"At the Fishhouses" by Elizabeth Bishop + Crab Mac & Cheese

The title of my graduate school lecture was "A Workshop with Elizabeth Bishop." To prepare, I read everything she ever wrote including poetry, prose, interviews, and letters, and extracted the key bits of writing wisdom she offered throughout her lifetime. I intertwined these pearls throughout more substantial material like commentary on specific poems and historical references to her life and career. It was a nice way to end the previous two years because it gave me something tangible to carry with me as I embarked on my future outside of academia. Beyond the basics such as keep a notebook, learn Latin and use a dictionary, her key manifesto was "always seek to improve." She once said, "I never have any sense of elation after I've finished. All I ever can see is room for improvement." Bishop was her toughest critic, which is one of the reasons her poems took years to write, or weren't written at all (her Collected Poems is one of the slimmest volumes of any poet on record.) I do think she could have stood to be a little easier on herself, though.

I was drawn to Bishop's writing because of how beautifully she captured landscape in her poetry. It was something I worked to emulate. I was living in Santa Barbara at the time, where the photo above was taken, so her poems about the ocean and other seaside elements, of which there are several, were particularly appealing. When I looked out over the golden beach, I could see her sandpiper running from the waves, and the fishmongers cleaning the scales of their morning catch. I felt like I was living in her poems then.

In "At the Fishhouses," emotion and contemplation intersects beautifully with the natural world. The poem is a bit long, so I've excerpted some lines here so visit Poem Hunter for the full version, which I highly recommend reading. The first stanza describes our location and gives us a place to enter. We know it is cold, an old man is netting, and the “air smells so strong of codfish it makes one’s nose run and one’s eyes water.” After the first stanza, the speaker engages the fisherman. This is the moment when a human connection moves us beyond the landscape and the poem’s emotion begins to reveal itself. No longer is the speaker an observer, but a participant in the landscape she described.

“There are sequins on his vest and on his thumb.
He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty,
from the unnumbered fish with that black old knife,
the blade of which is almost worn away.”

These four lines reveal Bishop’s contemplation of what might appear ordinary at first glance. “The principal beauty” elevates the “unnumbered fish” to a place where they are not unnoticed, but studied. Then, the “black old knife” implies the passage of time, as the years spent scraping the fish have caused its blade to dull. Later, Bishop likens knowledge to a physical experience of touching the water with your skin. “If you should dip your hand in,/your wrist would ache immediately.” How deeply we can feel that here, still being a bit chilled from wandering past the fishhouses and talking with the fisherman, all the while rubbing our hands to keep warm.

The sea is described by its influence on human skin, its destructive force, its power as an element. It is through this landscape that Bishop has combined emotion, thought and images of the natural world in an expression of the senses. What I enjoy most about this poem is that we are invited to participate, and by doing so, the speakers discoveries become our discoveries as readers.

Although crab isn't explicitly referenced in this poem, it's the kind of ingredient you would except to find in the landscape she created. The lump crab meat is slightly sweet, twirling with the heat of cayenne and paprika on your tongue and breadcrumbs laced with lemon zest and parsley freshens everything up. Even though I never made it until now, never drove home from East Beach with a pound of fresh crab, this recipe contains many fond memories of my years spent in Santa Barbara and the period in which I studied Elizabeth Bishop so intensely. How wonderful it is that food can anchor us so beautifully to memories of the past.


Recipe inspired by Crab Imperial, Saveur

The sauce is thick and clingy, but not overtly so. One could make the case for slightly more sauce, but I didn't want the sweetness of the crab to start getting lost. Shells work nicely here, as the pieces of crab and gooey cheese can easily find their way inside.

1 pound whole wheat pasta shells
1 small onion, minced
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons whole grain flour
2 cups whole milk
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon dry mustard
Juice of 1 lemon
1 cup grated fontina
1 cup grated white cheddar
1 pound lump crab meat
1 cup Panko breadcrumbs
A few tablespoons of chopped parsley
Zest of 1 lemon

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add salt, then the pasta, and cook for 4 to 5 minutes; drain and set aside.

While the pasta cooks, sauté the onions in a small pan with salt and pepper, until translucent.

Into the same pot used to boil the pasta, add the butter and melt over medium heat. Sprinkle the flour over the butter and whisk to combine, cooking for 1-2 minutes. Slowly whisk in the milk. Raise the heat slightly and cook until thickened, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the dry spices, lemon, grated cheese, onions, and stir to encourage the cheeses to melt. Season with more salt and pepper. Add the crab meat and pasta and stir until very well coated, then pour into a large baking dish. (If making ahead, you can stop here, cover with foil, and refrigerate until ready to bake.)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Toast 1 cup panko breadcrumbs with 1/4 cup chopped parsley and the zest of 1 lemon. Season with salt and pepper and cook until just golden (they will continue browning in the oven).

Spread panko evenly over the pasta and bake covered for 30 minutes, then remove the foil and continue baking another 15 minutes, until the breadcrumbs are golden brown.