Poetry of the Kitchen: Poems as Recipes, Recipes as Poems

 I love the way poets might take a single object, or thought, and with the tight singular lines of the sketch artist, create a whole new way of looking. In the same manner of photographers, I suspect, who always seek the odd angle, the unusual vantage point.

Upside down, inside out, bottoms up, heads down, sideways.

Sometimes recipe writers indulge in the pleasures of poetry and sometimes poets write recipes, too.* The simplest of recipes, here is one, embedded in Pablo Neruda’s glorious ode to the jewel-like tomato, gift of the New World to the Old.

 Ode To Tomatoes by Pablo Neruda

The street
filled with tomatoes,
light is
its juice
through the streets.
In December,
the tomato
the kitchen,
it enters at lunchtime,
its ease
on countertops,
among glasses,
butter dishes,
blue saltcellars.
It sheds
its own light,
benign majesty.
Unfortunately, we must
murder it:
the knife
into living flesh,
a cool
populates the salads
of Chile,
happily, it is wed
to the clear onion,
and to celebrate the union
child of the olive,
onto its halved hemispheres,
its fragrance,
salt, its magnetism;
it is the wedding
of the day,
its flag,
bubble vigorously,
the aroma
of the roast
at the door,
it’s time!
come on!
and, on
the table, at the midpoint
of summer,
the tomato,
star of earth, recurrent
and fertile
its convolutions,
its canals,
its remarkable amplitude
and abundance,
no pit,
no husk,
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers
its gift
of fiery color
and cool completeness.

*See chapter 9 in Henry Notaker’s A History of Cookbooks: From Kitchen to Page Over Seven Centuries (2017), pages 156-159.


Note: I wish all you a wonderful holiday season, whatever you celebrate. And even if you don’t celebrate anything at all, please, celebrate Life. I’ll be back with more after January 1, 2018!

The “Flash” in Flash Memoir

The flash in “flash memoir” refers to its brevity, yes,
but it also—and more importantly—refers to its “flash” of insight into human experience

~ Marilyn Bousquin

Memories come to me in flashes, short moments filling my mind with fleeting images, crystal-clear in their clarity while they last. Then, in the same way fog sweeps over mountain ridges, obscuring trees that stood moments before in stark relief against pale blue morning skies, those memories disappear in an instant.

A few months ago, I chose to chase down my memories, to wrestle them to the page, come what may. And I decided that the technique of flash memoir might work best for me, given the seeming conciseness and temporality of my memories. I likened these to pearls strung as a necklace, one by one, together forming a larger whole.

But I discovered something very interesting when I dug deeper into the whole concept of flash memoir. It’s not just a question of writing tight, clocking a certain number of words – usually less than 2000 and ideally around 1000.*

Effective flash, I’m learning, is more than a glance into a moment of life. More than a snapshot, though it is that, too. Memoirists must crack open the meaning of that moment, get behind the images and plumb the subtext. In other words, flash memoirists join literary hands with the earliest storytellers, who buried deep, universal insights in their tales. Hearing or reading these stories unveils the nature of being human. Those sages captured timeless truth, the themes of lives lived.

Family. Joy. Loneliness. Adventure. Loss. Awakening. Ambition. Defeat. Failure.

All this flash memoir must provide. And that’s very hard to do. The process requires deep introspection and a willingness to face the shadows of personality. Glossing over truths, or near-truths anyway, sets the stage for unreliable narration and a lack of connectedness between the reader and the writer.

Putting it all out there on the page is not for the faint of heart.

It’s a question of seeing the forest for the trees, it is.


Some examples of memoirs written in flash mode. Not all ideal, or even close, but nonetheless sturdy guideposts to grab on the journey!

Etel Adnan – In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country

Theodor Adorno – Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life

Beth Fennelly – Heating and Cooling

Penny Guisinger – Postcards from Here

Amy Leach – Things that Are: Essays

Denise Levertov – Tesserae: Memories and Suppositions

Maggie Nelson –  Bluets

Michael Ondaatje – Running in the Family

Tsh Oxenreifer – At Home in the World: Reflections on Belonging While Wandering the Globe

Alexis Paige – Not a Place on Any Map

Mary Louise-Parker’s –  Dear Mr. You

Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric

Sarah Ruhl – 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas

Patti Smith –  Woolgathering

Rebecca Solnit – The Faraway Nearby

Annie Spence – Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks: A Librarian’s Love Letters and Breakup Notes to the Books in Her Life

Lawrence Sutin – A Postcard Memoir

Abigail Thomas –  Safekeeping: Some true Stories from a Life  and What Comes Next and How to Like It

Nicole Walker – Micrograms

*Some publications go even lower in defining the genre as 750 words and no more (Brevity).

Tackling Memoir: Reliable and Unreliable Narrators

It’s a myth that writers write what they know, we write what it is that we need to know.

 -Marcie Hershman


1. a person who writes memoirs.

At first glance, it would seem that writing a memoir would be simple. I am, after all, filled with memories, some conscious and others not so much. Sometimes buried memories surface, like so many spirits on the Day of the Dead, with just a whiff of a scent. Or a taste.  Proust’s famous fixation on his madeleines comes to mind.

My Proustian moment came while I pawed through boxes of mildewed letters written over the years when I lived in Honduras. Handwritten on onionskin paper to save on prohibitive airmail postage costs, molecules of blue or black ink fading into the gibberish of hieroglyphics, these passports to my past signaled an SOS.

“Save us!” Before the mold destroys the faint script or the acid paper dissolves the words.

Or before the dimness of memory hijacks the so-called reliable narrator still living inside my head.

Some say that there is no such thing as a reliable narrator when it comes to memoirs. Perhaps that is so. But I believe it’s necessary to strive for that reliability. Otherwise, I’d be no better than the biggest sinners in the genre. James Frey comes to mind here. As does Lee Israel. And let’s not skip Vladimir Nabokov. I’d even add Elizabeth Gilbert’s narrator in Eat, Pray, Love to any list of unreliable narrators.

Life is not that idyllic.

About reliability, Vivian Gornick says “To state the case briefly, memoirs belong to the category of literature, not of journalism. What the memoirist owes [readers] is [the attempt] . . . to persuade [them] that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand.”

A memoirist, then, strives to appear to be reliable, evoking trust in the reader, even if it’s necessary to embellish things a bit to push the story forward.

Everyone has stories to tell. The stumbling block seems to be surpassing the “Who cares?” hurdle. Better yet, WHY should anyone care?

That’s the challenge right now.