Jane Hirshfield’s 5 Poetic Essentials for the Home Cook

published Sep 4, 2013
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We’ve been running our Expert Essentials series for nearly a year now, so perhaps it’s time to shake things up a little. Instead of asking a chef or cookbook author, we wondered what a poet would choose as the five most essential things a home cook needs to know, or have, or do. We are honored and delighted that poet Jane Hirshfield agreed to ponder this question and reply with a suitably poetic take on what’s essential in the kitchen and, by extension, in our lives.

Jane Hirshfield is an award-winning poet, essayist, and translator. Her work has appeared in numerous publications such as The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, The Times Literary Supplement, as well as many literary journals and several volumes of The Best American Poetry and Pushcart Prize. She was featured in two PBS television specials, The Sounds of Poetry and Fooling With Words. In 2012 she was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

If you’re already familiar with Jane’s poems, then you know that food, cooking, and the kitchen are recurrent themes. She also has some pracical kitchen knowledge as well:

I was one of the original dinner cooks at Greens Restaurant in San Francisco when it first opened, for three years, back when everyone who worked at Greens was a practicing Zen student. I worked with Deborah Madison from the first dinner served until she left Greens, before I did. I was living at Green Gulch Farm in Marin at the time, as was Deborah, and we’d commute in together for the twelve or thirteen-hour shifts. I copyedited the first Greens Cookbook before going on to edit several best-selling nonfiction books — Jack Kornfield’s A Path With Heart and Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul among them.
You may also want to say (only if you want to, of course) that before Zen practice, after graduating from Princeton in 1973 with the first class to include women, I worked for a year on a New Jersey farm (what else does a young person in the ‘70s do with a newly minted Ivy League degree?). I picked plums, corn, peaches, apples, pears, and pumpkins. I also planted my own first garden that year, after growing up in NYC, where I nursed petunias along on an apartment windowsill for years—they’d started for a science project, but I was entranced at making something, anything, grow.
I’ve had my current garden for 29 years—it has plums, apricots, apples, pears, herbs, vegetables, perennials, and old roses. I call it a “Taoist garden” because so many of the plants reseed themselves—the chard, the mustard, the parsley… One of my favorite crops is Dragon’s Tongue heritage beans. A handful were given me by another poet a dozen years ago, and I’ve been saving seed and growing them ever since.
I cook at home very simply, unless I have people over, when I still revert to the mind of someone trained to cook five course meals for 150 people in a night, as dinners at Greens were then.

Five Utensils of the Spirit

Good writing and good cooking share some fundamental attitudes—we might think of them as utensils of the spirit. Equally useful in poems and in pantry, they are tools as necessary as spatula, oven, spice rack, and sink.

1. Imagination

In cooking, as in writing, simple obedience to whatever’s been done before just isn’t possible—”before” may offer guidelines, but it’s gone. You are cooking right now, with only what you have around you. There are “forms”—a poem is sonnet, ode, or lyric; a dish is a soup or soufflé—but the challenge and also the joy of making come in making something of this very moment, out of ingredients that are both what the world has given you and what’s completely your own.

Think of flour, water, yeast, honey, salt, time, heat. Bread— but what does it taste of? Of the cook’s heart and hand, culture and knowledge, and of the wild life that’s loose in the air of the kitchen. Imagination is like those wild yeasts—locally particular, completely unpredictable, and nothing happens without it. It will be there anyhow in cooking, so why not invite it?

2. A spirit of curiosity and experimentation

When cooking a vegetable soup, a first question is “Is this good?” But right on that question’s heels comes the question “What else?” That’s when both imagination and a spirit of curiosity and experimentation are wanted—does it want lemon zest? Or, also citric in direction but completely different, some vinegar, some sumac? Or perhaps some French sorrel from the herb garden? (A perennial herb here in the Bay Area, I planted some twenty years ago and it comes back on its own every year.) Or might the soup want instead my sorrel’s neighbor in the herb garden— some lovage leaves, given time in the pot to deepen? Or some other deepening element, a half-teaspoon of sugar, a bay leaf, red wine, some pureed roasted potato or toasted yeast?

The only way to answer the question “what else” is to imagine a range of possibilities, and then, before adding one in, taste them first in your mind and then with your nose (the miraculous kitchen organ of first-draft preview, since, unlike words on a page, ingredients added can’t then be removed). It’s the same with a poem, of course—you may have some starting direction of thought or feeling, but the actual poem will be made by its “what elses”—the details of world and word that make it the only possible way to say what it says.

3. Confidence

To make anything new and good, you need some confidence in your own sense of taste, even boldness. Timid cooking is like timid writing—plodding, dull, and not worthy of its ingredients or its eventual eaters. Confidence lets you serve one perfect peach simply sliced and set on an earthenware plate with a sprig of chervil as garnish. Confidence let someone experiment with slicing tofu, drying it, then putting it through the microwave under a paper towel before braising. (I don’t know who tried this first, but the neighbor with whom I share a “friendship gate” halfway down our long redwood fence served me tofu prepared in this way, and its cloudlike lightness was unlike any I’d had before.)

Confidence is the precursor to imagination, to curiosity and experimentation: if you don’t trust your own ability to evaluate what is in your own eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, to know what tastes good to you and seems right, how can you offer anything to anyone else? As for failure—it’s inevitable. Confidence is what then lets you say, “Well, that was a disaster,” and reach for the four minutes’ cooking time cappellini.

4. Companionship

Cooking, like a good poem, dinner party, or a good life, really, is in large part about what goes well with what. Some companions are classic: oil and vinegar; cheese that wants some contrasting texture and flavor—toast or tomato or the right wine. Other companions are, at least at first meeting, distinctive surprises: the happiness of big cubes of watermelon served with feta cheese and fresh mint. When I was a child, American cooks were still wary of garlic—a clove would be cut open, the wooden salad bowl might be rubbed with it, and the clove then discarded. I first tasted Japanese food at the New York World’s Fair—for me, that first sukiyaki with a raw egg broken over the top was a revelation far more memorable than the much-talked-about Belgian waffles.

We’ve come a long way since then. Friends, family, cookbooks, cooking websites, restaurants are the companions from whom you first learn what foods might make good company for one another. But the more important companionship of the kitchen is the company of one another that is present in any mouthful’s moment—the community of farmers, shippers, mongers, fellow cooks and, not least, fellow eaters that make food’s sustenance also spirit’s sustenance, a sign of our connection to all being.

5. A sense of the large

The pause to say a blessing before eating is practiced by relatively few these days—one rarely sees it in public places, and at home, it’s often reserved for special occasions, Thanksgiving or a wedding dinner toast, the end of Ramadan fasting or Easter brunch. But the conscious recognition that eating takes place in a great web of connection is available at any moment. Taking a trout from the stream or paying the grocery store cashier wearing hygienic gloves on her hands as she accepts your bills, we enter an exchange that involves us with every other being on the planet, extending in every direction, from past into future.

To make visible that fundamental recognition, after we’ve set the plates down on the table, before we first lift a fork, is to add to the dish an ancient, essential, extra seasoning as powerful as hunger, as fundamental as water or salt: gratitude. The pause need not be ostentatious. Its mindfulness can be entered with others or it can be private— brief, silent, made without motion or word. Yet its existence changes the meal, the day, and the world.

Jane also generously shared two poems:

Da Capo

Take the used-up heart like a pebble
and throw it far out.

Soon there is nothing left.
Soon the last ripple exhausts itself
in the weeds.

Returning home, slice carrots, onions, celery.
Glaze them in oil before adding
the lentils, water, and herbs.

Then the roasted chestnuts, a little pepper, the salt.
Finish with goat cheese and parsley. Eat.
You may do this, I tell you, it is permitted.
Begin again the story of your life.

(Note: the soup of this poem is one we made at Greens)

Green-Striped Melons

They lie
under stars in a field.
They lie under rain in a field.
Under sun.

Some people
are like this as well—
like a painting
hidden beneath another painting.

An unexpected weight
the sign of their ripeness.

Used by permission of Jane Hirshfield, all rights reserved.

Thank you, Jane!

For more information on Jane Hirshfield, visit her author page or her Facebook page. For more of her poems, translations, and articles, visit her page at the Poetry Foundation. (In particular, listen to her interview from The Splendid Table on what it was like to cook at Greens and the poem she worte about that experience.) Jane has published several books of poetry, translations, and essays. The most recent, Come, Thief: Poems, was released in paperback earlier this year.

(Image: Nick Rosza)