Scratch a poet, find a gourmand. Every aspect of gastronomy, from planting to harvest to cooking to eating, has inspired poets for centuries; poets are sensualists, and these are among life’s most sensual experiences.
Like much gastronomical writing, poetry about food is often about something else: memory, sex, joy, love, shame, longing, loss. The simple detail of food can concentrate the emotion in a poem, like the couple cooking for themselves alone in William Matthews’ Misgivings. A food reference can quicken our most primitive emotions: Keats’s stanza-long description of wine, “Tasting of Flora and the country-green, / Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!” makes longing palpable.
I first discovered the food-poetry alliance as a girl poring over my mother’s 1948 Culinary Arts Institute Encyclopedic Cookbook with rhymes as mnemonics for the inexperienced housewife. “See what results if the oven’s too hot / decreased volume and over-brown top” accompanies a picture of failed homemade bread. I’ve been collecting food poems ever since.
It’s tough to narrow down a near lifetime of collecting to a short list of my favorite food poems—those that “take the top of my head off,” as baker extraordinaire Emily Dickinson would say. I’ve left out poems that have been published widely, as well as epic poems (Homer’s Odyssey, Lord Byron’s Don Juan to name a few) though they include some of my favorite descriptions of feasts. Here, then, is a bakers’ dozen of my favorite food poems:
1. The Salad by Virgil (70 BC-September 21, 19 BC)
Scholars argue about the authorship of this poem, but none disagree that this account of a ploughman’s labors contains a recipe for pesto that any contemporary purist would approve of: Having tossed garlic and herbs from his garden into his mortar, the ploughman clutches his pestle as his “hand in circles move: / Till by degrees they one by one do lose / Their proper powers, and out of many comes / A single color.”
2. Inviting a Friend to Supper by Ben Jonson (1572-1637)
“Tonight, grave Sir, both my poor house, and I / Do equally desire your company;” Thus begins Jonson’s witty verse invitation to a feast of seasonal, affordable food and civil discourse. Dinner comprises salad, mutton, poultry, rabbit, game birds, cheese, and wine. “At our parting we will be as when / We innocently met. No simple word / Shall make us sad next morning or afright / The liberty that we’ll enjoy tonight.”
Coolness of the melons
flecked with mud
in the morning dew.
(tr. Robert Hass)Read the full poem »
4. Tonight at 7:30 by W. H. Auden (1907-1973)**
Auden considered M.F.K. Fisher to be one of our greatest writers. Tonight at 7:30 is his nod to Fisher’s prescription for gastronomical perfection laid out in The Art of Eating, which details how to choose the right guests for a dinner party, among many other pearls of gastronomic wisdom. Auden writes: “a dinner party, however select, / is a worldly rite that nicknames or endearments / or family diminutives would profane: two doters who wish to tiddle and curmurr between the soup and fish / belong in restaurants, all children should be fed / earlier and be safely in bed.” Good to know!
5. A Miracle for Breakfast by Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)
I love the magic Bishop creates with the simple repetition of the words crumb, river, sunlight, coffee, balcony, and miracle throughout this sestina. The crumb in the first stanza morphs into a roll, then a buttered loaf, and finally “my mansion, made for me by a miracle, / through ages, by insects, birds, and the river / working the stone.” Likewise, the coffee is by turns a drop, a cup, and gallons. Bishop herself was an accomplished cook. “As a cook I feel I should tell you that soured milk is NOT junket,” she once wrote to Robert Lowell.
Credit: Hiroko Ishikawa
6. Strawberrying by May Swenson (1913-1989)
If you’ve gone strawberry picking at season’s height, you’ve likely behaved as the speaker of this poem, whose “hands are murder-red” that “pick handfuls of rich scarlets, half / for the baskets, half for avid mouths.” This seasonal ritual becomes savage in the hands of one of our most illustrious poets, who would have been 100 this year.
7. Crazy About Her Shrimp by Charles Simic (b. 1938)
“No sooner have we made love / Than we are back in the kitchen. / While I chop the hot peppers, / She wiggles her ass / And stirs the shrimp on the stove.” Food, sex, joy, love; it’s all here in Simic’s post-coital romp.
**8. Chocolate Milk by Ron Padgett (b. 1942)
** All it takes is nine brief exuberant lines to be reminded of how easy it is to make a loved one happy.
Oh God! It’s great!
to have someone fix you
and to appreciate their doing it!
Read the full poem »
10. Counterman by Paul Violi (1944-2011)**
Violi captures a quintessential NYC moment in a hilarious exchange between a customer and the coarse sandwich-maker who doesn’t miss a beat when asked for a roast beef sandwich with
The lettuce splayed, if you will,
In a Beaux Arts derivative of classical acanthus,
And the roast beef, thinly sliced, folded
In a multi-foil arrangement
That eschews Bragdonian pretensions
Read the full poem »
11. Da Capo by Jane Hirshfield (b.1953), Ode to Gumbo Kevin Young (b. 1971)**
Hirshfield earned her cooking chops at the famed San Francisco restaurant Greens. From having dined with Young during the annual Decatur, GA book festival, I can vouch for his robust epicurianism. Both poems are about the curative power of preparing a simple meal. “Eat,” writes Hirshfield. “You may do this, I tell you.” “So why not / make a soup / of what’s left?” asks Young, following weeks of grief. Hirshfield tells me you can find the recipe for lentil-chestnut soup in Deborah Madison’s The Savory Way.
Read the full poem by Hirshfield »
Read the full poem by Young »[
12. ](http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-7H6SnBvVtQ)Tulip by Denise Duhamel’s (b.1961)
Whenever I read this poem I’m reminded of the cruel asceticism preached by fashion magazines. “If you must eat pasta, you should never eat more / than a tulip-sized amount, your meat never bigger / than a deck of cards. I was ashamed of my past— /my big bowl of noodles with butter melted on top, / two dozen tulips at least.” More, please.
13. Hot by Craig Arnold (1967-2009)
Arnold, an expert cook, explores the shifting nature of friendship and desire in Hot, his poem that appeared in The Best American Poetry 1998. “I’m cooking Thai—you bring the beer,” begins the poem, which tells the story of a man burned from within by his need for hotter and hotter food. “I won’t be hurt / / if you don’t want seconds. It’s not as hot / as I would like to make it, but // you always were a bit of a lightweight. / Here, it’s finished, try a bite.
Stacey Harwood is the managing editor of Best American Poetry blog as well as a policy analyst for the New York State Public Service Commission. Her work has been published in The LA Times, Michigan Quarterly Review, Humor, Lit, and elsewhere. Her previous work for Saveur has covered classic cocktails, wine and spirits, as well as travel in Michigan.