Rhyme and edible reason

shabnam minwalla | Updated on August 15, 2014 Published on August 15, 2014

Roast beef on rye in New York's sandwich stalls was Paul Violi's muse   -  Shutterstock

Comfort in words: Soup was the greatest comfort for African-American poet Maya Angelou


Food poetry evokes images of roasts and pancakes pooled with butter, but it also says more — about the pace of a city, mother-daughter bonds and changing attitudes towards food


Is gharsley.

Ogden Nash wrote this memorable ode to the frilly leaf many decades ago. But whenever I spot a sprig of that otherwise inoffensive herb in my food, I can’t help but recall his pithy put-down. Just as, whenever I contemplate a plate of bacon and eggs, Howard Nemerov’s observation floats up along with the irresistible aroma:

The chicken contributes,

But the pig gives his all.

For the food served up in poetry — be it Thomas Lux’s rant against the “fussy, bitter, chaste, clerical” leaf of endive, or Seamus Heaney’s wonderful verse in which he describes a mouthful of oyster as a “palate hung with starlight” — is often as vivid as the dish on the dining table. A skilled wordsmith can cook up a meal as tantalising as any masterchef.

Which is why, food in a verse often tastes as good as any in the pan. Be it ‘The Ballade of the Glutton’ by Norman Rowland Gale, in which he sighs over “soused salmon and lamb and young duck and green peas”. Or Robert Southey’s ode to a departed goose that “wert very fine/Season’d with sage and onions, and port wine”. Or WM Thackeray’s ballad to the fishy bouillabaisse — a “sort of soup, or broth, or brew” — served in a French eatery. Or even Lewis Carroll’s delightful ditty to — of all things — green soup!

Beautiful Soup, so rich and green,

Waiting in a hot tureen!

Who for such dainties would not stoop?

Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!

Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!

Indeed, the best food poetry is able to evoke alluring images of glistening roasts and pancakes pooled with butter and drizzled with golden syrup. But it is able to use these glorious images to say something more — about the pace of a city, the relationship between mother and daughter, about changing attitudes towards food. This is something I realise whenever I revisit that evocative, hungry-making verse by Elizabeth Alexander about her grease-and-cream-filled childhood:

…Growing up

we ate turkey cutlets sautéed in lemon

and butter, butter and cheese on

green noodles,

butter melting in small pools in the hearts

of Yorkshire puddings, butter better

than gravy staining white rice yellow,

butter glazing corn in slipping squares,

butter the lava in white volcanoes

of hominy grits…

Alexander’s poem is not just about satiny, sinful butter. It is as much about the lost art of carefree indulgence. About the changing relationship between women and their food — a theme that is popping up everywhere, from self-help books to chicklit to serious poetry. In a poem called ‘Fat’, another respected American poet, Jane Kenyon, talks about friends who survive on seaweed milkshakes and vitamin pills, and then dreamily discuss sausages, purple cabbages, noodles gleaming with cream and chapatis fried in ghee.

Maya Angelou — the famous African-American poet, writer and singer — reacted sharply to this trend in her bitingly funny poem ‘The Health Food Diner’:

No Smoking signs, raw mustard greens

zucchini by the ton

uncooked kale and bodies frail

are sure to make me run


Loins of pork and chicken thighs

And standing rib, so prime

Pork chops brown and fresh ground round

(I crave them all the time)

Irish stews and boiled corned beef

and hot dogs by the scores

or any place that saves a space

For smoking carnivores

Angelou often spoke about her relationship with food. The writer had a famously troubled childhood and was molested by her mother’s boyfriend at the age of eight. The man was later murdered and the terrified little girl turned mute for almost five years. In the midst of this trauma, it was food that held the fractured family together. It was rich broths and nourishing stews that healed wounds. “Whenever something went wrong when I was young — if I had a pimple or if my hair broke — my mom would say, ‘Sister mine, I’m going to make you some soup.’ And I really thought the soup would make my pimple go away or my hair stronger,” Angelou recalled years later when she began writing books sprinkled with nostalgia, comfort food and her mother’s recipes cooked in a battered skillet.

Similarly, Julia Wendell’s poems are really about her bond with her mother. In the cheeky ‘Cream of Tartar’, she writes about the secret ingredient that goes into the feted cheese soufflé that she and her mother whip up:

Pot-holdering a cloud

of toasted soufflé,

its voluptuous body

billowing over the dish,

we kept its infallible, flawless secret

Clearly for Wendell, the bitter pinch of cream of tartar is a symbol of life in a quarrelsome, yet loving family, while for generations of Englishmen, cods and halibuts represented the comforts of home. Just as, across the Atlantic, for that ardent New York poet Paul Violi a frenetic sandwich stall captured the quintessence of his beloved city.

What’ll it be?

Roast beef on rye, with tomato and mayo.

Whudduhyuh want on it?

A swipe of mayo. Pepper but no salt.

You got it. Roast beef on rye. . . You want lettuce on that?

No. Just tomato and mayo.

Tomato and mayo. You got it. . . Salt and pepper?

No salt. Just a little pepper.

Sitting in faraway Mumbai, those long-dead cods and hastily-slapped-together roast beef on ryes, green soups and fishy bouillabaisse acquire a strange allure. Reading poetry can be a hungry business.

Julia Wendell’s Cheese Souffle


* 3 tbsp butter

* 3 tbsp flour

* 1.5 cups cheddar cheese, shredded

* 1.5 cups milk

* 5 eggs, separated

* 1.5 tsp cream of tartar


1. In a double boiler, melt the butter. Then add the flour and stir until blended.

2. Add the milk, a little at a time, and stir until the sauce begins to thicken. Add the cheese, stir, and remove from the heat.

3. Beat the egg yolks until light. Add to cheese sauce that has been allowed to cool slightly. Beat whites until stiff but not dry. Fold in cream of tartar.

4. Blend cheese mixture into whites. Pour mixture into a greased ceramic deep dish and place the dish in an ovenproof pan that has about half an inch of boiling water added to it. Place dish and pan in middle rack of oven. Cook at 350oC for about one hour or until soufflé has risen and crust has browned and a knife inserted in centre comes out clean.

5. Do not open the oven door while cooking. Only check at the end of the hour. If the pan runs out of water within the cycle of cooking, open the oven door once to add a little more boiling water.

(This is part of a monthly series that follows a food trail through the realm of fiction.)

( Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author of The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street)

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Published on August 15, 2014
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