Cooking with the Muse
by Stephen Massimilla & Myra Kornfeld
Tupelo Press, $34.95 hardcover, 500 pp.
In Stephen Massimilla’s poem “How to Eat the Artichoke,” from Cooking with the Muse, there is “no history, no moment, no offering / but parting / in a green night, / copper crumbs, / burnt stars, / asterisks / smoke-black pepper.” The way that Massimilla writes about artichokes seems to capitalize their first letter, elevate them to Artichokes, Artichokes, something not merely worthy of praise or anthology, but of worship, Our Lady of Holy Artichoke. If this sounds like hyperbole, it is only because Stephen Massimilla and Myra Kornfeld’s Cooking with the Muse, out April 2016 from Tupelo Press, leaves the reader exulting in every meal they remember relishing, connecting the experience—of shopping for groceries, preparing a mise en place, simply stirring a soup or stew, of spooning the first hopeful bite into your mouth, and then the quiet and happy-sighing meal that followed—of food with something both historic and lyric.
The recipes alone, written by Massimilla, Columbia University professor and winner of the Grolier Poetry Prize, among others, and Kornfeld, head chef at MyFoodMyHealth and instructor at the Natural Gourmet Institute, are a simple and artful praise of food in their own right, celebrating local, artisanal ingredients, lend a respect to not just the finished product, but the process itself. This is nothing to speak of the Chef and Poet Notes included with each recipe, lending context and a deeper appreciation to the making of a meal, nor of the lengthy history of food and words that opens the book. I left not just basking in the poetry, which includes original pieces by Massimilla, as well as anthologized favorites, but feeling thoroughly educated in home-cooking techniques. That said, this is not a book of trepidation-laden cooking. It is careful in the way that good writing is careful—it takes risks, darting between Vietnam, Turkey, Spain, and the Americas without preamble, but it is also deliberate: chapters are divided by season, and then move through the meal from appetizer to dessert—but it does not intimidate its reader, in either recipe or poem.
Cooking with the Muse is the kind of book that a writer would include on a shelf next to both Mastering the Art of French Cooking and James Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break and their favorite Norton. I found myself saying exactly this on a beach on Tybee Island, letting my copy be blown over with sand and the crumbs from an almost-stale baguette. The fiction writer and admitted foodie I was sitting with nodded at this, and thumbed through the book too, then paused and pointed to “Roasted Spanish Monkfish with Roasted Broccoli Raab”: “We could do this one. I’m tired, but we could make this tonight.” We were worn out for the best reasons, exhausted by late afternoon beers, the sea air, and by the Georgia sun, already warm in April, but we were still beat and yawning. It was true: we could make it. The recipe, a combination of monkfish tails, orange zest, smoky and hot spices, garlic, and broccoli raab, did indeed come together simply and quickly, roasting for less than a half hour altogether. That was enough time to read the historical note on the role of monkfish in Norwegian folklore, Massimilla’s poem “Monkfish Is”, which includes the glorious lines, “There’s something I forgot / beneath a heaven // of red coals. I devoured you, / quiver of syllable,” and finally to flip a few pages ahead to the fascinating essay, “The Poetry of the Onion: Nature’s ‘Small Forgotten Miracle’.” This, at its core, is the real delight in Kornfeld and Massimilla’s luminescent ode to food and poemsong; it is an old tale and a practical text all at once, something to share with your mother and something to quote in a National Poetry Month tweet. It does not define itself as exactly a poetry anthology, nor as a cookbook, or as a collection of essays on locavorism, or cooking, or an anthropological look at regional foods.
This lack of definite genre is a revelation and an unburdening. It is a book I loved. It is a book that I loved sharing, and isn’t that the point of a meal, to gather, to share, to relish, together? Massimilla writes achingly in “How to Eat the Artichoke”, “Let the heart taste loiter / in the bright climb from oblivion, / from the skeletal remnants—/ all this junk // this twitching crackle of dirt, of light.” Within seconds of reading these lines, I wanted to jot them down, and I desperately wanted to eat an artichoke, heretofore an intimidating and prickly-looking vegetable, which is likely how more than one food writing-only fan might feel about essays on Robert Hass and language, and poems from Galway Kinnell, Ellen Bass, and Jane Hirschfield. That would be an error, however; they would be as wrong as I was about that artichoke, which days later, I found myself braising with lemon and thyme, halved and browned and delicious.
Cooking with the Muse does everything I love about food and good writing, and it does it in a way that insists on being read both practically and poringly. Massimilla and Kornfeld have done something remarkable; moreover, they have imbued a poetry anthology-cookbook-collection of essays-study of food with real passion and love. The heart taste loiters long after the reader shuts this lovely and exultant book.