The day after

For some reason I don't really want to think about too hard, I am not hung over today but Billy Collins, at some point (I think it was yesterday) read a poem called The Hangover which included the most poetic rendering of the children's pool game Marco Polo one could imagine. You should look it up, or better, find a recording of Billy reading it. It's entirely possible you will find such a recording in the near future on Littoral, The Key West Literary Seminar's entirely excellent blog. At least I hope so.

In the meantime I can now recite from memory the poem Bacon and Eggs by Howard Nemerov, like Billy a two-time Poet Laureate and apparently like Billy a funny guy, too. This is the entire text:

The chicken contributes

But the pig gives its all.

It's a good poem and it bore repeated recitation, along with Roy Blount, Jr.'s poem Oysters, of which I cannot recite the entire text though I do know the last lines:

I prefer my oysters fried

That way I know the oyster's died.

A sentiment with which I agree after reading The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky, in which he reports that if you have to shuck an oyster, it's alive (once it's dead, it relaxes the ligament holding the two sides of the shell together). I always liked them Florentine anyway, plus that way you don't have to worry about that pesky liver thing that can kill you.

All of which is to say, I learned a lot over the last 10 days and had a great time, too. It was cool to see New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik in action -- if you weren't at his keynote you'll just have to wait for the podcast because there's no way I could possibly describe it except as a cultural history of the concept of taste. My take-home from that talk: E Pluribus Unum, our national motto until 1956 when they replaced it with In God We Trust, came from a recipe. Pretty cool. (June 10 update: It's here! Download now for your auditory enlightenment!)

As usual, the Seminar makes me want to read almost every book by almost every writer who appeared, but this year's Seminar had the added effect of also making me want to eat almost everything described (except the human lung mucus from "Alive" -- thank you, Kate Christensen!) and cook almost everything, too. I had been wavering the entire time about buying American Food Writing, Molly O'Neill's anthology published by the Library of America. I knew we had it in the library collection but I also knew that you don't just check an anthology out of the library for two weeks and read it straight through; you dip in and out as the mood strikes you. The factor that put me over the edge yesterday was that it includes recipes, including James Beard's recipe for Beef Stroganoff, which seemed to come up multiple times. I might even attempt the damned thing.

Here, in no particular order except roughly chronological, are some of my highlights from the second session of the Seminar. Despite having a number of panelists (or seminarians, as Adam Gopnik suggested we call them) in common, it was very different -- but both were excellent.

  • "The key to writing is to take the mental task and turn it into a physical task." -- Adam Gopnik, during a panel that compared cooking and writing
  • "One advantage pro cooks have over pro writers is they get to yell at people." -- Gopnik again
  • "It's a really dangerous moment when you sate the desire in a piece. I always feel like I've lost the reader and it's time to do the dishes." -- Molly O'Neill
  • "Obsession is required" in cooking and writing -- Michael Ruhlman. Also, he notes, an immense capacity for repetition, aka practice
  • Kate Christensen said she always notices a novel's "prandial plot" and "I hate novels that have no food in them."
  • "Our relationship to food is revealing of our characters in the way that nothing else is." -- Christensen again
  • On the page, "food isn't a metaphor. It's a thing in itself that explodes in the verbal part of your brain." -- Christensen a third time
  • Take This Job and Shove It is "a ditty disappointed in itself" -- from Kevin Young's poem "On Being The Only Black Man At A Johnny Paycheck Concert"
  • "Food is what distinguishes us as human beings, cooked food." -- Michael Ruhlman
  • "If my peaches are successful, they are no longer mine." -- David Mas Masumoto, organic peach farmer and essayist
  • "When you grow thousands of peaches, you don't bother sucking on the pit." -- Mas again
  • "Without me, you would never have seen the poem 'Nebraskans eat their weiners.' " -- Mark Kurlansky, discussing "The Food of a Younger Land," the collection of WPA food writing from 1940
  • "Locavore is a movement today. It was a way of life then. You had no choice." -- Kurlansky again
  • The reason French food culture is so much better than English food culture is red wine, according to Adam Gopnik. "I don't think a beer and whiskey culture will ever have quite that same relationship to its food as a red wine culture."
  • Gopnik recommends "The Feasts of Autolycus: The Diary of A Greedy Woman," published in 1900 by Elizabeth Robbins Pennell, saying that "a woman writing about her right to be greedy is writing about her right be sexy, to have sex."
  • "Catullus would have loved Facebook. He would have been on there all the time." -- Billy Collins
  • "Sometimes you write a poem because you don't want eating alone one night in Pittsburgh to come to nothing." -- Collins again, discussing his poem "The Fish."
  • "Fat is good!" -- the refrain Michael Ruhlman had the entire auditorium calling out. "Salt and fat are two of my great passions."
  • "Food is about generosity, not about withholding." -- Ruhlman again
  • It turns out a buckeye is, in addition to being some kind of hard little nut, a delicious candy made with peanut butter surrounded by chocolate, a big favorite in Ohio. I had no idea.
  • In a discussion of, er, food porn, we learned that magazine and cookbook editors demand the "hero shot" of food that presents it at its most, er, appetizing. Ahem.
  • "Always pick the thing that is not a chain is one way to save the world." -- Elizabeth Berg, from her story "The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted"
  • Favorite recipe: Buy two boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. Make one box of macaroni, use both envelopes of cheese. -- Berg again, from the same story
  • "The whole history of America was of gobbling up the continent." -- Mark Kurlansky
  • "We don't eat money." -- An Icelander telling Mark Kurlansky why they eat haddock, not cod
  • "I have never followed a recipe in my life. I read them and I'm inspired by them but then I just go do what I was going to do anyway." -- Molly O'Neill
  • "We think of recipes as instruction manuals but recipes are sheet music." -- Michael Ruhlman
  • "There are several generations of people now who think recipes know more than they do." -- Molly O'Neill
  • "My overarching goal is to have more people cook for themselves because I think life is better that way. The world is better that way." -- Michael Ruhlman
  • Judith Jones is "absolutely the last of the great cookbook editors. Everybody else is just trying to make the sucker fit on the page." -- Molly O'Neill
  • The first line of the first edition of The Joy of Cooking: "Stand facing the stove."
  • "A great meal in China has themes; it has a narrative arc." -- Nicole Mones
  • "Where else can you win an international cookbook medal for a novel that doesn't contain any recipes?" Mones again
  • "My childhood was not defined by the grand meals my mother cooked. It was defined by trips to Waffle House with my father." -- John T. Edge
  • Recommended reading from Edge: Southern Fried Plus Six by William Price Fox
  • And I'll give Billy Collins the last word: "I'm surprised more people don't read poetry. It's so short."

But is it literary?

The Key West Literary Seminar is underway -- we just wrapped up the first session; there's still room in the second session and if you're a literary foodie at all, this is one of those rare opportunities for your passions to combine. One topic that keeps coming up, as it has since we began discussing food as a theme for the Seminar, is the question of literariness (if that's a word). One of my fellow board members, whom I respect a lot and like even more, dislikes it when the writers get off the topic of writing and literature and just start talking about food. I disagree. And here's why:

First of all, there is plenty of talk about writing itself and to be honest, a diet of just that gets to be too much for me, especially since we're dealing with a double session here.

Second, we have gathered some of the smartest, most articulate people in the country who know from food. Why on earth would we NOT want them to talk about this subject, about which they are passionate and knowledgable -- and often quite funny. Not just the known funny people like Calvin Trillin, Roy Blount and Billy Collins, but Julia Reed was a revelation to many of us -- the woman should have her own standup act -- and even an eminence such as Madhur Jaffrey had the auditorium laughing out loud many, many times. Isn't their foodiness the very reason we brought them, along with their proven literary chops? When the subject is "more literary," say a genre like memoir, we don't object when the writers discuss some topic that is the focus of their work, do we? The whole point of the Seminar, to me, is to hear directly from the writers telling stories, about themselves, their own work and about other people, stories that are funny or sad or significant in some way. It's stuff you just wouldn't hear otherwise and it is very different hearing spoken by the writer herself than it is reading on the page.

I may be a bit oversensitive, having come from journalism and feeling like nonfiction generally is considered a literary stepchild compared to the exalted realms of fiction and poetry. And there were a few times when I agreed that the discussion veered a bit too far into the purely topical -- once about America's current crises in obesity and diabetes -- but in most cases that was driven by questions from the audience and I don't see what either the Seminar planners nor the writers can do about that.

So overall -- a rousing success, I must claim on my own behalf and that of the people who did most of the work putting this thing together, namely Miles Frieden and Arlo Haskell. There's still room to sign up for the second session, which I'm excited about -- it's going to be interesting to hear the new voices in the mix, especially the novelists (Kate Christensen, Elizabeth Berg and Nicole Mones) as well as a more historical perspective from Mark Kurlansky. And I'm excited to hear more from Madhur Jaffrey -- she's one of those people you could listen to all day even when she's just describing how to create a simple rice dish.

And here, to whet your appetite, are some of my personal highlights from the first session:

"It took a long time for American writers to feel comfortable admitting that they were actually writing about food."


"It's ironic that, just as people stopped cooking they started reading cookbooks."

-- Ruth Reichl in the opening keynote address

Jonathan Gold said he hates the term "ethnic" when applied to restaurants. "Nobody ever calls French cooking ethnic."

We had Julia Child impressions from at least four the panelists -- the best by far was from Judith Jones; the worst was Roy Blount, Jr.

Diana Abu-Jaber describing the adoption of dishes from different cultures into the American diet, such as hummus with roasted red peppers in the grocery store: "There's fusion and I guess you'd call it confusion."

"The reason there's a taboo against cannibalism is that it must have been a powerful temptation."

-- Jason Epstein, after quoting a chef who says chefs cook for other people "so they don't eat us."

Someone asked Madhur Jaffrey if we should travel to India or if it's been ruined. She replied that India is like an onion with many layers existing together, from medieval to 21st century. "It is a rich, irritating, uplifting experience to go to India," she said. She recommends it.

A check-outable feast

There's just a month to go before the next Key West Literary Seminar and just in time, we at the Key West Library have received a shipment of books by writers appearing at the Seminar. This year's subject is The Hungry Muse: Food in Literature and the offerings are indeed appetizing. (It's not, by the way, the much-feared "cookbook seminar" and it's not just straight-up food writing, either -- our panelists will include novelists and poets and historians as well as some of the finest food writers in the nation.) We already had a bunch of books by these writers in our collection but the new ones are most welcome, including Eating by Jason Epstein, Ratio by Michael Ruhlman and At Home with Madhur Jaffrey. Jaffrey, by the way, will be at both sessions, as will be Calvin Trillin, Roy Blount, Jr., and Billy Collins. If you're interested in attending, there are still spots left in the second session -- and if you're in Key West, don't forget the Sunday afternoon panels and readings are always free and open to the public. Bon appetit!

And if you're wondering what's up with the slide show below -- well, I'm not much of a cook, to be honest. Given a couple free hours I will invariably spend my time reading instead of shopping for and preparing food. But these are some recent culinary creations of mine worth note -- the Swedish family recipe cake I made for our Stieg Larsson Book Bites session at the library, two pies I made for Thanksgiving (the inevitable pumpkin and the always popular apple-cranberry-raisin from the Fanny Farmer Cookbook), a batch of liebkuchen from another family recipe (and my favorite Christmas treat of the many, many kinds of cookies my grandmother used to make every year) and a cocktail, a Pisco guava punch prepared at the long-distance direction of Embury Cocktails impresario and New York Times-certified cocktail expert Jason Rowan. And all of them turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself. Recipes available on request.