks, eye high by the Fourth of July.
Heal me with the nod of your leaves . . .

Here too we run into Allen Ginsberg, lost in the supermarket, braiding his beard into Walt Whitman’s. His 1956 poem “A Supermarket in California” is a pretty simple thing, full of his far-too-easy divisions of the world into the hip and the unhip, the gay and the straight. You can be sure that none of the “Whole families shopping at night!” stroll anywhere, definitely not down solitary streets, definitely not dreaming of anything. Ginsberg throws shade (or at least “penumbras”) across the neon fruit of modern consumerism, disdaining that which has replaced “the lost America of love.” If you happen to like grocery stores, avocados, pork chops, or wives, you might find yourself at a bit of a dead end, wondering what Ginsberg is on about. These pork chops, these artichokes, they aren’t food to Ginsberg, they’re clicks in a binary system: Sheep over here, goats over there, everyone who is cool please line up on the right, the rest of you can go to the supermarket. No wonder his borscht recipe is so bad.

Ginsberg’s dichotomies wouldn’t last a moment in today’s world. In California and plenty of other places, whole families go to Whole Foods to buy the talismans of their new religion. Perhaps it’s just as superficial as the old new consumerism, but passion and myth abound. There’s even faith healing. No matter what you think of it, terrible or wonderful, it’s no longer Ginsberg’s supermarket.

Our cultural moment insists on books such as The Modern Art Cookbook and The Hungry Ear, but they haven’t caught up to the reading, thinking public’s level of gastronomic sophistication. Three wheels are on the road, but one is still in the ditch. Young suggests we pay more attention to food, and certainly there are battles yet to be won in school cafeterias and at drive-through windows across America. But our poor diets aren’t due to a lack of attention. How many TV channels, cookbooks, and documentaries do we need? How many inches of copy must we devote to culinaria? Attention has been paid. And yet, despite our fawning over name-brand chefs, we still deprecate the kitchen. We consider kitchen work a sophisticated craft rather than an intellectually rigorous pursuit, which is why a book of recipes from poets and painters sounds less silly than a book on the paintings and poems of cooks.

Soc. Will you ask me, what sort of an art is cookery?

Pol. What sort of an art is cookery?

Soc. Not an art at all, Polus.

Pol. What then?

Soc. I should say an experience.

Pol. In what? I wish that you would explain to me.

Soc. An experience in producing a sort of delight and
gratification . . .

A few lines later, Socrates tells Gorgias that cookery “may seem to be an art, but, as I maintain, is only an experience or routine and not an art.”

Underlying Plato’s attitude toward cookery is the notion of a hierarchy of the senses, with sight placed at the top. Few have challenged this. Descartes wrote, in Optics, that “sight is the noblest and most comprehensive of the senses.” Brillat-Savarin alone cannot fight back.

With this in mind, let’s revisit Richard Olney’s painter-cook analogy. Let’s put a painter and a cook side by side. Both wear smocks or aprons and dirty their shoes. Both must master a set of techniques. Both combine primary ingredients in subtle ways. Both understand specialized tools and jargon. Both sometimes work alone, sometimes in great brigades led by a master. Both struggle with the tension between pleasing themselves and pleasing their patrons. Among cooks as among painters, there are traditionalists, rebels, madmen, and depressives. Just as there are cooks who aren’t at all aesthetically minded, there are visual artists whose job is to communicate simply, even bluntly. Some visual artist designed the stop sign. Is he so different from the guy who serves up smothered and covered at a Waffle House?

For proof that cooks deserve their share of intellectual esteem, one need only look to Massimo Bottura, the chef and owner of Osteria Francescana, in Modena, Italy, which has three Michelin stars and has been voted the third-best restaurant in the world for three years in a row. His book Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef is gorgeous. A large-format art book with recipes tucked away at the back, it features short, well-written essays about Bottura’s dishes: how they came to be, what the thought process was behind them, and who influenced them. In the accompanying photographs, every dish is dazzingly composed: For instance, “Oops! I dropped the lemon tart” lives up to its name, mimicking a shattered dessert.

Every page is beautiful, careful, and playful. This is art.

Another of Bottura’s dishes, “Camouflage: Hare in the Woods,” looks like a moss garden, or perhaps a golf course in autumn as seen from a great height. His accompanying essay begins with a quote from Gertrude Stein: “I very well remember being with Picasso at the beginning of the war on the Boulevard Raspail when the first camouflaged truck drove by. It was night. We had heard of camouflage, but we had not seen it yet. Picasso watched it pass with amazement, then cried out, ‘Yes, we were the ones who invented that. That is Cubism!’ The year was 1914.” The plate does look like antique camouflage, but in fact it’s composed of civet sauce made from hare’s blood, foie gras custard, root vegetable powders, Peruvian Criollo chocolate mixed with the crema of two espressos, and chocolate cookies. “In this recipe,” writes Bottura, “identity, poetry and rigour come together to recreate nature in a way that respects tradition, but without a trace of nostalgia.”

“Aha!” said Herb, upon suggesting this assignment. “You’ll cook Ezra Pound’s eggs!” He was mistaken. Pound’s “Statement of Being” begins, “I am a grave poetic hen / That lays poetic eggs.”

No one can cook anything from that.

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Publisher & Editor: Herbert LEIBOWITZ
Co-Editor: Ben DOWNING
Associate Editors:
Assistant Editors:
Design and Art Direction: Alyssa VARNER
Printer: Cadmus Press

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