Village Voice: Richard Blanco On The Poetry Of The Home-Cooked Meal

05.18.20

On the latest episode of the Village Voice: I read a selection of poems on the essential human ritual that is the home-cooked meal. Home cooking is one of the few rays of light poking through an otherwise gloomy life in quarantine. Originally I wanted to do some elegies, and maybe we’ll do that later on … but it was just so heavy. We need to slice this — pardon the pun — a little thinner here!

I hope these poems provide some spiritual nourishment! You can follow along below:

“Perhaps the World Ends Here”
By Joy Harjo

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must

eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So

it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the

corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means

to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around
our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down
selves and as we put ourselves back together once again
at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in
the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible
victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our
parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of
suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are
laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

“Cooking with Mamá in Maine”
By Richard Blanco

Two years since trading mangos
for these maples, the white dunes
of the beach for the White Mountains
etched in my living room window,
I ask my mother to teach me how
to make my favorite Cuban dish.

She arrives from Miami in May
with a parka and plantains packed
in her suitcase, chorizos, vino seco,
but also onions, garlic, olive oil
as if we couldn’t pick these up
at Hannaford’s in Oxford County.

She brings with her all the spices
of my childhood: laurel, pimentón,
dashes of memories she sprinkles
into a black pot of black beans
starting to simmer when I wake up
and meet her busy in the kitchen.

With my pad and pencil eager
to take notes, I ask her how many
teaspoons of cumin, of oregano,
cups of oil, vinegar, she’s adding,
but I can’t get a straight answer:
I don’t know, she says, I just know.

Afraid to stay in the guest cottage,
by herself, but not of the blood
on her hands, she stabs holes
in the raw meat, stuffs in garlic:
Six or seven mas ó menos, maybe
seven cloves, she says, it all depends.

She dices about one bell pepper,
tells me how much my father loved
her cooking too, as she cries over
about two onions she chops, tosses
into a pan sizzling with olive oil
making sofrito to brown the roast.

She insists I just watch her hands
stirring, folding, whisking me back
to the kitchen I grew up in, dinner
for six of us on the table, six sharp
every day of her life for thirty years
until she had no one left to cook for.

I don’t ask how she survived her exilio:
ten years without her mother, twenty
as a widow. Did she grow to love snow
those years in New York before Miami,
and how will I survive winters here with
out her cooking? Will I ever learn?

But she answers every question when
she raises the spoon to my mouth saying,
Taste it, mi’jo, there’s no recipe, just taste.

“The Traveling Onion”
By Namoi Shihab Nye

When I think how far the onion has traveled
just to enter my stew today, I could kneel and praise
all small forgotten miracles,
crackly paper peeling on the drainboard,
pearly layers in smooth agreement,
the way the knife enters onion
and onion falls apart on the chopping block,
a history revealed.
And I would never scold the onion
for causing tears.
It is right that tears fall
for something small and forgotten.
How at meal, we sit to eat,
commenting on texture of meat or herbal aroma
but never on the translucence of onion,
now limp, now divided,
or its traditionally honorable career:
For the sake of others,
disappear.

First aired on Boston Public Radio, May 15, 2020.