“Good poets borrow; great poets steal.” That nice morsel of a statement—attributed to T.S. Eliot and continually reanimated by creative writing workshops—has all the roundness of an aphorism that makes it just sound like wisdom. It’s a piece of advice I’ve enlisted on more than one occasion when trying to impress upon my students that it’s okay to have influences; it’s okay to be inspired. And I have to admit that the rhetoric of unapologetic thievery usually has enough rebellion in it to start shifting those self-identified individual geniuses over to the position that our art doesn’t come from some pure internal wellspring. When it comes to art, you get the ideas for your ideas somewhere.
Cooking, for me, is an art like any other. It is one for which I am an amateur, although enthusiastic, practitioner. I am always looking for inspiration, searching for what flavor combination, texture, or technique I can steal. The challenge for home cooks is how to incorporate inspiration into meals that feel natural and effortless for our limitations in skill, ingredients, and equipment. I don’t need to try to recreate the dish coyly but aptly called English Peas I had at Alinea, which was an absolute orgy of textures, temperatures, and techniques. (I found some pictures of what I ate here, and here, and here; it was a three-part dish.) I only have to take what I need, which in the case of English Peas was a lesson in using an ingredient in different ways on the same plate, highlighting various pleasures in mouthfeel.
What T.S. Eliot actually said was this: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.” For the amateur, this is all relative. When I make a meal, my only hope is to be inspired enough to challenge myself, to make my cooking exciting to me and those I cook for, and hopefully tastier. I don’t need to take on the whole history of the art. That, unfortunately, is the kind of hubris I reserve for poetry.
This long preamble is all to say Holly and I went to Italy. We went to bike and eat and drink our way through Piedmont. The whole time, I was taking note of what I could steal for my own cooking. That contraband became this meal shown here in the spirit of Piedmont I made when we returned, a meal that was as much a celebration as it was a lament for the fact we were no longer sitting in village restaurants, drinking local Barberas and Barolos, while eating local cheeses and house-made pastas and salumi.
“Local” really was the theme of our gustatory pilgrimage. Many of the incredible wines we drank came from vines we could see out the windows of where we were imbibing them or had only recently passed on our bikes. The food was no different. When we turned down a steep road in the Langhe hills, following our guides to the beautiful and rustic restaurant, La Casa Nel Bosco, ristorante in famiglia of the gracious Gianni and Mina (Gianni serves the wine and food that Mina skillfully prepares) surrounded by gardens and tucked into a forest containing chestnuts, it was no shock to find asparagus and spinach from the garden incorporated into dishes and chestnuts poached in honey smartly garnishing a plate of beef carpaccio that opened the meal. Piedmont, after all, is the epicenter and origin of the Slow Food movement with its locavore ethos. Our guide Arien mischievously joked that to call it a “movement” there is kind of inaccurate, since local is just how things are done. I should add that Arien and our other guide Jimi were incredible, and the cycling trip the DuVine company created for Piedmont is spectacular. I can’t say enough wonderful things about DuVine. We were in excellent hands.
In cooking, I often take inspiration from failure. This was the case for a recent dinner I made in celebration and thanks for my brother being in town to show his documentary film and to meet with my students. The menu that I composed arose from my love of reacting to what looks fresh at the market and also my obsession with transforming previous debacles into successes. The culprit this time was a terrible dish of pan-seared sea scallops with a lifeless rutabaga purée that I cooked for Holly and myself a few weeks ago. Why rutabagas? It was a whim. Unfortunately, the purée was seriously lacking in flavor and its texture was off. The scallops were prepared fine, but I realized that I only ever seem to pan-sear them and line them up on a plate with some sauce. The way I used them was a failure of imagination. Deciding to cook a meal for my brother gave me the opportunity to get revenge on those culinary flops.
I have a friend who gives a kind of motivational lecture about writing poetry in which he insists that you have to permit yourself to fail spectacularly in order to create poems that have vitality and urgency. Of course this is for the drafting process, where you perform the work of risk and error that will eventually lead to the finished poem. It’s a hard analogy to make with cooking if we take a single meal as the comparison. When I screw up a meal, I may be able to adjust and salvage as I go along, but if not, the meal’s a bust. The “drafts” I create in cooking are those previous meals with all their successes and disasters that eventually inform new dishes, new menus. It’s important for me to have these trials and errors, and not only because repetition helps in training for technique. They are also essential to developing your palate and culinary repertoire.
Maybe the analogy here is closer to what I heard another poet say recently about his creative process. He said that he likes to think of writing poems as something similar to the “Danger Room” of the X-Men comics. You’ve got to treat a draft as a place where you can safely practice your powers without the fear that you’ll irrevocably ruin the world around you. I wouldn’t recommend approaching every meal in this way, but it is important for me to have those in-between meals, those experiments and spectacular failures that end in exciting transformations.
My desire for a new way of preparing scallops led to poaching, although I have to admit that a crudo crossed my mind first. The rutabaga purée became a rutabaga-celery root-bleu cheese purée. Definitely an improvement.
When I was over halfway through writing the poems for my first book, I had the opportunity to participate in a reading, and I chose a selection of what I considered at the time to be my best—or at least favorite—work. A mentor of mine was in the crowd, and afterwards when everyone was hanging out and complimenting the readers, as happens at those things, he had some nice words to say to me, and then mischievously added, “a very avian reading.” Um, so it turns out I wrote a lot about birds.
I’m sure on some level I was aware of it, but I wasn’t painfully aware of it until that moment. I didn’t—and don’t—regret the flocks, the bevies, the congresses and murders and murmurations of birds populating those poems. I needed them at the time. Which is another way of saying they were an obsession. They had become for me a way of talking about some of the themes of that book. Birds were a vocabulary I adopted (and, yes, perhaps a rather conventional or at least traditional one) to express the transactions between an interior life and the external world, for the challenge of trying to capture a present tense that is always winging into the next present moment, for the anxiety over this here mortal coil, and the nostalgia for something transcendent. And in my aesthetics at the time—a kind of meditative poem that makes excursions into a representational report of the world around its lyric speakers—those birds made perfect sense. Yet, once I was aware of that reliance, I had to make the decision to keep trying to perfect and rejuvenate that vocabulary or to move on if I felt it was merely habit at that point. I moved on.
To put things into perspective, here’s a little obsessive inventory. In The Currency, the word “bird” or bird-related terms, including species names and words like “feather” and “wing,” appear twenty-eight times. In my new manuscript, which is nearing its final stages before publication, such words only appear fifteen times, and eight of those occur in a single poem, the most recent one I’ve written for the book. The words “bird” and “birds” were used thirteen times in writing The Currency, but in the five years since I finished it, I’ve called on those words only four times for Pax Americana. Part of this shift was a conscious reaction against complacency, but it’s more complicated than that. With new obsessions, I needed to find new symbols in order to communicate.
Here’s some additional counting: in The Currency, there are eighteen references to visual art. In Pax Americana, there are four. The Currency alludes to three films (and I mean “films” with all its pretentious baggage). Pax Americana alludes to or directly names seven “movies,” seven television shows (with multiple nods to Joss Whedon, Alias, and HBO series), news casts, and a YouTube video. Writing (in the form of poems, letters, philosophical and biographical texts, etc.) comes up sixteen times in The Currency, but there are forty-four references in Pax Americana (including a Wikipedia entry). It appears that I’m still using poetry as an interpretive act, but I seem more interested in how we organize our lives into language than I am in finding those meanings in the tableaux of paintings. I also find I’m reaching towards a larger range of experience.
Obsessions are often the working out of an idea, and they last until the vitality of that search settles into habit. An obsession in a poem can also be the way a poem is made. Every poem is an expression of what a poem can be. Eventually, you might just be writing a poem because, well, that is how you know a poem is made. If you’re honest with yourself as a poet, you’ll ask why you’re making a poem the way you are. When you stop being able to answer that question compellingly, it is probably time to look elsewhere for a new set of images, symbols, and structures, so a new vocabulary.
I’ve been thinking about cooking lately in these same terms. It’s as if the dishes I’m cooking and the ingredients and methods I’m using are a vocabulary for me to express what a dish can and should be. The notion of “should be” is an ever-evolving one. What seems necessary today won’t necessarily be so tomorrow. Sometimes I land on a preparation or flavor that I enjoy so much or that has a potential that has eluded me, and so I obsessively use it. Experimenting. Tweaking. Until it becomes a routine. Just a tired iteration. There was a time when what signified a side dish was a pile of roasted carrots and parsnips. Then, there was the age of the Brussels sprouts. For a while, purées of English peas cropped up regularly. For the past three weeks, I can’t stop making ginger scallion noodles. Besides, it would be a shame to let these leftover ingredients in the fridge go to waste.
Obsessions in cooking, along with their leftovers, can attract new discoveries, like a planet accruing satellites. The vegetables remaining from Valentine’s dinner sent me off to Nippan Daido Japanese Market in west Houston. They also encouraged me to try my hand at making a dessert. Thanks to the Eggs on Sunday blog, that dessert attempt was a success, and I now have something in my repertoire to complete an entire meal, from first course to last.
For Christmas, I received David Chang’s Momofuku cookbook. It’s a beautiful object in its own right, with its clean cover and nice heft, its great photos, and the book’s packed with incredible and inventive recipes and cooking tips. It also contains a compelling narrative, a memoir-ish, manifesto-esque meditation on craft and ambition, on tradition and innovation, and David Chang projects an ethos of unpretentious dedication to making relentlessly tasty food. What he says about his take on ramen could be a mantra for the book: “the most important thing is that you make it delicious, not that you make it exact.”
I could transpose William Carlos Williams’s dictum—“If it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem”—into the question: “If it ain’t delicious, why are you making it?” What connects the best crepe I ever ate, the savory Cuban at the Flip Happy Crepes Airstream trailer in Austin, and the best meal I ever ate, one at Grant Achatz’s Alinea? They were both ridiculously delicious. I rarely visit New York, but last year on a brief trip (like 36-hours brief), I ate at David Chang’s Má Pêche, and the food didn’t have to sacrifice tastiness to be inventive. I’ve spent the last month hoping I’ll be infused with some of that inspired cooking by experimenting with the Momofuku cookbook.
I can’t claim to have the attention span to work from cookbooks or to strictly follow recipes. Usually, I just use them for hints about technique and handling ingredients or for flavor combinations, but I don’t go off script because I think I’m exercising my right to be creative, à la Billy Madison drawing a blue duck because he’s never seen a blue duck. There are the more practical impediments of not having all of the necessary equipment or ingredients that come with the amateur home-cook’s kitchen and pantry. To get anything done, you’ve got to adjust. You’ve got to react to what you have. Or as David Chang reminds us, “Be resourceful.”
There’s a challenge in that, and that challenge is actually the source of innovation and creativity for me. This is much the same for poems as it is for cooking. The challenge can be local to the circumstances of preparing a specific meal or working with a particular bit of language; however, it may be more global, such as the tension between the new and the old, innovation and tradition.
Of course, a very immediate reason for innovation is novelty. We hate being bored. Surprise and whimsy are valuable for enjoyment, for being reawakened to the substance, the fact of something, whether it’s food or language. Roman Jakobson said of literary language that it is “organized violence committed on ordinary speech,” which is not because poets are sadists. Rather, literary uses of language can rejuvenate language’s meaning-making potential. To arrive at that requires that you challenge your and your readers’ assumptions.
David Chang is not afraid to question his assumptions. I love what he says about his transformation of traditional dashi—a broth infused with katsuo-bushi (dried fish flakes) and konbu (kelp)—into bacon dashi, which substitutes smokey bacon for the smokey fish flakes. Chang writes, “We respect tradition and we revere many traditional flavor profiles, but we do not subscribe to the idea that there’s one set of blueprints and everyone should follow. I think that in the questioning of basic assumptions—about how we cook and why we cook with what we do—is when a lot of the coolest cooking happens.” He didn’t have to completely reinvent the notion of dashi, but he did question the purpose and composition of it. The result of that willingness to question himself is this versatile and flavorful iteration of dashi. According to Chang’s narrative, it was a lack of available katsuo-bushi that led him to his innovation, but the solution is one that makes sense not only for him but for the American kitchen where bacon holds a consistent if not fanatical place. Bacon dashi seems so spontaneous but inevitable.
This kind of innovation holds sympathies with my thinking about the creative process in general. The appearance of something new and exciting in poetry doesn’t appear from nothing and doesn’t have to be completely unrecognizable when it arrives. I wouldn’t question my assumptions about what makes a poem a poem by presenting you with a toaster. The following Kenneth Burke quote has been helpful to me in thinking about innovation. He had this to say about John Dewey’s ideas on novelty in art and philosophical pragmatism: “The artist says, in substance: ‘I make the exhortation in the terms of what has already been accepted. Once these terms are accepted, I can go a little beyond them. But I shall argue only for my addition, and assume the rest. If people believe eight, I can recommend nine; I can do so by the manipulation of their eightish assumptions; I need not justify my nine by arguing for one.’” David Chang’s bacon dashi seems to me like a good example of manipulating some eightish assumptions.
Yet, when innovating, food still needs to be delicious, and a poem still needs to move you.
I like the challenge of letting a meal develop around a few random ingredients or even a single one. Call it the Chopped compulsion. Most times, though, it’s not about competitiveness, which is really just a competitiveness with myself, as much as it is about economics and circumstances: I don’t want to waste what I have in the fridge or I don’t have time for the grocery store. Other times it is the joy of novelty. Perhaps someone has given me an ingredient, or I walk the aisles of the grocery store waiting to be drawn in by what looks good or interesting. These ingredients are generative constraints; the places from which to leap towards innovation and surprise. As with the composition of a poem, I love discovering what I wasn’t looking for but what seems so inevitable and right when it arrives. In teaching poetry, I regularly tell my students, and remind myself, that you don’t need an idea to write a poem; you just need a little language or a little bit of structure to work against. An ingredient can work the same way.
This time it started with a gift. Holly brought me a beautiful pumpkin seed oil purchased at Zingerman’s on a recent trip to Michigan. Richly viscous and nutty, this oil has a color that appears to go from tar to amber to a corona of chartreuse. I wanted to use it in a way where it wouldn’t be completely lost in the background or as an undercurrent (like in a dressing), both visually and in its taste. I decided to keep the oil’s autonomy by using it in a soup, one that would let the oil shine on its own while still giving it the chance to be incorporated into the whole. In my carnivore-dominant culinary repertoire, I have few vegetarian recipes, but in the fall and winter, I have one for a Moroccan spiced squash soup that is a welcomed regular. When making the soup, I usually blend it partially, leaving chunks of squash and potato before I finish the soup with chickpeas. For this recent meal, I wanted the soup thicker to let the oil rest on top, so it was going to be completely blended. The chickpeas didn’t seem right, but to maintain texture, I purchased some toasted, salted pumpkin seeds. For further texture and earthy flavor, I crisped sage leaves in the oven for a garnish (first coating them in olive oil, then baking them at 325 degrees for about 16 minutes). I also wanted to balance out the oil by increasing the brightness of the soup, so I chose to add cider vinegar.
For the soup, I started with mirepoix, then added garlic, the cider vinegar, a can of crushed tomatoes, and a spice mixture of cumin, coriander, cinnamon, salt, white pepper, ginger, paprika, cayenne pepper, and oregano. Then I added butternut and acorn squash, russet potatoes, and vegetable stock. When finished, the soup was blended, and I stirred in heavy cream and a little whole milk. I served the soup with a drizzle of the pumpkin seed oil, the pumpkin seeds, and the crispy sage.