Three unique cookbooks reflect far more than food or merely recipes. “Cooking with the Muse” by Myra Kornfeld and Stephen Massimilla probes the historic compatibility of poetry and the culinary arts; Joan Nathan’s “King Solomon’s Table” takes us on a fascinating gastronomic journey crossing continents and centuries; while author David McAninch in “Duck Season: Eating, Drinking, and Other Misadventures in Gascony” stimulates our most lustful pleasures, namely, the discovery of a new place through its cuisine. Each in this ripe crop of recent arrivals, sports its own brand of culinary travel – through literature, through historical events, through cultural affiliation. And there are some wonderful recipes, too.
One recent night at the wonderfully eccentric Bowery Poetry Club in New York City, Cooking with the Muse: A Sumptuous Gathering of Seasonal Recipes, Culinary Poetry, and Literary Fare (Tupelo Press, North Adams, MA 2016) made its poetry debut. On stage, the authors of a voluminous cookbook, acted as each other’s muse – one incanting historical references to poetry and lore while the other (Myra, a well-known chef in the city) tried her hand at reciting poetry and making connections between the two art forms. They had me at “self-reflection begins in the kitchen.”
As a professional chef (and home cook) for forty years, I understood the power of this simple declaration. I sat up straight (with a glass of cab and some very tasty morsels from the book’s recipes), and listened as other bon mots emerged — “Food, and words, can nourish all aspects of our inner and outer lives;” “today, there is a cross-fertilization of culinary cultures;” “poetry and food are for everyone… they possess a seat at the common table.” Cooking with the Muse shows how poetry and food are connected by the cycles of nature, the seasons, the landscape; the stuff poets write about. There are scads of poems by iconic writers like Pablo Neruda, William Carlos Williams, Seamus Heaney, Galway Kinnell, Jane Hirschfeld, Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver, Keats, Whitman and Thoreau: and Stephen Massimilla, a professor and accomplished poet, brings much of his own work to the party. One must read Stephen’s “My Dirty Chai,” or Coleman Barks’ translation of Rumi’s “Chickpea to Cook,” or Wallace Steven’s “Study of Two Pears.” Myra’s banquet of original and sumptuous recipes speaks to the poet in all of us.