The Culinary Imagination: From Myth to Modernity By Sandra M. Gilbert


The other day, I was privileged to attend a PEN West meeting that featured a reading by Sandra Gilbert, a treat that far exceeded my expectations. In a cozy bungalow perched as if to launch itself out of the Berkeley hills into the wild beyond the Golden Gate, Sandra wove a masterful tapestry of observations about what it means to be a human animal with a need for nourishment.

Gilbert read wonderfully -- in a voice at once maternal, authoritative, resonant, and with knowing intonations that lift a listener's spirit, like an encouraging smile. And she enticed us to venture into exotic culinary treasure troves -- secular, sacred, sinful, redemptive. The food laid before us in words yanked on every sense.

After hearing her pairing of Wallace Steven’s "The Emperor of Ice Cream" with (in translation) Pablo Neruda's "Ode to Conger Chowder," I'll never read a recipe in quite the same way. First, she instructs us that a recipe is, all-in-all, a series of commands:

Preheat the oven.

Take this.

Sift together that.

Mix gently. Do not over-beat!

And so we heard anew the imperatives with which Wallace melded an ice-cream social and a poor woman's wake and too, created a rallying cry for several 20th Century generations:

Call the roller of big cigars,

The muscular one, and bid him whip

In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.

Let the wenches dawdle in such dress

As they are used to wear; and let the boys

Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.

Let be be finale of seem.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.

Take from the dresser of deal

Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet

On which she embroidered fantails once

And spread it so as to cover her face.

If her horny feet protrude, the come

To show how cold she is, and dumb.

Let the lamp affix its beam.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

(Those "horny feet" immediately brought to my mind a chicken waiting to be dressed.)

For a fleeting instant, Gilbert reminded us of William Carlos Williams' stolen plums, "so sweet and so cold," (like ice cream!), then whisked us into recipe poetry, with a basic stew that transmogrified into celestial ambrosia:

our regal

ocean prawns,

and when

they are

tender;

when the savor is set in a sauce

combining the liquors

of the ocean

and the clear water

released from the light of the onion,

then

you add the eel

that it may be simmered in glory,

that it may steep in the oils

of the pot,

shrink and be saturated.

Now all that remains is to

drop a dollop of cream

into the concoction,

a heavy rose,

then slowly

deliver

the measure to the flame,

until in the chowder

are warmed

the essences of Chile,

and to the table

come, newly wed

the savors

of land and sea,

that in this dish

you may know heaven.

Gilbert then asked us, as well she might, "When is a recipe a blessing and when is a blessing a recipe?"

Her book provides range for literary grazing, each chapter a meal for the imagination.


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