Slicing carrots, onions, turnips, parsnips, and celery becomes a meditation for me on this sunny morning. Short ribs are browning in the big soup pot, to which I will add these vegetables, some water, a bay leaf, peppercorns, perhaps savory or parsley, and who knows what else from the cupboard or garden.
Throughout the day the aroma will fill my apartment. It will drift over to the room I call my office, where scraps of paper, notes for a poem I've been working on, lie scattered on my desk like pie-crust trimmings.
These two processes, cooking and writing – they're not all that different, really. They're creative crafts: a bit of this, a pinch of that, a metaphor, an adjective – add and stir, sample, refine.
I am a good cook. This fact is undisputed among family and friends. I know a woman who insists that she can cook only from a recipe. She measures everything precisely. To her, a half-teaspoon of oregano means exactly that. To me, a half-teaspoon of oregano is hardly worth putting in a sauce or salad dressing. I shake a small mound of the dried herb into my palm, sprinkle it in with other ingredients, stir, taste, smell, and either leave it or pinch in more.
While some cooks go to the market in midpreparation for a missing ingredient, I improvise. No Worcestershire sauce in my cupboard? Hmm ... I wonder if soy sauce or a balsamic glaze, maybe with a little miso or beef bouillon added, will work? No ground cumin? Let's try some curry powder. I have never liked restrictions. As far as I'm concerned, a recipe is merely a suggestion.
When someone says, "There's nothing to eat in this house," I look in the refrigerator, the freezer, and the pantry and ruminate.
How about some of those frozen shrimp or chicken strips? Add a little salsa, the remaining half jar of Trader Joe's bruschetta, some onion, garlic, a few sliced olives, capers, and a stalk or two of limp celery freshened under cold water.
Then sauté all and serve over rice, noodles, or potatoes, Veracruz style. Voilá! Or should I say olé?
For years I cooked the proverbial three meals a day for my husband and children. After the divorce, while taking on the new role of working woman, I still answered the call of "What's for dinner, Mom?" with meals from the freezer planned and prepared on the weekends.
Now, with children long gone from home and that career a memory, I cook what I want, when I want, for myself and sometimes for friends.
I continue to love food and experience the flavors, colors, and textures through the filter of the poet I have become in recent years.
I visit the neighborhood farmers' market as one visits a museum. There, the beauty of color and shape fills my eyes: greens of zucchini and frilly lettuces; bok choy stalked with white; the reds in apples and yellow-seeded strawberries; burnished purple eggplant; yellows, from buttery corn to verging-on-orange squashes.
So, too, my poetry, has been seasoned in no small way by what I've learned at the kitchen cutting board.
The process begins with inspiration, whether for a new recipe or poem. I collect ingredients – foods, herbs, and spices – or concepts – lines and phrases.
Next come preparation and crafting.
In cooking it may be paring, slicing, or sautéing. In poetry, word choice, line length, the musicality of sound.
Then a little more salt, a splash of Tabasco, more alliteration, a word with fewer syllables.
Let the pot bubble, rest overnight. Let the poem age a few days. Flavors and thoughts blend into body-nourishing, soul-filling creations.
Meanwhile, the afternoon light is turning toward dusk in my steamy kitchen. The soup continues to meld its flavors, as I sit with my back to the spice rack, a new poem simmers in my mind.