Viejos comiendo sopa by Franisco de Goya
Dos viejos comiendo sopa by Franisco de Goya
Dos viejos comiendo sopa by Francisco de Goya


i remember Japanese construction
workers at a noodle bar

joking with the queer foreigner
who talked like a child

and didn’t get what word
they were trying to teach

when all they wanted to hear
was an audible slurp


I don’t eat anything
without a face she said

however blank or fanciful
it must have personality

like a tomato that bites
back she said

and hugged
herself tighter

a black leather coat
draped over her bones


they say if you eat chanterelles
in the dark of the moon

you gain the power to hear
what the worms are whispering

they say if you drink ginseng tea
you’ll have very expensive piss

they say if you’re starving
you can eat the inner bark of trees

but i feed the serpent in my gut
nothing but eggs


i’ll have
the usual

delectable products
of animal misery

comfort food
isn’t it


Goya’s two old people
eating soup at the Prado

a year after the death
of the butcher
of Guernica

and 12-year-old me shocked
at the potential horror
in something so primordial

learning how wholly consumption
can consume us

Fog walker

“Oh hey, buddy, how’s it going?”

“Oh, it’s GOING!”

Uproarious laughter. Two old friends at the small-town deli. I resist the temptation to turn around and look, but they seem genuinely surprised and impressed to find themselves still in the land of the living, still doing everyday things.

“I was just coming back from Surplus City, and I thought I’d STOP IN and PICK SOME THINGS UP!” Laughter.

“OH yeah! Good IDEA!” More laughter.

They’re probably no more than 15 years older than me, if that: a glimpse into my own future, perhaps. If I’m lucky. Artists and writers court amazement all day long with less evident success than these geezers at the store.


My favourite ridgetop tea-drinking spot is quieter each time I visit. Gone (or hiding while they molt) are the nesting tanagers and warblers. A wood pewee still calls, and a blue-headed vireo interjects at one point, but that’s about it. A nearby black gum has begun to color up, anticipating early migration and the need for signal flags saying FREE LUNCH.

fog walker
the millipede’s carpet
of legs

I take it back: both the black-throated green warbler and the robin who nested nearby are still around, just rarely singing. Sit here long enough and you’ll hear everything—or at least everything audible over the trains and traffic sounds from the valley. Now it’s an annual cicada calling just once and falling silent again. The sun comes half out. I see from my shadow it must be nearly eleven.

closed book
in my lap
a square of sunlight


The biggest change in literary blogging over the past 20 years has been the demographic shift from relatively younger to relatively older poets. In part of course that’s because some of the same contingent of people who were blogging in the aughts still dominate the literary blogging space. But there have been many more late adopters for whom blogging was a good fit, because as older writers, they’re not necessarily as ambitious. Meanwhile, today’s young poets are not blogging because that’s no longer seen as hip, and also because they are focusing all their efforts on writing for publication elsewhere. If they blog, it is purely to share writing or publishing news. I don’t write for a living and i’ve never been very ambitious, so blogging is an easy, nearly frictionless way to get my writing out there—especially these experiments in sorts of writing that very few publishers are interested in: absurdly long erasure poetry projects, weird tone-shifting hodgepodges masquerading as zuihitsu, that sort of thing.

The Xerox era was fun, and I’m glad I got to participate in the tail end of it, even publishing my first three chapbooks that way under the imprint Free Lunch Press (which I’m sure wasn’t original, but we didn’t have the web, much less Google yet, just small press directories that only included people organized enough to submit their info—not half-assed schmucks like us).

But this is better.


I found a black cherry tree dotted with congealed sap (above)—the original chewing gum. Though actually they dissolve fairly quickly. They’re rubbery and gelatinous and nearly tasteless. Which to me makes them highly attractive for extreme culinary purposes, should I ever be called upon to produce an Appalachian delicacy. Ya know, marinate in sassafras root bark infusion, drizzle with maple syrup and boom, you’ve got an appetiser to go with your mountain mint julep.


The biggest sign that Anglo-American civilization is doomed: the precipitous decline in shared mealtimes. If we can’t break bread together even as families, meaningful dialogue is clearly at an end. And what is culture about if not dialogue? Even the most solitary artist is still in dialogue with the greats.

Garden solution

river in November light between bare woods and mountain

Last night: I’m throwing a beer party in my garden for the slugs! All i have to hand is a rather nice 18-month-old homebrewed porter. They’ll just have to die a delicious death.

This morning: A few slugs still sip at the rim of the bowl from a brew filled with the drowned corpses of their comrades. This scene repeats at every bowl — I set out five among the broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. The birds don’t seem to have discovered it. Macabre, but far better than spraying something.

Good thing i don’t drink much anymore; there’s no shortage of homebrew. And i guess it helps answer the question of who i’m brewing for now.

If only i could kill flea beetles by setting out poems! Then I’d have a use for those too.


This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Poets in the Kitchen


starting the stock by Caitlin-Gildrien

A good stock is magic in the kitchen. It takes the castoff leftovers of your other dishes – the chicken backs, the lamb chop bones, the ends of wilted carrots – and transforms them into a medium of flavor and richness that will then transform everything it touches.

For a long time, I would make stock occasionally, and then clutter the fridge with quart jars that eventually went bad or freeze it into yogurt containers which I never remembered to thaw before I wanted to make soup. A few years ago I came upon the idea of Perpetual Stock and it would be only slight hyperbole to say it changed my life. In the winter the crockpot is continuously simmering. In the summer, I make a batch or two a month, and then reduce it down by half or three-quarters and freeze it in ice-cube trays; from there, it gets added to dishes most nights of the week. I confess I am a zealot. But stay with me as I endeavor to convert you.

  1. Having an abundance of flavorful stock always to hand makes dinner easy, at least in the cooler months. If you have any vegetables, meat, beans, or grains – and you also have stock – then you have soup. Some degree of preparation and/or planning will make a better result, sure, but I have gone from zero to soup in fifteen minutes with entirely satisfactory results. This is no small blessing when you have small children, unexpected guests or illnesses, or other variables that do not respect the concept of time.
  2. Everything else you cook will benefit. Well, if not everything, at least most savory dishes benefit from a ladleful of stock. Cook your rice or beans in it, add it to mashed potatoes instead of (or in addition to) butter, splash some into pasta sauce with the wine, whisk a bit into your omelet, deglaze everything.
  3. Probably it’s good for you, too. There is a doctrine of signatures logic to it: eat bones to help your bones. When you lift a long-simmered beef shank out of the pot and it crumbles, it’s hard not to assume that at least some of what had been holding it together made it into the broth and that your body might know what to do with it. Bone broth is also touted as an elixir for digestion and even as a cure for cellulite. The scientific literature is actually pretty scant in support of any of this, despite the many anecdotes and vociferous alternative-health website claims. (There is, however, some evidence for immune-boosting and flu-fighting effects, so go kiss your nearest Jewish grandma. The culinary magic is undeniable; whether or not the nutritional juju is real, I think that anything that makes home cooking easier and more delicious is going to translate into better health.

Dissolve; Rebuild

After ten hours
in its bubbling bath,
the knuckle-
bone slips its grasp.

The tendons – strong enough
to bear twelve hundred pounds
of steer – relax, finally,
as they couldn’t even in death.

They say bone broth is rich
in all the minerals you need
to build bones & with a knuckle,
good for joints, too –

the way we saved eggshells
to dry and crush
and feed back
to the chickens,

handily supplementing them
with everything
they needed to make eggshells.
So I am gathering calcium

and chondroitin, collagen
and the hope that my bones
will be enough to bear me
for a long time, that my joints

will keep joining,
the limbs all keep jumping
when my brain pulls the strings.
They don’t always,

you know. Sometimes
the chickens laid eggs
with no shells
at all.

Perpetual Broth

Save the bones and bits from your meat dishes in your freezer. When you have enough to fill your crockpot at least halfway, make a batch.

Fill the crockpot with bones and meat scraps. The more you put in, the richer the flavor will be.

Fill with water, and add a generous splash of vinegar or lemon juice.

Turn the crockpot on to low. You’ll have usable stock in about 6 hours. (You can stop here, if you want, and just have a single batch.)

Use it! We keep a ladle and a small mesh strainer on a dish next to the crockpot, and just ladle out and strain what we need when we need it. Whenever you take out some stock, refill the pot with more water. Just leave it on low. Add more vinegar, if you like, when you think you’ve moved through the whole volume of the pot.

The day before you plan to finish the batch (see below), you can add some vegetables. (We save the ends and odds of our vegetables in the freezer as well: the ends of carrots and onions, kale ribs, cabbage cores, celery leaves. Anything very strongly flavored will likewise flavor the stock, so keep that in mind.)

The broth will change flavor over time; at some point it will stop tasting so good. That’s when it’s done. After the broth has peaked, strain it out through a fine-mesh sieve or cheesecloth, wash out the crockpot, discard the ingredients, and start again. I’ve found that chicken broth improves over about four days of simmering, but then gets a little funky; when we cook a chicken, I usually split it in half and do two batches in a week. The more substantial bones from beef, pork, lamb, and venison can go usually a full week or more.

To reduce, if desired: Pour broth back into clean pot, turn to high, and leave with the lid off until reduced by half or more.


You may find it helpful to get into the habit of making a Sunday (or other day) roast – a whole chicken, leg of lamb, bone-in ham, or prime rib. Beyond supplying you with the bones you need for the stock, you’ll also have a nice pile of leftover meat to jumpstart your soups and other meals throughout the week.

Ecumenical Eucharists

In the early days of my quilting group, we met on a Friday night. We’d bring food and gather after work as the sun started to set. We brought our favorite foods, and we lit candles. We ate a meal and worked on our quilts. It felt very sacramental, in terms of my Lutheran training.

Around Holy Week of 2003, I wrote the following poem, which was later published in the journal Ruminate:


I knead the bread leavened with beer,
stew a lamb shank in a pot of lentils,
prepare a salad of apples, walnuts, and raisins,
sweetened with wine and honey.
No one ever had herbs as bitter as this late season lettuce.

My friends gather at dusk, a motley band
of ragtags, fleeing from the Philistines of academia:
a Marxist, a Hindu, a Wiccan, a Charismatic Catholic,
and me, a lapsed Lutheran longing for liturgy.

Later, having drunk several bottles of wine
with prices that could have paid our grad
school rents, we eat desserts from disparate
cultures and tell our daughters tales from our deviant days.
We agree to meet again.

Gnarled vegetables coaxed from their dark hiding places
transform into a hearty broth.
Fire transubstantiates flour and water into life giving loaves.
Outcasts scavenged from the margins of education
share a meal and memories and begin to mold
a new family, a different covenant.

We have participated in the Paschal mysteries,
not yet comprehending the scope of what we have created.

Armenian lentil soup
a pot of Armenian lentil soup (photo: Dave Bonta, soup: Marcia Bonta)

I was not a lapsed Lutheran (I kept that word because I like the alliteration); on the contrary, I’d been planning a Maundy Thursday meal for my church. I had wanted to create a full Seder meal, the Passover meal Christians traditionally believe was Christ’s last supper. But I didn’t have any assistance, so I decided to do something more simple, a stew of lentils, which would have been a common meal amongst the disciples.

I was not a lapsed Lutheran, but my friends did have that wide diversity of beliefs described in the poem. And those daughters that joined us are now finishing college.

In the poem, I can see the elements of the Seder meal and the imagery of the early church. This actual recipe may not create a meal that’s quite as sublime, but it’s delicious, cheap, and easy. I created the recipe for a cousin who didn’t cook, so I was trying to explain the process along the way.

Lentil Soup

A timing heads up: this soup needs 30-60 minutes to simmer.

The bare minimum of ingredients you’ll need:

12-16 oz. package of lentils
28 oz. can of diced tomatoes (I like Del Monte petite cut) OR 2 15 oz. cans diced tomatoes
Pot of water

Nutrition Booster:

Several carrots (3-6), chopped into bite-size pieces (you can use baby carrots, but they’re more expensive). Carrots are SO nutritious and cheap—don’t be afraid to use a lot.

Flavor Boosters:

1 onion, chopped

several cloves of minced garlic (put the cloves through a garlic press or look for jars of minced garlic in your produce department and use a spoonful or two); garlic powder is easier and will work just fine

several Tablespoons of olive oil

herbs: oregano and basil (1-2 Tablespoons of each)

several Tablespoons of brown sugar (or molasses)

several Tablespoons of red wine

several Tablespoons of balsamic vinegar or red wine vinegar

Basic Instructions:

Put the onion and oil in a big soup pot. Turn the burner to high or medium high (8 or so on your burner control dial). Stir the onions around in the bottom of the pot until they’re limp and more translucent. Add the garlic and the oregano and basil. Stir another minute or two.

Put all the sliced carrots that you’re going to use in the pot and cover them with water. Turn up the heat of the burner under the pot until the water boils. Let the carrots boil 10-15 minutes. You want tender carrots before you go any further. Spear one, let it cool, and eat it to be sure.

Add the tomatoes and the lentils and all the rest of the flavor boosters that you’re using. Fill the pot the rest of the way with water. Let the pot come to a boil, then turn the heat way down (you want it to simmer just below a boil—you’ll probably want to keep the heat at medium low—at 2-4 on the dial). The lentils probably need a half hour of cooking at this point. If you think about it, give the pot a stir every so often (if not, no big deal).

You can also let this soup simmer away for an hour or longer. Just keep an eye on the liquid level (those lentils will soak it up as they cook!) and add water as necessary.

You could serve this topped with a dollop of sour cream, if you wish. But it’s great plain.

A pot of this soup will easily serve 6-15 people; smaller groups can get several meals out of one pot. And it’s cheap (it will cost you less than $5 to make a whole pot), so when you’re tired of it, throw it out.

Or you can turn it into something else: boil as much liquid out of it as you can. Add chunks of feta cheese to the lentils, along with tomatoes (cherry tomatoes cut in half work well), cucumbers, peppers or whatever veggies you have on hand. Voila! A lentil salad (feel free to serve it on top of greens) or something you can spoon into pita bread.

Ode to scrapple

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Poets in the Kitchen


Meadows brand scrapple in the Big Apple
Meadows brand scrapple in the Big Apple, 2007

I’ve probably written before about our family’s adventures with raising pigs when I was a kid. My parents were part of the back-to-the-land movement, which meant that we lived as far out in the country as possible—first in central Maine, then here on a mountain in the Appalachian part of Pennsylvania—and raised, hunted or gathered as much of our own food as we could. For three years in a row, we got a pair of adorable piglets from a local farmer in the spring and butchered the hogs in the fall. The logic was that we could convert a lot of kitchen scraps and surplus vegetables from our garden into meat, but the project was not without ecological cost. Though we gave each pair a large pasture and shifted the location every year, that part of the field has never recovered its fertility from the massive erosion it suffered when the growing hogs rooted everything up.

Pigs are very impressive creatures. Unlike sheep or chickens, there’s something going on when you look in their eyes. Their capacity to eat anything and everything is more than epic, it’s down-right mythic. They are role models of consumption, sacrificial gods of plenty. In their native Eurasian forests, wild hogs are essential nutrient recyclers and agents of natural disturbance.

We named each pair we raised: Pork and Beans the first year, then (in honor of the winning presidential ticket in 1976) Jimmy and Fritz, and finally Sears and Roebuck. Dad built a smokehouse, reusing the walls and roof from a decommissioned outhouse, and the first year, Mom went whole-hog, so to speak, and even made head cheese. Looking back, I think raising pigs was something we did more out of enthusiasm for the back-to-the-land lifestyle than anything else; we were never terribly fond of pork per se, and eventually discovered that it was way cheaper and easier to satisfy our need for free-range meat by shooting a few of the increasingly numerous white-tailed deer. The movable shelter Dad built for the pigs has long since rotted away, and the electric fence charger was moved up to the garage, where it was put to work around the garden, keeping deer out rather than pigs in. These days, we don’t even garden, getting most of our vegetables instead from the local Amish, who are new to the area since I was a kid.

scrapple slices on a cookie tray
baking scrapple to feed hungry bloggers

But one thing I retain from that era of my childhood is the sense of scrapple as a special treat. Mom was always looking for a cheap way to feed her three ravenous sons, and scrapple is nothing if not affordable. Both my parents were raised in New Jersey but have roots in eastern Pennsylvania, the heartland of Pennsylvania Dutch (i.e. German) culture and cuisine, so they never learned to look down their noses at this meat product whose very name tends to make urban sophisticates recoil. I like to tell people it’s much healthier than a hot dog, being generally fresh and local and containing cornmeal and other grains, depending on the brand. I also like the way it blurs the line between breakfast and dinner—every diner should serve it for that reason alone. But in the diner where I used to work in State College, though scrapple was on the menu, no one knew how to cook it. We were instructed to whack off a slice and drop it in the deep fryer. Yuck! Here’s how we make it in my family.

Scrapple and Maple Syrup

Cut loaf of scrapple into half-inch slices. Either fry in an iron griddle or place on cookie trays in a medium oven—the latter approach is slower but uses less oil (especially if you have access to trans-fat-free shortening). Flip when the bottom begins to get crusty. Serve hot and drench in maple syrup.

Ode to Scrapple

lightly edited from the original posting (August 7, 2007)

Sing scrapple: buckwheat-
and cornmeal mush-stuffed
relative of head cheese,
the hog’s gray matter.
Plus every part
that couldn’t be cured
into ham or crammed
into sausage casings—
some good foot meat, perhaps,
a corkscrew piece of tail—
up to and including
the oleaginous grunt.
Always the butt of jokes
for the ignorant mass
of wiener-eaters who prefer
their pig scraps pink
and pre-fitted for the throat.
This is a square meal
the color of earth.
It’s what’s for supper
when you haven’t eaten
since breakfast and want
something you can
slap in the hot
fat of a griddle and fry
until it grows a thick
brown skin. Then
serve with Grade-A
maple syrup, go hog-
wild, wallow in the gray
and gritty mush.

half-eaten slice of scrapple on a plate
A meat product even vegetarians have a hard time resisting.

Photos from a 2007 gathering of literary bloggers in New York City by Rachel Rawlins (tournesol on Flickr).

Banana Split

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Poets in the Kitchen


Banana Girl

this longing to consume you
completely has not ceased,
i persist in wanting to eat you
the way i eat a semi-ripe banana,
unpeeling it slowly, checking it
for hardness in some parts,
the parts that present a
challenge for tongue and teeth.

think of me as the soft, ripe parts,
the one with a bruise the color
of a hickey but i can never bring myself
to confess to this desire
to make a light meal out of you.

the shyness of an introverted girl
overpowers the lust about to flare.
yep, yellow is for the cowardly
who don’t even give it the ole college try
true, i am like those bundles
of Dole bananas harvested
from southern Philippine plantations
by underpaid, underfed workers.

you will sooner see a rise from me
from a sense of outrage at inhumane
servitude than for me to sidle up
to your side, unpeel you slowly
like a firm banana i wanna
introduce in my mouth.

Poor Person’s Banana Split

In the absence of ice cream, marshmallows and similar ingredients


6 pieces of bananas, lakatan variety

Can of condensed milk

Cupful of fried peanuts


Slice the bananas lengthwise and place them in four separate bowls. Chill them for 15 minutes. Pound the peanuts into a mortar and pestle until fine. Bring out the bowls of bananas, then pour condensed milk over them. Sprinkle with fine peanut powder. Serve to four hungry children as a healthy snack.

Comfort Food

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Poets in the Kitchen


There’s no requirement to gather
what you might need in the heat
of noon, or under the watchful eye

of a full moon. Neither is there need
for ritual, certainly not for festive
occasion— Hunger has its own pure

logic: working from naked intuition,
giving shape to what flickers faintly
at first in the hollow of the mouth

then plucking raw, as you wake,
as if at a nerve— Head and chest
packed in cotton, bones fevered,

you know what you crave most
is comfort: some soup for simmering
away your hurts, as when a voice

first broke through the fog, lifted
you from a swamp of bedclothes,
coaxed a spoon to your mouth—

And you found you could open,
you could taste again the salt
and the heat of the world.


One of my comfort foods is Arroz Caldo— Filipino rice soup with chicken. The way we make it, its consistency is not as thin as gruel, but a little thicker and more substantial than congee. It’s the food we think of when someone is sick or convalescing. Its basic ingredients are unfussy and soothing and hence a perfect go-to food if one is not feeling well— rice, chicken broth, pieces of chicken (and the latter may be dispensed with or not served to the one who has not quite recovered his or her full gustatory powers). The side notes struck by toasted garlic and ginger, and the finishing touch of a splash of citrus, also contribute to the aromatic, head-clearing effects experienced when sitting down to a hot bowl of this food. Arroz Caldo is also a great rainy or winter day food; perhaps that’s why, in my family, it has become one of the foods that we traditionally prepare for the media noche (midnight) feast on New Year’s eve— when we’re all up and bundled in sweaters, watching the frosty curls of our breath as we light sparklers in the yard and wait to toast the new year.

Arroz Caldo
(Filipino Chicken Soup with Rice)

2 Tbsp vegetable or olive oil
6-8 cloves crushed and minced fresh garlic
1 knob of ginger, washed, peeled, and sliced into thin discs
1/2 of a small onion, diced
1 1/2 c uncooked “Milagrosa” or white jasmine rice, washed and rinsed
1-2 pounds chicken, washed and cleaned, chopped into pieces
8-10 cups water
1 – 1 1/2 tsp salt and several pinches white pepper

Garnishes (to arrange in small bowls):

Soy sauce
Fish sauce or patis
Washed halves of kalamansi or wild lime
Toasted garlic
Toasted matchsticks of ginger
Chopped green or spring onions


In a large stock pot, heat the oil, but not to the point of burning.

Saute half* of the minced garlic, the onion, and the ginger until just beginning to brown.

Pour in the uncooked jasmine rice and turn frequently with a spoon to coat with the oil and herbs.

Add the chicken pieces; continue stirring, with the heat on medium.

Add water, and turn up the heat.

Allow mixture to come to a boil, frequently stirring to loosen rice from the bottom of the pot.

Add salt and white pepper.

Cover and simmer (stirring frequently) until the rice is tender and almost porridge-soft.

Check frequently and see if you need to adjust the amount of water remaining.

Adjust seasonings.

Serve hot in wide bowls and top off with garnishes.

*Note: you will toast the remaining half of the garlic in a smaller saucepan and set this aside for garnish.

The Gospel of Bible Tripe, Pig’s Tongue, and Bile

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series Poets in the Kitchen


In July this year, I returned for a short visit to my home city in the Philippines, after having been away sixteen long years. My youngest daughter, who has never been there, was my traveling companion. She and her oldest sister, who lives in Baguio, met in person for the first time during this trip.

A few months before, as I began planning, I’d read an article about how, further north of Baguio, somewhere on the slopes of Mt. Pulag or Mt. Data, in 2011 a team of Filipino and American scientists rediscovered the dwarf cloud rat. I’d heard occasional mention of this unique mammal in regional folk tales, though it was last seen more than a hundred years ago. The specimen recently found was sitting on its overdeveloped hind legs on a mossy tree canopy around five meters from the ground, preparing to launch itself through the air to another branch. As we boarded our plane for the longest leg of our outbound flight, I recalled the cloud rat and wondered what brought it back, after all these years, from seeming extinction.


Immediately after arrival, for a week we were whisked off to Cebu (an island in the central Visayas region) by my eldest daughter and her partner Karen. They had found roundtrip “piso” fares equivalent to about $110 for all four of us, and the opportunity was too good to pass up. It also gave us a chance to meet some of Karen’s family there, visit Magellan’s Cross and the Basilica of the Santo Nino, both famous landmarks dating back to the Spanish colonial era. Further, Cebu is famous for its lechon or roast pig and other regional delicacies. And of course, as we made our way through meal after memorable meal— several kinds of lechon, prawns cooked in crab fat, humba or pork knuckle stew, daily breakfasts of assorted dried fish washed down with fresh buko (coconut) or dalandan (citrus) juice— I realize that these were merely the outward, alimentary rituals for easing any initial awkwardness due to our long separation, for softening the years (too long) of our yearning, for tearing those intractable hunks and dividing them now with our fingers into small pieces we could dip into bowls of oil and relish and sauce…


After the plane ride back to Manila from Cebu, with several pieces of monster luggage among us, we caught a bus just as rain broke from skies the color of cast-iron pots. Approaching Baguio at the end of our six hour bus ride from the capital, I peered out the window and felt the first anxious pangs of expectation mix with shock and grief. We plodded through unfamiliarly thick traffic and I saw, just as in more metropolitan lowland areas, evidence of urban blight in place of the landscapes of my childhood. The hillsides, once dominated by evergreens and limestone outcroppings, were crowded with all kinds of housing and construction; we passed building after unfamiliar building announcing rental spaces, restaurant after restaurant whose names jogged nothing in my memory. Billboard after billboard advertised Thai massage or “Unli” (unlimited) text and talk mobile phone plans, some of the signage in Korean and Japanese.

We spent our last two weeks in Baguio, and these two weeks out of our nearly month-long visit were drenched day and night with bone-soaking monsoon rain. Because the rain severely limited the range of activities we could engage in, we found that the only things we could do were eat, tell stories, and sleep. We simply repeated these, in between short visits to the market and the silver and curio shops, the Cathedral, and BenCab’s famous museum in Tadiangan, Tuba.

IMG_7943We stayed at Casa Vallejo, which in the old days was known as Vallejo Hotel. Now designated a heritage site, it was built in 1909 and so displays pretty much the same architectural features as when it was originally built, despite the updated interiors. I chose Casa Vallejo for our stay for another reason: my maternal grandfather Lorenzo, who was a farmer in Bacnotan, La Union for most of his life and an entrepreneur in Baguio for a short time (he owned and operated three small barbershops along Abanao and Kayang streets), had worked at the hotel for five years as a cook. When we came downstairs each morning for our complimentary breakfasts at Hill Station restaurant on the ground floor of Casa Vallejo, I would look toward the kitchen, trying to imagine what it must have been like for my 19 year old grandfather when he started to work there. I imagined he might have looked as young as our usual waiter, who told us he had a degree in Communications and that his name was “Choco.” I wondered if my Lolo Lorenzo also wore the vintage type uniforms of the wait and kitchen staff— long-sleeved off-white shirts tucked into loose-fitting trousers, two breast pockets with flaps as in the style worn by porters in the colonial period.


IMG_7988Though I was not born in Baguio, my parents moved the family there when I was two. Baguio is of course the city that the Americans colonized into a hill station at the turn of the last century, driving to the outskirts the indigenous Ibaloi communities who had occupied these ancestral domains in centuries preceding. American architect Daniel Burnham was brought in to draw up the blueprint for the new colonial city— a plan that envisioned no more than 25,000 inhabitants maximum (in contrast to the current population figures of just under 400,000, counting students, local tourists, and other transients). Located toward the lower left on the spleen-shaped map of the province of Benguet, Baguio at 5,000 feet elevation above sea level is considered by some to be the doorway to the rest of the Cordillera region.

East of the spleen is one of the closer provinces belonging to the Ilocos region— La Union, and its capital San Fernando, where my father was born and where sometime in 1959, a full fifteen years after the Liberation of the islands from Japanese occupation, he first laid eyes on my mother (not quite 26) tending the cash register at a restaurant. Because of the war, he and many of his contemporaries had gotten a late start on their professional careers; and thus now, in peacetime, mostly lawyers in their early forties, they felt they could live a little. More than a little, in fact— they liked to get rip-roaring drunk at The Midway. As the story goes, that one evening, when he first noticed the striking new girl in front, he motioned in a way that was meant to suggest that he wanted her to come over and personally attend to their table. She of course said no— she might have only been a farmer’s daughter but she did not believe waiting tables was part of her new job description. And as the story goes, he stumbled over to where she stood, and threatened to break every single wineglass displayed above her head if she refused to come to their table. Fearful she might lose her job, she went. A year later, they were married.

I was very young when my mother first confided this story to me, and I did not think to question it then— did not feel, until later as I grew older, the incredulity of these details when I measured them against the general mildness and soft-spokenness of the man I’d come to know as my father, and later as the grandfather to my daughters. But by the time I was in first grade, he’d given up smoking (his usual daily pack of Salem menthols) and quit alcohol cold turkey. He’d also long before that stopped driving, after the scare of having almost run a pedestrian over (I don’t know any other details about this story). His only obvious remaining vices were the cinema (and that too fell away somewhat in his later years); and he liked to cut a dapper figure and was meticulous in his choice of dress. Also, he loved good food, and had a predilection for pastries. Among the other things I know and remember of my father: he was a sweet and sentimental man, becoming increasingly pious as he aged. Before getting dressed, he began each morning by saying the rosary, after which he said the prayers in a well-creased, laminated trifold Novena to San Pancratius kept in the left-hand pocket of his bathrobe. After his bath, he sat down to breakfast, attended to by the women in our household— eggs and something savory, bread and butter and jam, and coffee; and then he left the house and walked to work.

He also was— how did he become so?— very superstitious: if someone needed to leave before a meal was over, he commanded all those still at table to turn their plates at least once clockwise, in order to avert any accidents befalling the one who had prematurely broken rank. At each of my daughters’ baptisms, as soon as the church ceremony was over (these were group baptisms, with other families bringing their babies), he was at my elbow urging me to rush out of the church doors as soon as I could, and not lag behind. This would supposedly ensure that the baby in my arms would be among the first to be admitted to heaven when it was her time. These were also years of still relative ease for him, and so he would order a small lechon de leche (roast suckling pig) for the baptismal party held in his home for each granddaughter. The impressive thing was delivered to the table, fragrant crackling skin a deep molasses-gold beaded with fat, holding in the steamed layers of soft roasted pork beneath. Almost unable to contain his excitement, he would rush to the kitchen for a knife with which to extricate a specific morsel from out of the lechon’s mouth. This he would bear to me, so that I could make each baby in her own time suck on the tip of the roast pig’s tongue: and as my child’s mouth automatically closed on the tidbit as if to suckle, he’d crow, “Yes, yes, may you grow to have the gift of words!” After this little ritual, an apple or similar round fruit could be popped into the noble lechon’s mouth for decorative effect— or perhaps as apology for the recent, first dismemberment.

My daughters, who have in fact turned out to have a great facility with words themselves, know this story. And perhaps that first ritual and physical introduction to the world of tastes defining our mostly Ilocano household, is what has equipped them well for their own forays in language and literature, as well as in the kitchen (the oldest three are perceptive, original cooks who have the ability to replicate memorable tastes as well as create their own recipes; and the youngest one seems to be coming along fine in this direction as well). They have always been unafraid to taste— even in childhood, they handled most everything they were introduced to with eager curiosity (except for just a very few things, including, for two out of four daughters, bitter melon or ampalaya, which is still not on their favorites list). One daughter, when she was in fifth grade (in an American public school), purposely asked me to make dinuguan or blood stew for her lunch, so she could relish the experience of telling her schoolmates that she was eating blood (and she did, but they didn’t believe her).

We’ve cooked and/or eaten sea urchins, sea snails, sauteed swamp spinach, several varieties of seaweed (some look like tapioca-sized clusters of grapes, some like velvety branches; some like wiry pubic hair, thus befitting its name in the local tongue: Ur-urmot). We’ve made stews of ox tails and peanut sauce (Malay influenced), as well as rich, heavy stews composed of slow-simmered honeycomb tripe, chick peas, carrots, olives, tomatoes, and chorizo (Spanish influenced). We favor the other kind of tripe, taken from the third stomach of the cow— the one we call biblia or bible tripe (what the French call le feuillet)— for a specific Ilocano dish flavored with bile, called Pinapaitan (literally, this means “made bitter”). Ilocanos, who’ve lived along the coast and tried to coax growth from hardscrabble ground, are known for their thrift: winged beans and slimy vegetables are used to bulk up dishes, and even the dark welts imparted by fire to smoked banana leaves become a main flavoring agent for the rice cakes around which they’re wrapped.

IMG_8248Is this why, though sweet things have graced our table, it’s mostly toward the savory that our tongues lean: the pickled, brined, fermented; things packed away to ripen in cool jars or blistered and leathered in the sun? Early formed in childhood, the bible of taste (and its triumvirate of hunger, appetite, and need) is not so easily unlearned. Even in different climes and places, its passages haunt and entice; and its lessons, imbibed and embodied, become both colony and spore, inciting toward acts of remembrance, invention, poetry, and appeasement if not satisfaction.


Ampalaya (Bitter Melon) Pickles


Wash and core (remove the seeds and pith of) 4 medium size Ampalaya or Bitter Melon gourds (preferably Okinawan variety). Slice ampalaya into thin circles. Slice a small onion or shallot into thin circles or semi-circles. Bring a small pot of water to boil, and drop only the ampalaya slices in; when they turn a brilliant green (or after around 3 minutes), quickly drain the hot water and plunge them into a bowl of ice water. In another, non-reactive container, have at the ready: 2/3 cup rice wine vinegar, into which has been dissolved 1/3 cup white sugar, and a teaspoon of salt and several pinches of black pepper. Layer the drained and blanched ampalaya slices and onion slices in the vinegar mixture. Cover and store in refrigerator. Good up to two weeks. Great accompaniment to fried or grilled meat or fish.


Pinapaitan (Ilocano meat broth flavored with bile)

1/2 kilo beef tripe (bible tripe or “biblia”) sliced into thin cubes
1/2 kilo beef intestine or beef heart, chopped fine
1/2 kilo beef, sliced thin
2 Tbsp bile
2 Tbsp thinly sliced (matchsticks of) fresh ginger
1 medium onion, diced
5 cloves of crushed and finely chopped garlic
8 cups water
5-6 tsp salt, or to taste
black pepper to taste
(or, alternatively, small bird chillies to drop into bowls upon serving)

Saute garlic and onion in 1-2 Tbsp vegetable or olive oil.
Add ginger and continue to saute until fragrant and almost toasted.
Add tripe and other meats, salt, and pepper.
Add water and bring to a boil, then simmer covered for 40-45 minutes on low heat until tender.
This dish is meant to be soupy, so adjust seasonings and add water as necessary.
When meats are tender, add bile, and simmer for another 15 minutes.
Ladle into bowls and garnish with chopped bird chillies if desired.
Wild lime (kalamansi) and fish sauce may also be served alongside.
Serve with hot steamed rice.

Introducing “Poets in the Kitchen”

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Poets in the Kitchen


Here in central Pennsylvania, summer’s full bounty is upon us. SWEET CORN signs pop up along every road and highway, causing mini traffic jams rivaled only by those at the farm stands offering early peaches. In the woods, chicken mushrooms appear on random stumps and logs almost overnight, neatly stacked like piles of bright orange books, while in the meadows, blackberries are ripening so fast that the bears and human pickers together can barely keep ahead of them. Our neighbors’ free-range chickens are laying more than ever, though judging from their strident daily celebrations, the novelty of this creative act has yet to wear off. They’re watched over by a rooster named Clem who sounds the alarm at the first sign of a predator, even driving deer away from the neighbors’ big vegetable garden. His late rival is in the freezer, but this living rooster is likely to feed them ten times more.

All of which is to say I can’t imagine a better time of year to launch a new series featuring the intersection of poetry and culinary arts: Poets in the Kitchen. When I emailed Luisa about it last week, I was pleased to learn that she already had plans for a cooking-related writing project, so the series will give both of us a chance to try out some ideas. But we want to extend an invitation to guest contributors as well. If you’re a poet and there’s some recipe you’ve invented, inherited or otherwise made your own, we’d love to hear about it. Posts in this series will be centered on recipes (or recipe-like things such as instructions for hog butchering, pickling, or making maple syrup) written as plainly or as lyrically as you like. The recipes should be accompanied either by original poems (reprints are fine) or lyrical prose vignettes establishing some connection with poetry. Images, videos, and audio recordings may also be included. We don’t have a formal submissions process around here, but you can contact me or Luisa with any ideas you might have, and we’ll take it from there.

Why poets? In the first place because Via Negativa is a poetry blog, but also because we are fascinated by the contrast between the abstract—some would say spiritual—nature of writing and the essential corporeality of preparing food. And the manner in which these two types of creations are intended to be consumed couldn’t be more different. Or could it? Is it possible to cook for the ages? Can we say with Rumi that our poems are like manna, made for such immediate consumption that “Night passes over them, and you can’t eat them any more”? We want to probe connections not only between writers and what they cook or eat, but also the larger relationship of writing/literature to appetite and desire.

To whet your appetite, and perhaps suggest avenues of exploration, over at Moving Poems Magazine I’ve assembled an annotated gallery of “Ten Culinary Poetry Videos.” Here’s one of them, Thomas Lux’s “Render, Render” as animated by Angella Kassube—a poem about writing that uses metaphors from the kitchen: