"The Art of Hunger" by Sally Ashton + Clam Risotto

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I was a writer long before I started cooking, but the more I developed a passion for being in the kitchen, the more I noticed similarities between these two mediums, or art forms, to pull from the title of today's poem.

At their core, cooking and writing both begin with ingredients. For cooking, rice, clams, stock. For writing, a character, a pen, an urge. Next, action is required. Rice is stirred, clams are steamed, stock is simmered. Words are placed one after the other, sentences are formed, thoughts completed. The plate is garnished with parsley. The page is finished with periods. Both efforts create something from nothing.

In this poem, Sally Ashton recalls a writer's residency. These experiences can often be immersive. Writers may spend the majority of the day toiling on their projects, finally taking a well-deserved break for dinner to stretch their legs and their mind, and to enjoy a good meal. During dinner service one evening, Sally watched the chef set out the day's offerings, then composed a poem likening the chef's movements to her own.

The Art of Hunger

by Sally Ashton

The chef in her black striped sun
dress unloads peonies and loaves
into a wire cart artfully filled

and wheels it from car to kitchen her
movements make me hungry
each a preparation for the next

meal I think she isn’t thinking
that she thinks what I think writing
this what to put in what leave out

what arrangement of elements what
narrative which flesh herb seed
flame what appetite to press in upon.

                For N.F. 

Sally Ashton is Editor-in-Chief of DMQ Review. She is the author of three poetry collections, These Metallic Days, Her Name Is Juanita, and most recently Some Odd Afternoon. She teaches at San Jose State University.

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When I asked Sally about food memories from her residency, she rattled off a few dishes like grilled pizza, clams, and whole mackerel. The food was very fresh, seasonal, and just what writers needed to feel nourished after a long day of writing.

The clams intrigued me. Elegant when nestled between creamy grains of rice, clams offer an elegance, but are part of a meal that's utterly comforting. Whether fresh produce or word choices, the idea that both chefs and writers question what to leave in or out is a bond we share. It's a question we will never cease to answer. The not knowing, and the promise of clarity and understanding (or at least a glimpse of it that might reveal itself through our work) might be just the push we need to keep at our craft day after day. 

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Clam Risotto

The amount of stock you'll need will be dependent on the clams. After they cook, reserve their juice. (My pound of clams gave off about 1/4 to 1/2 cup of juice.)  In total, you'll want between 4-5 cups of liquid. If you can spring for it, 2 pounds of clams would be even better!

1 pound clams
4-5 cups vegetable stock
1 shallot
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
Parsley or chives, for garnish

Heat a tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat and add the clams. Cook, partially covered, for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the clams open. You'll hear when they're ready; the clams will burst and their shells will arc back as if they're releasing into a long stretch. When all the clams have opened, turn off the heat. Remove the meat from each clam and place it into a bowl; reserve the shells. Add as much vegetable stock to the pan as you need to reach 5 cups; add the shells back to the stock and simmer. 

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a deep, heavy sauté pan over medium heat. Add the shallot and cook for 2-3 minutes, until translucent; do not let them brown. Stir in the rice and toast for 2-3 minutes.

Pour in the wine and let it simmer until the liquid is absorbed, and continue scraping the pan so that the rice doesn’t stick. Season the rice and add a pinch of salt, then begin adding stock a ladle at a time, stirring often, and allowing most of the liquid to be absorbed before adding more. The rice is cooked once the grains are al dente, fully cooked but with a soft bite on the inside.

Turn off the heat and vigorously beat in the butter and cheese with a wooden spoon to help it emulsify with the rice. Really shake the pan back and forth with one hand while stirring with the other. Continue stirring with abandon until all the ingredients have been incorporated. Serve immediately, garnished with additional Parmesan cheese and parsley. 

"Why I Am Not a Painter" by Frank O'Hara + Sardine and White Bean Salad


Some artists board themselves up in a room for weeks until the canvas or the typewriter inspires them. Others obsessively carry notebooks so that ideas can be captured the moment it strikes. Some go on retreats in the woods or by the sea, cut off from their digital lives for weeks at a time. Others look for it in their daily lives, in small doses that fit between work and school and errands.

The creative process has always been somewhat of a mystery, mostly because it affects each of us differently, and it can take years to fully understand how your own creativity ebbs and flows. One day, Frank O'Hara decided to write a poem about this very topic. "Why I Am Not a Painter" invites us in as if we are a friend sitting across from him at the dinner table, having a conversation.

"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 career. I intertwined these nuggets throughout more anchoring bits of 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.