Let me make clear I’m no cook or baker. I have, I’ll admit, followed the directions to produce a Betty Crocker cake (with canned frosting) with relatively edible results. And, over the years, I’ve been able to put various food things in front of my wife and children when it was my turn in the kitchen, and there were few outright refusals.
And I do like to eat.
But the ingredients of meals, such as cabbage and cauliflower, pesto and olive oil, pears, asparagus, avocados, salt, apples, basil, artichokes and cream cheese, are pretty much a mystery to me.
So, maybe I shouldn’t be reviewing Elizabeth Cohen’s collection of 32 seemingly kitchen-centered poems, The Patron Saint of Cauliflower, from Saint Julian Press in Houston.
On the other hand, I think I have something to say.
What I found particularly interesting about Cohen’s book was how I wasn’t lost in all the recipe language and garden harvests. That’s because, for all its talk about vegetables and seasonings, it’s not really about food. Or, better put, Cohen uses food as a doorway into the mystery at the center of all things.
Thoughts of future pain and incident
Her opening poem is titled “Goulash,” and it’s ostensibly about stew although Cohen notes:
…I am using
up everything leftover from the week
and slapping it with a fancy Hungarian
name, which is to say I am tired…
In other words, this isn’t really about stew but, at first, about the speaker’s tiredness as she prepares to feed her daughter and some friends. They must be fairly young since the alternative is peanut butter toast.
This leads to a meditation on the action of the child bodies digesting the meal, “the insides of them, making sense of beets/and pasta, of chicken strands, and slips of onion/the way each one of them will make sense someday of snow-caked walkways…”
And, from there, to thoughts of a future of pain and other incident:
Someday, they will encounter bullies
they will feed their own parents soup,
and possibly hold someone’s hand as they die
They will have many paper cuts
which is to say they will bleed
but, for today, they will eat my goulash
which is what I call this stir fried everything.
The universe of experience
From this first poem, Cohen signals that her subject isn’t the mundane, but cosmic in scope. It isn’t about granules of salt but about the universe of experience.
The title itself is a tip-off. The collection features four poems about patron saints: of cauliflower, of olive oil, of pretzels and of the very best pesto. There’s a playfulness to this, but also a kind of sacrament of faith.
Consider these lines in “The Patron Saint of Cauliflower”: “and all this from the tiniest brassica seeds,/small as the clipped fingernails/of your kitten/(save the root ball/for her next season of miracles.”
Those miracles are echoed in “The Patron Saint of the Very Best Pesto” in the recitation of “the famous pesto prayer/to the pesto ancestors/so that they will send their pasty blessings down…”
And, feeding the family the pesto over rigatoni, sliced tomatoes and chunks of mozzarella,
you will have fed them the stewed motions/of your own hands,
a confit of your elbows’ work
the salty-leafed crush/of your love.
Yes, the preparation of a meal has often been described as a serving of love, but this is a fresh, elegant way of making that point.
“Cabbage is steady”
The danger of a book about the stuff of gardens and kitchens is a preciousness. Cohen avoids that pitfall by bringing modern-day traumas and tragedies onto the pages, sometimes as with “Aftermath” in a full poem about the devastation left by a global cataclysm, and more usually in the midst of less harrowing matters.
In “The Cabbage,” the speaker talks about how one could stir fry cabbage with raisins — “(I swear this is good.)” — and then goes on:
The world is unraveling, but cabbage is steady.
High seas encroach on island nations, mud tumbles down hillsides,
burying towns. Yet there it sits anyway, stubborn and sure of itself
on the counter, rotund, earnest. Everywhere, ice is invading
or shrinking, rivers are drying up, whole lakes can vanish in a day,
but the cabbage is without struggle.
Pure muscle that comes up from the earth.
There is something spiritual about this. The idea that bad things happen in a world where good things exist, sitting on a counter. Or, seen another way, good things sit on a counter even though the world is filled with much that is bad.
“Like a bride disrobing”
One theme that’s woven through some of these poems is sex. After all, the whole of gardening is about seeds and germination and birth.
In “Spell for the Right Avocado,” the speaker tells how her mother taught her the method of crushing a garlic clove with the heel of the hand so you could “watch the skin fall right off,/like a bride disrobing, her dress/left behind, in a heap of tulle.”
“The Artichoke” begins:
The artichoke is laughing at you, my friend,
The way you are working away, pulling off its clothes,
nibbling at the elbows and knees, like the sex starved, like the lonely,
like the ones whose desire compels them to ridiculous
measures, it’s embarrassing…
And then there is the speaker in “When I Was a Bird” who says:
I was married to air
and my hatchlings followed me
everywhere, until one day
they left to marry the wind
“Baked into the world”
The Patron Saint of Cauliflower is also a book about conjuring. It has three poems about spells. Yet, there is a tentativeness about the whole incantatory process.
In Western culture, the idea of a spell is that it’s a formula. You do A and B and C, and you get the result D. Sort of like a Betty Crocker recipe. Here, though, there isn’t that sense of the sure-fire.
For instance, “I Put a Spell on You 2.0” isn’t so much about the speaker testifying to the power of abracadabra. It’s about happenstance: “Because you smelled like soap I had long forgotten/Because we accidentally touched elbows, under the lip of the diner counter/Because you liked apricots and I had some in my refrigerator.”
Cohen’s poem “Spell for the Right Avocado” is a meditation on the lessons she learned from her mother in the kitchen, and “because of her mammoth patience/I know how to rumcake and fruitcake,/how to gingerbread and even souffle/(which is touchy)”
Turning a noun like “rumcake” into a verb is to turn it into a process, to expand from the thing to a series of motions and choices and actions — a body in a kitchen in time, not A and B and C = D.
These poems about spells, like all the poems in The Patron Saint of Cauliflower, aren’t about power. They are about humility before large mysteries.
And so, to end “Spell for the Layer Cake,” Cohen writes:
Slowly, and under your breath
the soft recitation
to the air, to the book,
to the cake you are birthing,
to the mouths you will feed,
to the history of all the cakes
that have ever been baked into the world.
And not just cakes. But lives. The lives of us all “baked into the world” of tastes, yearnings and enigmas.
Patrick T. Reardon