Poem Sampler

Food poems

In honor of Thanksgiving, five helpings of toothsome verse.

Thanksgiving is about gratitude, family, and giving thanks, but it’s also—let’s face it—about food. To celebrate, we’ve dished up several tasty helpings from our online archives to savor along with the turkey and trimmings.

1. “Wonderbread” by Alfred Corn
Following a series of blind advertisements heralding the coming of a “Wonder,” Wonder Bread made its debut on American grocery shelves in 1921. Now as much a cultural icon as a staple of schoolchildren’s lunches—though, at long last, falling out of wide favor thanks to 12-grain and spelt, flaxseed and fiber—Wonder Bread (“Amazing that bread should be so weightless, / down-light when handled, as a me / dying to taste it takes a slice.”) still inspires poet Alfred Corn.

Savory Line: “And never does it not look fresh, as though its insides weren’t moist / or warm crust not the kind that spices / a room with the plump aroma of toast.”

Food Fact: Then-owner Continental Baking began shipping Wonder Bread in sliced form in the 1930s but reverted to selling unsliced loaves when metal shortages during World War II made it impossible to maintain the production machinery.

2. “The Invention of Cuisine” by Carol Muske-Dukes
This narrative poem returns to the era when humankind ate merely to survive. “All they have is the pure impulse to eat, / which is not enough to keep them alive.” The pleasures, the comfort, the tastes, the freshman 15—they don’t yet exist. But then this happens: the moment the first foodie “looks back once at the beasts, / the trees, / that sky / above the white stream / where small creatures live and die / looking upon each other / as food.”

Savory Line: “They are not very hungry / because cuisine has not yet been invented.”

Food Fact: The word cuisine derives from a French term meaning culinary art, which itself evolved from the Latin coquina, from the Latin verb coquere: "to cook." A region’s cuisine is guided by tradition, of course, but also by religious dicta and the availability of ingredients.

3. “Everything Good Between Men and Women” by C.D. Wright
“Everything Good Between Men and Women / has been written in mud and butter / and barbecue sauce.” That sums it up, all right, but there is, of course, a little more to love—and to food. Here gastronomic lusts lyrically express human passions, as well as laconically catalog the ordinary, “the off-white socks.”

Savory Line: “We have so little time / to learn, so much… The river / courses dirty and deep. Cover the lettuce. / Call it a night. O soul. Flow on. Instead.”

Food Fact: Oysters, chocolate, strawberries, mango, and kiwi have long histories as aphrodisiacs.

4. Onions by William Matthews
The elemental, the ordinary, the old reliable onion. In our era of faddish foods, it may not spring to mind as the essential, indispensable ingredient to which we owe our gratitude. But there it is, sliding across the sauté pan, sizzling in the butter, in the “slick / of olive oil.”

Savory Line: “How easily happiness begins by / dicing onions.”

Food Fact: It is the propanthial S-oxide in onions that causes onion tears.

5. “To the Executive Director of the Actual:” by Bruce Smith
“Is this the world, Miss Bliss?” the poet asks, then describes what he finds, paying particular attention to the means and manners of consumption. The poem lingers over the potluck lunch of the stevedores—served, unexpectedly, “with the pomp of the late Elizabeth”—while the poet sits quietly at a nearby table: “I turn out a little verse. I make a small sacrifice. I throw what cannot be eaten away. I throw it on the ground. Here, some things you can’t eat.”

Savory Line: “And they talk about food they could not eat. . . . They eat deeply in gratitude. The pot scraped with a spoon, that sound. The world’s a word, and a lever.”

Food Fact: No one agrees on the origin of the word potluck. It is variously traced to potlatch, the Native American ceremony in which the host family demonstrates its wealth by giving it away; to the late sixteenth-century “luck” of unexpected guests who appeared at mealtime; and to the “luck” of not knowing what dish guests will bring to a potluck dinner.
Originally Published: November 16th, 2006

Susan Hutton’s first book of poems On the Vanishing of Large Creatures will be out in January 2007 from Carnegie Mellon University Press.

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