Cookbook Tried and Tested: Eat This Poem by Nicole Gulotta
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A Literary Feast of Recipes Inspired by Poetry
The succinct subtitle to Nicole Gulotta’s Eat This Poem tells only half the story. It is neither the poetry nor the inspired recipes that make a feast of this beguiling book but the magic that happens in the space between the two.
Could poetry be the new umami, a subtle seasoning that adds satisfaction to every bite? Might poetry be the magic ingredient, a hypoallergenic and calorie-free additive that will raise your cooking to a higher level? That’s a lot to ask of one book.
Eat This Poem is a small book, as cookbooks go, not quite pocket-sized but neat enough to fit in my handbag which is a good thing for someone who plans the grocery list while waiting for the kids’ swimming lesson to end.
Diminutive in its dimensions as it may be, this is a book with a huge heart and more useful recipes than many a glossy tome.
Eat This Poem contains 75 recipes, portioned into clusters of three or four dishes thematically anchored by a poem. There are 25 poems in all from such poets as Eve Merriam, Wendell Berry, Philip Levine, Joy Harjo, Marge Piercy and more.
In what must be the most enticing introduction to any cookbook, Nicole Gulotta draws parallels between food and poetry, both in the composition and in the consumption.
Gulotta aims to slow our pace and increase our awareness of the poetry in the thrice daily task of putting a meal together. Just as a poem is made up of ‘words in the best order,’ so a good plate of food is comprised of the best ingredients in the best order.
Like poetry, a dish is the sum of its parts.
She reminds us that ‘when we eat and when we read, we honour what was made for us to consume.’ When we are profoundly moved by a poem or delighted by a carefully constructed dessert ‘the soul, for a brief time is shaken awake.’
The soul for a brief time is shaken awake.
When was the last time you read a line like that in a cookery book?
Gulotta professes her aim is to nourish both body and spirit. Her tone is quietly sincere, not preaching but convincing in its ardor. The point is not that these 25 poems are the finest food-related poems ever written. Her point is to demonstrate how a small pinch of poetry might season your appreciation of food. These are the poems that have inspired her but she encourages you to go out and find the words that stir your own soul. Leading by example, Gulotta takes a poem, for instance "Mushrooms" by Mary Oliver.
those who know
walk out to gather, choosing
Gulotta offers a brief examination of the poem, turning it this way and that in the light, weighing the poem in her hand as you might hold a giant Portobello at a market stall. She then proceeds to cook those mushrooms, first a truffle risotto, next a mushroom pizza with taleggio, finally a mushroom and brie quesadilla. Nothing is fussy or high-falutin’ but every dish is enhanced with a respect and appreciation of simple ingredients which is imbued by a few lines of poetry.
Almost every recipe is accompanied by a personal story, an account perhaps of a wrong turn taken on a road trip or a memorable family meal, the banter you might have were you leaning across the countertop in Gulotta’s kitchen. There is a sense of genuine hospitality to this cookbook like no other on my shelves. There are no photographs, not of her dog or her baby or her fashionable food mixer, none at all, and yet I feel this woman has really allowed me inside her kitchen. Perhaps even more, I’ve seen what stirred her soul.
The poems are a mixed bag. Some, like "Burning the Old Year" by Naomi Schihab Nye, have a bitter edge:
Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
Others celebrate pears, potatoes, onions, the farmers who grow them, the baskets to gather them and the root cellars where we store them. Every aspect of producing, preparing, cooking and consuming food has been considered and given a moment in the spotlight of appreciation.
One poem, "Perhaps the World Ends Here" by Joy Harjo, left my eyes stinging as I looked around for an onion on which to lay the blame.
Pressed to describe the food in one word, I would say wholesome. The majority of the dishes are nutritious and designed to do you good. Gulotta’s recipes are straight forward enough for absolute beginners but still imaginative enough for the seasoned cook to find new inspiration. Gulotta’s grandmother was a food-writer which, combined with her Italian heritage, grants her the quiet confidence and credibility of a formidable pedigree.
That there are no lush photographs in the book, surprisingly, takes the pressure off. This is not a book about appearances. It doesn’t matter one iota what this food looks like.
Eat This Poem is all about how food makes you feel, not just in the eating, but in the cooking and, before that in the gathering, maybe even in the growing and beyond that again, in the imagining. We are what we eat but we feel it in words.
Poetry may indeed be a magic ingredient but the poems in this book may not be the ones for you. You might have to scour the bookshelves for your own secret seasoning. Eat This Poem is the starting point to an entirely different relationship with food. Food should be a joy, not a minefield of rules. Food shouldn’t be something you resist or give in to. For those of us fortunate enough to live with abundance, we should appreciate and relish every morsel. Appreciation, like tossing pancakes or making roux, is a skill we can learn. Nicole Gulotta is an excellent teacher.