Poetry Takes Root at the Greenmarket

by Stacey Harwood-Lehman

For as long as there have been poems, there have been poems about food — odes to Bacchanals, feasts and banquets, and the libations and culinary ingredients necessary for the celebration. Toward the end of his essential The Physiology of Taste, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin writes that had he but world enough and time he would have included a “thoughtful choice of gastronomical poems from the Greeks and Romans” to the present.

I first discovered the food-poetry connection as a girl poring over my mother’s 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.

So it came to be that I cannot walk through a farmers market without snippets of poems running through my mind as I make my selections. Long before kale appeared on every fashionable restaurant menu, I reached for it having read Mary Oliver’s poem “Rain,” which includes these lines: “The kale’s / puckered sleeve, / the pepper’s / hollow bell, / the laquered onion.”

My file is thick with poems clipped from literary journals and magazines. It seems that in nearly every volume of the annual Best American Poetry anthology, there’s a poem or two inspired by food and cooking. When I teach Food Narratives at the New School, we begin each class with a poem chosen by one of the students and by the end of the semester, students are writing poems of their own.

It occurred to me one day that poems would make a lovely addition to the educational material on display at the farmers market information table and that I was the right person to make the selections. My proposal was readily accepted and so began the difficult but enjoyable task of picking poems and securing permission from the poets for their use. I’m delighted that the team at GrowNYC is pairing each poem with a recipe to perpetuate that natural alliance between art and sustenance.

Look for these poems, and others, when you visit your local Greenmarket. All are used with permission of the poet:

Small Potatoes by Terence Winch

We went out to eat.
It was like walking on eggs.
The waiter spilled the beans
and then we ordered.
I had the sour grapes
with the spilt milk,
which made you cry.
You wanted tough
muffins. How do you
like them apples?
the waiter asked.
He was the apple
of our eye. But every
thing in the end seemed
like small potatoes.

Terence Winch’s most recent book is This Way Out (2014, Hanging Loose Press). He is the winner of an American Book Award, an NEA poetry fellowship, and other honors.

Ode to Okra by Kevin Young

I like okry cause
it slips, said my old cousin
famously, & I agree —
all the more filled with awe at all

you can do. Wayward
uncle, you grew up like a weed
yet were so much my age I called
you brother — like an eye

or early autumn you stay
red around the edges
& still green
at the same time. Tender
yet prickly, you gave gifts
whenever we needed them most —

visited each summer & lingered
much too long, mooching
your way through.
Though some nights I hated you
to us, & yourself, you were true —

stayed stewed,
never fried — the neighborhood
drunk, turned belligerent
& too tough
if ignored. Still

you weep when stirred,
make a gumbo worth
fasting for. Seventh son,
pilgrim, you once were a slave
I heard, a language

smuggled here in our hair
to teach us home
& what freedom
wasn’t. In dusk
I’ve seen my father

cut you down — you, who
we prayed over each night
making sure, small
steady star, just for you
we saved plenty room.

from Dear Darkness: Poems by Kevin Young (Knopf, 2008). Kevin Young is the author of eleven books of poetry and prose including Blue Laws: Selected & Uncollected Poems 1995–2015 (Knopf, 2016)

Onion Delicacy by Márgara Russotto; trans Megin Jimenez

The syrup is made the usual way
and as soon as it’s ready
add dispassionately
from above
a blossom of butter
and when it’s just so add eggs, whites and all, and mix
everything thoroughly
and boil well
and sprinkle with a fine dew of raisins
and place on a sponge cake with its fragrances
and in the open air it cools a bit
and it looks so cheerful on the table there
that the first bite is always a sin

eat peacefully with a far-off look
and a pitcher of orange blossom water
and a little clove of cinnamon

Márgara Russotto is Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at UMass, Amherst. Megin Jimenez is a poet and translator for the International Criminal Court in The Hague.