Posts Tagged ‘food’


poem is on wall next to window


The Bagel

by David Ignatow


I stopped to pick up the bagel

rolling away in the wind,

annoyed with myself

for having dropped it

as it were a portent.

Faster and faster it rolled,

with me running after it

bent low, gritting my teeth,

and I found myself doubled over

and rolling down the street

head over heels, one complete somersault

after another like a bagel

and strangely happy with myself.



The delightful image of a man chasing a bagel and turning into one reminds me of an old story my mother used to tell. Whenever we wouldn’t eat our vegetables she’d talk about her twin sister, a woman who was never mentioned except at dinnertime. This twin sister always refused to eat peas until one day she blew up into a huge green ball and rolled down the street, never to be seen again, a victim of the (self-inflicted) disease pea-itis.


I can’t serve peas without thinking about pea-itis. And I can’t pass a bagel shop without thinking about David Ignatow’s “The Bagel,” a poem I’ve loved and kept for a long time now. The way the speaker lets go of teeth-gritting pursuits to enjoy child-like physicality always makes me smile.


Which in turn reminds me of my son when he was a little boy (I’m beginning to turn into a bagel myself, one memory tumbling into another as I roll along this post). He went through a somersault phase in which he would only walk if he absolutely could not somersault. He somersaulted dozens of times a day, down the hallway, across the kitchen floor, outside on the grass. I started to worry he was going to be perpetually dizzy but after a couple of months he resumed normal ambulation.


Here’s a bio of Ignatow from an earlier blog post:


David Ignatow (1914-1997) was the child of Russian immigrants. (Of course! That Russian fatalism is all over this poem.) He was born in Brooklyn, and after graduating from high school, worked as a bookbinder and newspaper reporter. Work being the subject of this poem and of many of his poems, it’s interesting to note how many different places Ignatow worked in his life to support his family: at a vegetable market, hospital, telegram office, paper company (hello, Michael Scott), and several universities.






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poem is on narrow window to the right of the door

poem is on narrow window to the right of the door


The Morning Baking

by Carolyn Forche


Grandma, come back, I forgot

How much lard for these rolls


Think you can put yourself in the ground

Like plain potatoes and grow in Ohio?

I am damn sick of getting fat like you


Think you can lie through your Slovak?

Tell filthy stories about the blood sausage?

Pish-pish nights at the virgin in Detroit?


I blame your raising me up for my Slav tongue

You beat me up out back, taught me to dance


I’ll tell you I don’t remember any kind of bread

Your wavy loaves of flesh

Stink through my sleep

The stars on your silk robes


But I’m glad I’ll look when I’m old

Like a gypsy dusha hauling milk





Bread, sausage, potatoes, milk.  There’s a meal in Carolyn Forche’s “Morning Baking” and no wonder.  Food connects us to family history in a way old photographs can’t.  The touchstones of ethnic heritage–language, accent, music, dress, beliefs—may fade by second generation, but food remains, primal and pleasurable, inviting us to meet up with the ancestors.


Not that the poet’s interactions with her grandmother are all tea and crumpets, sweetness and light.  Family feeling is never simple. Forché wavers between disgust and longing, anger and love, feelings of abandonment and feelings of connection.  Even though she spends much of the poem accusing and attacking her grandmother, her admiration for the old woman balances out the anger.  Grandma may have beat her up in the back of the house, but Grandma also taught her to dance.


With the same mix of revulsion and pleasure, the poet watches her body change into her grandmother’s.  Grandma was what poet Grace Paley called “a woman in the old style.”  In Paley’s poem “Here,” the postmenopausal body pleases her to a degree uncommon in Western culture:


at last a woman

in the old style sitting

stout thighs apart under

a big skirt grandchild sliding

on off my lap a pleasant

summer perspiration


Forche’s initial reaction to such stoutness is more typical.  She’s “damn sick” of growing into a body she characterizes as potato-like, doughy, full of lard and yeasty smells.  But like everything else about Grandma, her body is a mixed bag. Far from losing her sexuality as she grew old and fat, Grandma was sensual in her beautiful silk robe, lusty with her raunchy jokes.


But it’s the strength of Grandma’s body, not the grossness of it or the sex of it, that comforts the poet and ends the poem:


But I’m glad I’ll look when I’m old

Like a gypsy dusha hauling milk


This ending sends me back to the beginning.  Notice that Grandma wasn’t “put in the ground”; she put herself in the ground, fierce and self-determining to the end.  The poet will walk the same path. The little girl voice who called out,  “Grandma, come back,” will become the grandmother she grieves for.


The poem raises (and there’s lots of raising and rising here) questions I can’t answer. Why does she blame Grandma for her Slav tongue, that is, why is it bad to have a Slav tongue? Why does she tell Grandma she can’t remember any bread when she clearly does? What are nights at the virgin in Detroit?  Pish-pish? But the longer I write about poetry, the more comfortable I am with not knowing all the answers. I understand enough. And that’s enough.


Carolyn Forché was born to a family of seven children in 1950 in Detroit, not far from the bakery where I put her poem. Knudsen’s Bakery in North Rosedale Park has been around since 1923, so perhaps the Forché family came here for a special treat, or at very least, drove past.  (Knudsen’s, by the way, has the best donuts I’ve ever had since I moved to Michigan from Maryland.  Light and full of air, they don’t sit like rocks in your stomach.  Great coffee cake too.)


Her father was a tool and die maker and her mother a journalist.  The grandmother in the poem, her father’s mother, lived with the family, but would disappear for weeks at a time without explanation.  When Forché was six, the family moved to a more rural area (now the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills) so that her father could have land for gardening.


Forché graduated from Michigan State and got her MFA from Bowling Green. After publishing her first book of poems at age 24, Forché went to El Salvador where she worked with Archbishop Oscar Romero, documenting human rights abuses.  The experience changed her poetry and her life.  Since then she has published widely, including three additional books of poetry, several translations, and an anthology, Against Forgetting, of poets who have witnessed the political horrors of war, prison, and torture.


She has received multiple awards for her poetry and for her work as a human rights activist.  She teaches at Georgetown University and lives in Bethesda, Maryland, my hometown, and once home to Montgomery Donuts, which sadly no longer bakes their glorious donuts.




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poem is in between the first and second boxes of Stouffer's Macaroni and Cheese


My pictures could have been more artful.  But there I was, loitering in front of the frozen food cases, pretending to read the ingredients in a chicken pot pie, waiting for the aisle to empty, getting more nervous and paranoid by the second. I felt like I was doing something offensive to my fellow shoppers or maybe even illegal.  So as quickly as I could, I pointed, clicked and split.

I really wonder where this one will end up


C’mon Pigs of Western Civilization

by Allen Ginsberg


Eat Eat more marbled Sirloin more Pork ‘n


Lard up the dressing, fry chicken in

boiling oil

Carry it dribbling to gray climes, snowed with


Little lambs covered with mint roast in rack

surrounded by roast potatoes wet with


Buttered veal medallions in creamy saliva

buttered beef, glistening mountains

of french fries

Stroganoffs in white hot sour cream, chops

soaked in olive oil

surrounded by olives, salty feta cheese, followed

by Roquefort & Bleu & Stilton


for wine, beer Cocacola Fanta Champagne

Pepsi retsina arak whiskey vodka

Agh! Watch out heart attack, pop more

angina pills

order a plate of Bratwurst, fried frankfurters,

couple billion Wimpys’, MacDonald burger

to the moon & burp!

Salt on those fries! Boil onions

& breaded mushrooms even zucchini

in deep hot Crisco pans

Turkeys die only once,

look nice, next to tall white glasses

sugarmilk & icecream vanilla balls

Strawberrry for sweeter color milkshakes

with hot dogs

Forget greenbeans, everyday a few carrots,

a mini big spoonful of salty rice’ll

do, make the plate pretty;

throw in some vinegar pickles, briney sauerkraut

check yr. cholesterol, swallow a pill

and order a sugar Cream donut, pack 2 under

the size 44 belt

Pass out in the vomitorium come back cough

up strands of sandwich still chewing

pastrami at Katz’s delicatessen

Back to central Europe & gobble Kielbasa

in Lodz

swallow salami in Munich with beer,Liverwurst

on pumpernickel in Berlin, greasy cheese in

a 3 star Hotel near Syntagma, on white

bread thick-buttered

Set an example for developing nations, salt,

sugar, animal fat, coffee tobacco Schnapps

Drop dead faster! make room for

Chinese guestworkers with alien soybean

curds green cabbage & rice!

Africans Latins with rice beans & calabash can

stay thin & crowd in apartments for working

class foodfreaks —


Not like western cuisine rich in protein

cancer heart attack hypertension sweat

bloated liver & spleen megaly

Diabetes & stroke — monuments to carnivorous


presently murdering Belfast

Bosnia Cypress Ngorno Karabach Georgia

mailing love letter bombs in

Vienna or setting houses afire

in East Germany — have another coffee,

here’s a cigar.

And this is a plate of black forest chocolate cake,

you deserve it.


Our western culture wavers between viewing gluttony as a virtue, in the mode of Eat, Pray, Love/Paula Dean/Barefoot Contessa, in which a big appetite signifies a big heart, a joyful spirit, a lust for life; and seeing it as sinful, hence our obsession with weight loss and disgust for the fatties on reality shows.

Condemnation of gluttony is nothing new.  Sixth century Pope Gregory included gluttony in the list of Seven Deadly Sins, providing painters (see Hieronymous Bosch here) and writers ever since with rich material. In The Divine Comedy, Dante confined gluttons to the third circle of hell and described their fate as such: “In life they made no higher use of the gifts of God than to wallow in food and drink, producers of nothing but garbage and offal. Here they lie through all eternity, themselves like garbage, half-buried in the foetid slush, while Cerberus, the guardian, slavers over them as they in life slavered over their food.”

Ginsberg, a most unlikely ally to the moralists of old, subjects his gluttons not to hell but to heart attack and diabetes.  He connects the excess fat, sugar, meat and salt of the western diet with violence, aggression and indifference to the less well-fed.

Old etchings like this one aim to curb gluttony with repulsive depictions of its punishment in hell.  The poor gluttonous souls are forced to eat rats and toads.  Ginsburg does the same by force-feeding us buttered veal medallions in creamy saliva till we pass out in the vomitorium and return to the table only to cough/ up strands of sandwich still chewing/pastrami.

But his sensibility is more Hieronymous Bosch than Dante-esque.  Ginsberg is having a lot of fun here. His exuberance and energy spill out on the page. The poem is an explosion.  It’s too much.  Our diet is too much.

Like so much of Ginsberg’s work, “C’mon Pigs of Western Civilization” is written to be performed. Listen here and you’ll get a better sense of the humor and the helter-skelter, stuff-everything-in-your-mouth pace.

And then hang a copy on your refrigerator for aid in dieting or Lenten sacrifice.

To say anything about Allen Ginsburg feels tired and superfulous.  Beloved by some, despised by others, he’s become a cultural touchstone, representative not only of the Beats, but of the LSD flying free ashram caftan flower power (he coined the phrase) sixties. Sometimes he seems more an historical event than an actual person.  Yet his life fascinates me (can’t wait to see the James Franco movie) and a quick sketch is merited.

He was born in New Jersey in 1926 to Russian-Jewish parents.  His mother was a sometimes-nudist and passionate Communist who took young Allen and his brother to party meetings. She was also an epileptic and a paranoid depressive.  When Ginsberg was a junior in high school, she insisted he take her on the bus to a therapist. She didn’t come back.  She spent the next fifteen years in mental institutions, subjected to electric shock, lobotomy and early death.  Wow.  He was just a boy, 15 or 16, and he had to escort his suffering mother to a prison of sorts.  I just can’t get over that. I think of the deep and tender attachment teenage boys carry for their mothers, underneath all their bravado and separation struggles, and Ginsberg’s childhood just rips me up.

Growing up in such a household, it’s no surprise he was drawn to counter-culture.  He was an outsider from the get-go.  Besides, he was a gay man back in the dark ages for homosexuals. At Columbia he met up with Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Neal Cassady.  They formed the Beats, the much-hipper and better dressed precursor to the hippies of the sixties.  You can see Ginsberg and the other Beats in a movie they made with the delightful title Pull My Daisy (shown here with convenient Italian subtitles), a movie that’s been called a bohemian Seinfeld.

Ginsburg experimented with lots of drugs but by the early 60’s found he achieved the same altered state of consciousness with meditation and other practices of eastern religions.  He stopped using drugs just as more and more people were starting to use them.

In 1955, he performed “Howl” for the first time. Poet Gary Synder characterized the historic performance as “a curious kind of turning point in American poetry.”  Kerouac described the evening in On the Road (using fictitious names) this way: “everybody was yelling “Go! Go! Go!” (like a jam session) and old Rheinhold Cacoethes (Kenneth Rexroth) the father of the Frisco poetry scene was wiping tears in gladness.”

The attempt to suppress the poem in an obscenity trial backfired. Ginsburg became an international celebrity, and “Howl” has been translated into 23 languages.

Ginsberg used his fame and his charisma to advance his political causes.  He was outspoken against the Vietnam War and an early advocate of gay rights and human rights around the world.  He died in 1997 at age 71.

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A short break from the cooking frenzy in my kitchen to complain and give thanks.


My complaint is with food manufacturers.  Every year more food items seem to be downsized.  What was 16 oz. is now 14 oz.  Besides feeling irritated at having to pay more for less, I’m wondering what’s going to happen to all the old recipes.  Do the makers of Pepperidge Farm Herb Seasoned Stuffing even realize that they’re messing with “edible archeology”?  (Edible archeology is what novelist J.L. Carr calls meals made from recipes handed down generation to generation.)


Moving on to gratitude, a poem:



by W.S. Merwin



with the night falling we are saying thank you

we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings

we are running out of the glass rooms

with our mouths full of food to look at the sky

and say thank you

we are standing by the water thanking it

smiling by the windows looking out

in our directions


back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging

after funerals we are saying thank you

after the news of the dead

whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you


over telephones we are saying thank you

in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators

remembering wars and the police at the door

and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you

in the banks we are saying thank you

in the faces of the officials and the rich

and of all who will never change

we go on saying thank you thank you


with the animals dying around us

our lost feelings we are saying thank you

with the forests falling faster than the minutes

of our lives we are saying thank you

with the words going out like cells of a brain

with the cities growing over us

we are saying thank you faster and faster

with nobody listening we are saying thank you

we are saying thank you and waving

dark though it is



Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


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