Living With Poetry | The Heat of Winter


When you rinse beans in a colander and rustle them with you hand, they sound like pebbles collected from a rocky beach. 

That's one reason why I love cooking with beans, the gentle sound they make. Some other more practical- and nutritionally-based reasons are that they're good for you, creamy on the inside, and are easy to make and freeze for later. If I have cooked beans in the house, I know a decent meal is always achievable. So I've been making a lot of beans this month, from garbanzo beans for hummus to black and pinto beans for chili. All beans have been welcome.

Sunshine, also, has been welcome, although its abundance is an embarrassment of riches given the circumstances in other parts of the country.  I'm not one to complain about the heat of winter. In California, it's a constant reminder of how good we have it, but with all the 75-degree weather we've been having (sorry, East Coast folks!), I've been craving cold. Not too much, of course, but a weekend of good, consistent rain would make me very happy. (I prefer rain on Saturdays when I can stay at home and enjoy it, not when I have to get on the freeway and drive to work.)


I always watch Hello, Dolly when it rains. And I make soup. But so far, there hasn't been a good day for this, so all the parasols and parades and musical numbers will have to wait until the mood strikes. Aside from failing to watch a favorite movie, the constant warm weather is also causing drought and fire, two things we're far too familiar with in California and that a good dose of rain could help quell. But I can't avoid soup for too long, even when it's warm, so I've been making a series of stews with meat or grains or beans that lend a bit of heft and offer up profound satisfaction. 


That's January so far. Sunshine, beans, stews, and re-reading Jane Hirshfield's After. Reading a poetry collection by Jane Hirshfield is like standing on the edge of a mountain and letting your face absorb the wind. Her poems just resonate. They always make you feel something, usually more than one thing, and make you think and question long after the book has been placed back on the shelf. That's been my experience, anyway. This poem, in particular, seemed well suited for a discussion of beans in the new year.

Two Washings

by Jane Hirshfield

One morning in a strange bathroom
a woman tries again and again to wash the sleep
from her eyelids' corners,
until she understands.  Ah, she thinks, it begins.
Then goes to put on the soup,
first rerinsing the beans, then lifting the cast-iron pot
back onto the stove with two steadying hands.

From After, Harper Perennial, 2006

It's remarkable how much we can learn of this woman in seven lines. The fact that she's in a strange bathroom is telling, and points to an upheaval of some kind. But she's not in a hotel or on vacation escaping, because unless she's rented a little flat with a kitchen and gone to the market, she wouldn't be rinsing beans before the sun comes up. She must be staying with someone. A friend, more than a friend, a family member. Wherever she is, she is trying to steady her hands again. Two washings for the beans, two for the spirit. 


Barley, Bean and Mustard Greens Stew

Recipe adapted from Bon Appetit

A photo of this soup occupied a full page in the January issue of Bon Appetit, and I dog-eared it immediately. The original recipe uses spelt, but since I had a mason jar full of barley in the pantry, I made a simple substitution. Farro would also do nicely here. I reduced the red pepper flakes from 3/4 teaspoon to 1/2 teaspoon and felt that the soup had plenty of spice, so modify this to your liking.

1 medium onion, chopped
1 small fennel bulb, cored and chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
1 cup barley
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
12 cups vegetable stock
1/2 head escarole, leaves torn into pieces
2 cups cooked cannellini or navy beans
Parmesan cheese, for serving

Dump the onion, fennel, carrot and celery into the bowl of a food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Heat the oil in a large stock pot over medium heat. Add the barley and cook, stirring often, until the grains are slightly browned and smell fragrant, about 3 minutes.

Add the vegetables and season with a generous pinch of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add the tomato paste and red pepper flakes, and cook until the paste is well-incorporated, about 1 minute.

Pour the broth into the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, until the barley is tender, about 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the grain. Stir in escarole and beans and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes, or until the escarole is wilted and the beans have warmed through. Serve drizzled with additional oil and topped with Parmesan shavings. 


ETP Contest, First Place: "Sukiyaki" by Linda Parsons Marion + Japanese Hot Pot

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It's contest week on Eat This Poem! After months of review, I'm excited to be announcing the first place winner of the inaugural ETP contest and share the accompanying recipe.

I read this poem three times before moving on to the rest of the pile. The words are striking in a raw, emotional way, at times violent and unforgiving. The story of marriage and divorce, and of tasting new flavors, was complex, not unlike the soup at the core of this poem. Linda Parsons Marion's poem is a testament to the power of food, memory, and the ties that bind us together. I hope you'll be just as moved and inspired as I was. 


by Linda Parsons Marion

My stepmother stirs swift tides of sesame
and soy, strange sea bubbling dark. Nights
she rocks that samurai blade, flank or roundsteak
soaking the drainboard, a brace of greentailed
scallions hacked headless. Taught the ancient ways
by her brother’s war bride, who shadowed him
to Tennessee with eyes downcast, she sugars the beef,
dipped in egg beaten bright as rising suns. Raised
on Boyardee and La Choy, I enter her kitchen
like a bamboo grove, part paradise, part unknowable,
exotic as distant Osaka. From one slippery shore
to another, my mother’s cold shoulder to the steam
of ribboned onions, red meat cut on the bias.
Ricebowl filled, I ladle an extra sorghum-slow
syllable, suk-i-ya-ki, my tongue trying new salt.

First published in A Tapestry of Voices: The Knoxville Writers’ Guild 2011 Anthology, 2010. Reprinted with permission from the Knoxville Writers' Guild.

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Q&A With Linda Parsons Marion

Tell us a bit about the genesis of the poem and what compelled you to write it.
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I wrote “Sukiyaki” for an anthology published by the Knoxville Writers’ Guild whose focus was diversity, A Tapestry of Voices (2010). I wanted to continue exploring the food issues in my childhood regarding my mother and stepmother, with an added layer of ‘foreignness.’ I’d begun this exploration in my second book, Mother Land, with the poem “Mother Wars,” about my mother’s homemade macaroni and cheese and my preference (at that time) for Kraft mac ‘n cheese, used by my stepmom. Oh, how things have changed! I was drawn to the modernness and comfort of my stepmother, who was twenty when she married my father and is only thirteen years older than I. She loved to play and offered me the peace and refuge of a ‘normal’ homelife when I visited on the weekends. My mother suffers from bipolar disorder, an illness no one understood in those days (1950s-60s), least of all a child torn between two worlds.

"Sukiyaki" is a poem that evokes a vivid memory. How many years passed between the experience of trying sukiyaki for the first time and writing the poem? 

Close to fifty years! I left my mother at the age of eleven to live with my dad and stepmother. I remember my stepmom making the dish after I was with them full-time. Her brother served in the Navy right after the war and married a Japanese woman, but the sukiyaki is the only Japanese dish I recall her making.

The poem depicts moving from one existence to another—mother to mother, culture to culture (Japan to Tennessee), familiar to exotic, uncertainty and fear to security, taste to taste, etc. The strangeness of sukiyaki, the dish and the name itself, illustrates my stepping into a new life, still feeling the guilt and angst of leaving my mother behind—that “slippery shore” I navigated, “part paradise, part unknowable.”

For someone raised on Chef Boyardee and La Choy, Japanese flavors must have been a shock to the palate. Did you take to the cuisine right away?

As I said, the sukiyaki symbolized the ‘newness’ I entered when I moved in with my dad and stepmom. How would I embrace this change? How would I begin again (especially during the rocky years of adolescence)? As for the dish itself, I most remember the saltiness of soy and the wonderful scallions and rice, but the soy sauce wasn’t that different from the Worchester we poured on our steaks! Salt, salt, salt. My dad was a traveling salesman and, when he returned home on the weekends, he wanted his beef—roasts, T-bones. Even so, all of my parents (and I) were raised on—and still love—traditional southern dishes like chicken and dumplings, fried fruit pies, cornbread, homegrown tomatoes, pintos, green beans cooked to death with fatback (but oh, so good), etc.

Download the anthology to read the rest of Linda's interview. 

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Japanese Hot Pot

Adapted from White on Rice Couple

Serves 4 to 6

Sukiyaki is a type of nab, or Japanese hot pot. Traditional recipes include thinly sliced beef and vegetables like mushrooms and green onions simmered in a flavorful broth of sake, soy sauce, and sugar. It is often served with a beaten egg that the vegetables are dipped in before eating, and is endlessly adaptable depending on the ingredients accessible to you. Essentially, it's Japanese comfort food. 

This post from White on Rice Couple is a very comprehensive overview of Japanese hot pot cooking. Reading their description of the method reminded me of Italian minestrone in the sense that there are some general guidelines worth noting, but improvisation is encouraged. To this end, I made adaptations to suit my taste, and hope you feel inspired to do so as well. The ingredients below are easily adaptable, and you can serve your broth with white rice or soba noodles. 

Vegetable oil
3/4 pound grass fed sirloin, thinly sliced
4-6 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
1 Napa cabbage, halved lengthwise and sliced
4 scallions, sliced into 2-inch pieces
5 to 6 large Shiitake mushrooms, sliced
3 to 4 ounces bunapi mushrooms
4 cups vegetable stock
1/4 cup Japanese soy sauce (use the best you can find)
1 to 2 tablespoons sugar
1 bunch watercress
Cooked short grain white rice for serving

In a 5-quart cast iron stock pot, warm the pan over medium heat and add 1 tablespoon of oil. Add the beef slices in a single layer (as best you can), season with 1/2 teaspoon salt, and brown each side; place in a large bowl.

With the pot still on medium-high heat, add 2 tablespoons of oil, then add the shallots, cabbage, and scallions. It will take only a minute or two for the cabbage to wilt and the shallots to brown in places; reduce the heat to low and add the mushrooms. Stir to coat, season with 1 teaspoon salt, and cook for 3 to 5 minutes. 

Add the stock, sugar, and soy sauce, and gently place the beef back in the pot; simmer for 10 minutes. Place the watercress on top, then cook 1 minute more, until just wilted. Place rice into bowls and ladle soup over the top.

"The Quiet World" by Jeffrey McDaniel + Ginger Noodle Soup

Quiet is difficult to find most days. We can schedule it, we crave it, and must be purposeful in our quest for peace and order. Even my dog is a heavy breather, so when she sleeps sideways in her bed, I can still hear her in the next room.

This poem makes a good case for silence. What seems absurd at first read—limiting our speech to 167 words per day—is actually a compelling idea. What would we say if we had less than 200 words to say it in? It would force us to think before we speak, become calculated, thoughtful, and only focus on that which is the most important. By the end of the poem, we find two lovers that have used all their words, and can do nothing but listen to each other breathe. This poem reminds us of what can still be said in the silences, and how just existing next to one another, we communicate in a deeply intimate way without uttering a single word.