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The Hungry Ear

Poems of Food & Drink

by Kevin Young

Hardcover, 319 pages, Bloomsbury USA, List Price: $25 |


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The Hungry Ear
Poems of Food & Drink
Kevin Young

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Book Summary

The National Book Award finalist author of Jelly Roll presents an evocative collection of food poetry that meditates on the role of food in everyday life, identity and culture and includes pieces by such writers as Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost and Allen Ginsberg.

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Still Life with Fruit and Nuts, by Robert Seldon Duncanson Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington hide caption

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Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Hungry Ear


Love, satisfaction, trouble, death, pleasure, work, sex, memory, celebration, hunger, desire, loss, laughter, even salvation: to all these things food can provide a prelude; or comfort after; and sometimes a handy substitute for. It often seems food is a metaphor for most anything, from justice to joy. Perhaps too easy of a metaphor — sometimes food is just food. Still, there is nothing like food and drink to remind us of life's pleasures, sating far more than hunger.

A good meal provides such sustenance not just out of need, but out of a whole host of things, whether reminding us of our childhoods, or grandparents, or the old country — or teaching us about a new one. Food transports us to another place like little else, even if it's just the couch after Thanksgiving turkey. I have put together this anthology to honor food's unique yet multifaceted pleasures. Nothing is as necessary yet as taken for granted these days as food — except maybe poetry. Both are bread and honey, water and wine, mother's milk and manna; and if ignored, or never used, both wither. Poetry keeps body and soul together and remarks upon what makes the human animal both one with and apart from the world.

Perhaps this is why I have never met a group more reliable to have a good meal with — and it should be said, a few drinks with — than poets. (Southerners are a close second.) Whether that meal means hunks of cheese sliced off with a knife alongside crusty bread and cheap wine; or enough homemade stew to feed a fort (or loft, or shared house); an extravagant feast on someone else's dime; or a nip of an uncle's moonshine: poets sure do throw down around the table. This, I think, is not just because a poet's next meal may always be in doubt, but because poets tend to love the details, the process of food, the languid hours of a good meal — meaning not just the vittles but the talk, often loud, that accompanies it.

This may also be because the best poems, like the best meals, are made from scratch. Both rely on the seasons, but also human history; both also consist of tradition, on knowledge passed down either from books or from generation to generation, hand to mouth. In poetry, there are few shortcuts, but there are secrets. Food and poetry each insist that we put our own twists and ingredients in the mix: we make each dish, like a good poem, our own. With any luck, the result is both surprising and satisfying, exactly what we wanted, perhaps without even knowing it.

However, we know too well the ways in which our society has abandoned good food, and too often poetry entirely — as if it grows without our water and light, and that our neglect won't reveal itself. "Can one be inspired by rows of prepared canned meals?" asks Alice B. Toklas, who knew her way around both poetry and a kitchen, publishing her famous cookbook after her life partner, Gertrude Stein, passed away. "Never. One must get nearer to creation to be able to create, even in the kitchen."

Luckily, there seems to be a surge in returning to real food — some would say "slow food," as opposed to fast — and if there's hope for what we insist we and our children eat, this may mean a world where poetry too can return to the table, where not just conversation, but culture, is made. A seat at / the common table: this dream, shared by poet and pauper alike, is found in these pages.

In one crucial way, food differs from writing: food is temporary. It is exactly this fact, as many a writer will tell you, wherein the sublime pleasure of cooking really lies. After a long day of trying to be immortal, or at least get to the end of the blank page or screen — rather symbolically hitting save — there is something satisfying in getting your hands dirty, in making something that has, necessarily, an obvious end point. With food, the better it is, the less it sticks around. (Except the way good food "sticks to your ribs" in the parlance of where I come from.) Temporariness is one of food's best qualities, making it something other than the chore that good writing can be. This is the opposite of good reading, in which the better it is the faster it flies. It is these fleeting yet everlasting pleasures that this anthology explores.

Moving through the seasons, from First Harvest to Sweet Summer, the cycle of life is shown here in its ups and downs — as only poetry can. Like the rallying cry of recent food advocates, my motto in picking these poems has been "Eat Local" — and like I say to my son, "Eat what you like" — I have been driven to include poets who write of the world around us and whose work makes my mouth water. What follows is a feast for the eyes and ear, one ranging from Pablo Neruda's famous odes to William Matthews's "Onions" to a host of evocations of blackberry picking — from Mary Oliver to Seamus Heaney; Galway Kinnell to Robert Hass to Yusef Komunyakaa. Indeed, there turn out to be a lot of fine blackberry poems, perhaps because they are both plentiful and primal. As a result, the anthology starts there, and like the seasons, circles back there, too. Along the way, we hear from James Beard Award–winning chefs like Linton Hopkins and, even in epigraphs, Julia Child and other homegrown cooks like Toklas; we sing along with drinking songs from Yeats and poems turned pop songs by Wyn Cooper, while enduring hangovers with James Wright. We visit questions of custom, memory, economy (in both the financial and poetic senses), and desire. We taste the bitterness of death, as well as the soothing food after.

I have written elsewhere — in my previous anthology, The Art of Losing, and in my own food odes — of the healing power of food after loss. It is a tradition I know best from the African-American repast, but it can easily be seen in many others: from the Midwestern casserole or Southern collard greens brought to the house of mourning to an Irish wake, toasting those gone. Such meals and drink, whether sweet tea or hard cider, remind us we're alive, while also making us realize: what else can we do but provide some sustenance for those whose only meal otherwise may be sorrow?

Food also helps us to celebrate, to mark an occasion as well as a season — from birthday cake to eggnog; from "praise wine" to the bread of high holy days. The result, seen here, is the presence of food as both an everyday and extraordinary festivity — which is where, alongside poetry, it belongs.

Sad to say, Thanksgiving remains the only homemade meal many Americans still have. Whether in soup kitchens or in their family's gathering place, such a meal represents not only fuel, but a form of welcome. Just like giving a helping hand, giving thanks is one thing we should try to do more than once a year. If we did, perhaps we would find ourselves more connected to the earth and ocean and each other, something I think that food — breaking bread, as it were — can do. No wonder that when African Americans sought their too often- denied rights as full-fledged Americans during the civil rights movement they chose the lunch counter to wage their struggle. Freedom or its lack particularly smarts when it involves food, or clean water, or one's own culture — things we all need and too often are denied. The gall of such denial angered my father, once forced to carry his lunch in a brown bag in the segregated South — just as he had to make sure he didn't have to go to the restroom when out in that separate, unequal world. Later in life, he declared he never would carry a lunch bag, or its indignity.

Food, like poetry, after all, is a necessity, a human need — and so food also signals justice, and its triumph. Once my mother and I ate at a restaurant in Baton Rouge, a nice lunch eatery that served meals cafeteria style. While we were in line, she remarked, almost off-handedly, that she and her friends down the road at all-black Southern University had made a pilgrimage there years earlier to help desegregate the restaurant we were standing in. Such a journey hadn't stopped with her visit twenty years before, but continued even on that day; it was a different kind of cycle that meal marked. Her telling me let me know, however indirectly, not just about sacrifice, but the dailiness of it. And that sometimes, the welcome table is something we must insist upon ourselves. I, too, sing America.

Food too can be where we experience, or even reclaim, culture. Not only is it where we declare our values — or what we like — but also some of what we aspire to. In the words of Chef Julia Child, "How can a nation be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?"

We, too, wish to grow. Food can not only be a way, say, of celebrating red beans and rice, or rice and black beans, or fried rice, or basmati, or long grain, or any version of rice that you can imagine — but it can provide our first experience of another world of taste and temperature. The table is literally where we experience the spice of life; and learn the names of spices in other tongues. Food is often our first adventure with another culture and a way we learn to measure our own.

Or do I mean poetry is? This anthology revels in the many tastes all around us, some of which we need poetry to help describe.

The ritual of cooking and eating, in the course of human history, has traditionally involved not just what we could grow from the earth, but what we could tend, milk, feed, gather, fish, hunt, or slaughter. I don't mean to put such need above others — we should eat a balanced meal — but it is easy to judge the eating of others, and easy to feel self-righteous about food. And yet what gets lost in the litany of diets and healthier-than-thou discussions is the food itself. The pleasure of a plum, fresh from the icebox, so delicious / and so cold. Or the taste of fresh milk, or real butter, or the sounds even of the cows on my grandparents' farm — food is not just fuel, but an experience, and one we'd do well to honor the full range of.

You'll see vegetables here — be sure to eat those, please — and plenty fruit, but you'll also find "Beer for Breakfast" and bacon for dessert. Here is the full range of eating, from pork — about which there seem enough poems to warrant its own section — to peaches, from "the meat of memory" to the need for forgetting. This book's menu is as omnivorous as my poetic taste. I have sought, like the poets here, to sometimes consider the difficulties of the dilemma of killing things to live. The sacrifice involved in preparing food not merely economic, but at times gendered, as Mary Oliver reminds us in her poem about life on a farm. We also consider the lobster — one of the only foods remaining often brought home live by those who eat it, which, if some see as cruel, at least is honest. "The pleasure of eating should be an extensive pleasure, not that of the mere gourmet," poet and farmer Wendell Berry writes. He could be speaking of poetry too. Berry reminds us that "the knowledge of the good health of the garden relieves and frees and comforts the eater. The same goes for eating meat. The thought of the good pasture and of the calf contentedly grazing flavors the steak. Some, I know, will think it bloodthirsty or worse to eat a fellow creature you have known all its life. On the contrary, I think it means that you eat with understanding and with gratitude." As the farmer knows, like my grandparents who raised livestock and connected to the source, food is not mere fuel or fetish, but, ultimately, praise.

Such everyday praise — of coffee and collards, of appetite and loss, salt and honey and hot peppers and "American Milk," of the human body and the greening world — is this anthology's aim. The poems often focus on what we might call "source foods," foods in their natural, whole, and ingredient states. We too seek the source: may finding it, alongside the poets here, leave you sated, yet wanting more tomorrow. Please join me at the table.

In the words of my grandmother, Help yourself.

--Kevin Young

Decatur, Georgia

From The Hungry Ear by Kevin Young. Copyright 2012 by Kevin Young. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing.