A chef’s guide to choosing poetry

Poetry is a natural accompaniment to food. Poem chemistry helps to soothe the psyche, appetize and refresh the palate, and assist with digestion.

Some combinations of poetry and food are more successful than others. However, attempts to set down a complex list of “rules” for matching food to poetry are ill-advised; the myriad variables of preparations, spices, sauces, side dishes, etc., along with individual palate and preference, make rules impossible. That being said, I’ll step into the quagmire and share some generalities that guide me well…

If the food flavors are complex, keep the poetry simple. If the poetry is complex, straightforward and simple food preparation will allow the poems to show off.

Matching the general flavor profile of the poetry with that of the food usually works. Keep the categories simple:

FOOD FLAVORS and corresponding POETRY FLAVORSSalty or sour (savory) – Light, crisp, imagistic

Bitter – Difficult, avant-garde, acerbic

Rich – Word-rich, metaphorically dense, allusive

Sweet – Musical, direct, ecstatic

When flavor elements mix in the food, try the same combination in poetry. Tomato sauces, for example, usually combine both sweet and sour flavors, so try poems that have both aural and syntactic complexities. This is not an exclusive or hard-and-fast system by any means; there are other combinations that may work just fine and serendipitous surprises are always palate-thrilling, but this chart can be a good starting point.

Occasionally a particular flavor element in a book of poems may be echoed by one in the food, but these pinpoint matches have an element of risk. A hint of cinnamon, for instance, can work wonders with some, but not all, Ondaatje. Poems by Charles Simic tend to go very well with sausages. But best try any new combinations on yourself before serving them to guests or large gatherings.

SPARKLING POEMS are very all-purpose. Wit is a great refresher and palate cleanser. These kinds of poems are especially good with savory foods. Want a treat? Try May Swenson with pizza!

CRISP, IMAGISTIC POEMS are a good all-purpose category. Allusive poems with little or no enjambment will harmonize with a wide variety of dishes.

RICH, FORMAL OR NEO-FORMALIST POEMS are good matches for foods that have cream or butter-based sauces. Some enjambment here is usually all right.

HAIKU work with delicate foods, such as trout.

ECSTATIC OR SURREALIST POEMS are the best choice for spicy (hot) cuisine, such as some South Asian or Mexican dishes. Be careful trying to match orgasmic poems with orgasmic desserts – one will probably climax before the other, leading to a combination of satiety and dissatisfaction more reminiscent of The Wasteland.

LIGHT POEMS are another good all-purpose category. They are fine with roasts and stews, fowl, and light meats. Many will even work with meaty fish, like salmon, swordfish, or halibut.

BEAT POEMS are reserved for steaks, chops, charred dishes, and scrapple. They also handle acidic foods, like tomato sauce, and take the edge away from bitter greens.

Feel free to experiment. Learn what works for your palate. The important operative wisdom is to eat and read what you like.

For more specific recommendations of poetry, barely in time for holiday Christmas shopping, see here.

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