Thanks to social networking, G.K. Chesterton’s remark that “poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese” has recently been given wide, if undeserved, circulation; anyone who consults the Poetry Foundation’s online poetry archive will find his claim not to be true. Hoping to disprove any larger point he may have been making, however, we asked several poets to mix memory and desire — for food — in the pieces that follow. Bon appetit!
My father was as worried about me becoming a vegetarian as my becoming a poet when in high school I took to some inchoate form of dieting and started eating a lot of lettuce. “Look at cows and horses; they have to eat all day to stay alive.” This might also have had an analog in poetry: Look, you have to forage all day for words, images, experiences that give rise to one poem. What he didn’t know was that you even have to forage in your dreams.
A salad is interesting—aside from its wholesomeness, it’s simply interesting to your mouth. It means to balance the silky with the knobby with the chewy with the crisp. Like this:
And little distant fields were sprigged with haycocks
And splashed against a white
Roadside cottage a welter of nasturtium
Deluging the sight.
—From County Sligo
It’s no go the merrygoround, it’s no go the rickshaw,
All we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow.
Their knickers are made of crêpe-de-chine, their shoes are
made of python,
Their halls are lined with tiger rugs and their walls with
heads of bison.
—From Bagpipe Music
Yes, Louis MacNeice was probably a terrific salad-maker.
It was years before I understood that salads have nothing to do with lettuce, necessarily. When I was in Morocco, one of the less fortunate legacies of French rule was its mayonnaisey salades varieés. In the middle of winter in the Atlas Mountains, there isn’t much fresh produce in the marché—a few potatoes, cabbages, carrots, and beets. Some fine crypto-French establishment in Ifrane or Meknes introduced me to a salade I succumbed to with guilty pleasure. It really is awful, but it’s interesting to the mouth. To wit:
Raw shredded cabbage
A can of corn
Chopped canned hearts-of-palm
Dress it with copious amounts of lemon juice, mayo, salt, and pepper. Wait till the cabbage wilts a bit before digging in.
The best salads I ever had were in Lebanon, but then, there is no better food in the world, full stop. Sour Lebanese tabbouleh has hardly any bulgur whatsoever, but is comprised almost wholly of chlorophyll-saturated shredded parsley dressed mostly in salt, sumac, and olive oil. And for all that I love a good legume or grain salad, I can’t think the word salad without conjuring up the green kind. A salad of dill and parsley. A salad of mint and basil. A salad of tender baby romaine. Or chicory. Or—so rampant in Lebanon—abundant cheap rocket (what we call arugula). Restaurants would just set a dish of plain, undressed, spicy rocket on the table with the water glasses. The cheapest Beiruti eatery was in this sense as luxurious as Manhattan sashimi. In the us, you can’t get produce this good unless you can grow it yourself.
The Middle East faces a water crisis in the coming decades, in which case a casualty may be those lettuces I remember so hungrily. A few leaves of salted rocket—what I would give right now to return to one homely cafe off Hamra for that simple pleasure. (Never mind the cigarette smoke everywhere.) One of the few books in my parents’ house when I was growing up was a second-hand copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and I remember well the original Rapunzel story, with its pregnant mother who pined for rampion. What’s rampion? Whatever it was, it sounded like the most delicious herb in the world. Years and years have not eased in me a desire for that rampion—yet just the word is enough. When I think of rocket, I believe rampion underwrites it: rampion, rampage, herbiage, verbiage. It’s the greediness of plants for light; the helplessness of words to proliferate; the insatiability of the woman who pines for greens!