In 1980, the poet Phyllis Koestenbaum published Hunger Food (Jungle Garden Press, Fairfax, CA), which chronicles the angst and secret life of the author's coming of age in Brooklyn and the cuisine that fueled it. The book's emotional and tactile imagery has resonated with me for two decades. "The belly lox skin is mine." Phyllis writes, "White, it has a little tender lox left, I scrape the lox off with eager teeth." I am greatly in Ms. Koestenbaum's debt for the spirit of this issue of Switched-on Gutenberg.
Not unlike a multitude of other citizens of the Nation of Storytellers, I sit down at my keyboard each morning to write. I cannot write on an empty stomach and sometimes blame Phyllis's book of poems for this shortcoming. After inhaling a bowl of rice crisps into which I have chopped a banana dusted with soy powder and soaked with vanilla-flavored soymilk, I can at least try to write. On a full stomach I write about the empty stomachs of Northwest pioneers, or about their possibly black and empty hearts, their barren fields, their barns just leveled by cyclones. I use the verb "to write" here advisedly. Sometimes I may sit in front of my computer screen for hours and only type out one line or one sentence. Mid-morning, I feel an emptiness coming on. I rewrite my line or sometimes delete it entirely. The emptiness begins to echo. Trekking downstairs, I search the kitchen for baked Brie, double chocolate-almond torte; French bread drizzled with pressed garlic soaked in extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Two years ago I embarked on a life of health and fitness, so of course I do not eat these things, but I still look for them and, like a lost beloved, think about them constantly. The comfort of rice pudding dotted with succulent sweet yellow raisins comes to mind. The way the raisins pop between my molars, the way the custardy pudding oozes between my tongue and jaw then slides down the back of my throat. The chewy, cinnamony scum stretched across the top of the blue baking dish encases a flavor enhanced by sweet unsalted butter. The taste of butter has not passed my lips for two consecutive winters
I heat some water in the microwave into which I float a mint tea bag. If I feel really motivated, I'll go outside into the raging Cascade Mountain wind and pick some of the now frozen mint that grows by the water faucet next to the house, pulling the leaves off the vine like fish scales then pour hot water over them. Hot-coal-of-a-cup in hand, I return to my desk and try to write about Virginia Reed and her desperate parents in the winter of 1847 in the high Sierras existing on pine needle soup made from melted snow. I picture her entertaining the elders of the Donner Party with food rhymes on a feastless Christmas Eve. I imagine the Reeds regretting their hunger for land and a new life in California and wonder what forms their regret took.
Sipping my tea, I recall that once, inspired by Phyllis Koestenbaums's
FOOD HUNGER, I tried to write a villanelle that consisted solely of food
I would eat if I could eat anything I wanted to, non-stop. The last two
words of the first (and often repeated) line were Brie cheese. The poem
failed to fly, not because of any lack of passion for Brie on my part,
but on my inability to find enough mouth-watering foods that rhymed with
What is it we hope for when we write? Many things of course, but one of which might be that the sum of the ingredients, the elements of narrative say--characterization, plot, point-of-view, setting, theme--in the end add up to more than the sum of the story's parts. Not unlike what we hope for when we make cheese or bake bread. Brie is more than milk and the lining of a cow's stomach, bread more than flour, water, and leavening. The cheese I imagine is gooey, with salty fat globules melting across the tongue. My teeth tear the bread's crust like meat, the chewy center's flesh leaves a tangy aftertaste. Together these Biblical foods have the capacity to lift our spirits, to fill our heads with new ideas and possibilities, to comfort us; whereas cheese and bread's pre-dough components have none of these capabilities. Good bread is genius, flour/water/yeast is not.
Good writing is in some ways like good cooking. It takes inspiration,
energy, devotion, discipline, and a spark of obsessive human emotion possibly
bordering on insanity. It takes not just the right ingredients, but
also an eye for flavor, a flare for inventive substitutions. Rising
time, baking, cooling and aging time all become inspired transitions.
In the end, the life of a citizen of the Nation of Storytellers boils down
We cook, we break bread, we write, we hunger. We write some more.