Poetry Shelf Theme Season: Twelve poems about food

Oven baked salmon

I like my fat cooking pot

I like my fat wild heart

Paula Green, from Cookhouse, Auckland University Press, 1997

My theme-season introductions seem like miniature self confessions on life and poetry. Crikey! I always have much to say about food and poetry because I love cooking and I love writing. My first book Cookhouse got scathing reviews either for being too domestic or for being too experimental. I walked around the supermarket on a Sunday morning reading the first review of my first book saying OMG OMG OMG. It was my first lesson as a writer: leave reviews with the person who wrote them. Just get on with what you love. A few weeks later I opened the Listener and there was a photograph of Cookhouse on the recipe page with a Marcella Hazan cookbook ( I loved her recipes!). Plus one of my poems, sitting on the page like a recipe. That was my second lesson as a writer. Your books and poetry find their way into surprising places and you will never know how your poetry touches people. Although sometimes you get an inkling: a stranger might walk up to you, or send an email or a card, and surprise you (in a good way!).

I can’t keep food out of my poetry and I am equally drawn to writers with similar intent. It is one reason I am such a fan of Nina Mingya Powle’s poetry. Her poems lead in multiple directions but the sensual hooks are often sparked by food. Ian Wedde is the same. I adore The Commonplace Odes. It has always mattered what food I put in my body, and it is a bit the same with with poetry. I want to cook a meal that tastes good and I want poetry that satisfies my reading tastebuds whether I am writing or reviewing. In fact don’t call me a reviewer please. And I am not actually very kind. I simply love reading poetry and sharing my engagements. Just as I love cooking a meal every night for my family.

The poems selected are not so much about food but revel in a presence of food to varying degrees. Grateful thanks to the publishers and poets who continue to support my season of themes.

The Poems

De-stringing beans

A mountain of runner beans

to top and tail and de-string.

She decides to do it for them: her sons

so they will be eaten this evening

sliced into green splinters

with pink seeds showing through.

Easier to sit than stand. Her best profile

towards the door when her son appears.

She wants to disguise how content she is.

The stringy edges, tops and tails, in a dish

the beans growing, like a mountain of shoes

later to be wrapped in tinfoil

roughly divided into two.

No one else in the family will eat them.

In an article it says they are underrated

almost despised as a vegetable

underestimated on two counts

or three: first the vigorous way

they climb, clamber to the sun

second they are rich in iron

and last and best: this contentment

so rarely found, except in

a painting of a woman pouring from a jug

someone bathing someone in a tub

this mountainous-seeming task

calming with each stroke of the knife.

Elizabeth Smither

little walnuts

served from across the seas

in a tin or a jar, fished from suitcases

presented

with grandmotherly dimples

little walnuts – xiao he tao

proudly, good for brain.

except neurons are firing

in staccato, half-

forgotten Mandarin.

they manage xie xie and dutifully

I eat them.

I forget why I ask for these –

the carnage of shells

scraps of brown meat

and a strange invasion staged

on my tongue – slow

and clumsy muscle.

I am quick to rise – you do not get to comment on what’s in my lunch box

but just as quick to pick

the yolks of my too-dry lotus mooncakes –

discarded suns

of a world in hieroglyphs.

and when I have counted

waves of sleep – yi, er, san

I don’t dream in the same vowels.

what can I bring back for you?

her smile like furls of steaming jasmine tea

amidst clamouring children

hawking their wants like roadside wares

or suitcase wheels clicking on concrete

destined for smog and skyscrapers.

I always ask for my little walnuts.

*Little walnut or xiao he tao is a particular kind of Chinese walnut with a distinct sweet-salty flavour.

Joy Tong

from A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand, eds Paula Morris and Alison Wong, Auckland University Press, 2021

The proper way to make tea 

It is a cold dry day in late November. 

I take the Jubilee line 

to Bond Street 

change for Mile End 

and wait for the District line

to slowly deposit me at East Ham. 

She peers through the glass door 

small and wrinkled 

like a nut. 

We both smile. 

The worn aluminium pan on the stove is waiting 

thick slices of white bread brown. 

A faint smell of gas 

and toast 

and warm kitchen air. 

A stainless-steel container of yoghurt 

made last night 

sets quietly on the bench. 

Two leftover rotli 

press into each other 

in the tin.

She pours milk, water 

and heaped teaspoons of 

tea leaves and sugar 

into the pan.

Her tiny body

stands watchfully 

as she nudges the heat. 

Reaching for the mugs 

her sari slips off her shoulder. 

She tugs it back and the milk 

erupts

upward and outward

the creamy brown foam 

puffing up 

a breaking wave flecked with dark seaweed. 

Our wooden chairs creak 

muffled voices 

rumble through the wall 

butter soaks the toast. 

We sit together 

mugs of chai between us 

steam mingling like breath. 

Neema Singh

from A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand, eds Paula Morris and Alison Wong, Auckland University Press, 2021

With Nectarines

                                    to Claire Beynon        

A cob loaf rests on a surface,

perhaps a table, an altar, a jetty,

that reaches over a shoreline toward dark water

and the approaching edge of night.

Out there an indigo quiet where the sky lowers to sea,

clouds shouldering weight of storm to come;

a hint of beach, airborne flicks of white,

where seabirds swoop for fish and scraps.

On this side of a sill,

the bread, and a bowl of tawny nectarines

occupy foreground that’s human with light,

with hearth-glow in the corner,

tended against incoming cold.

The bread is warm from the oven,

the fruit ripe, and the room that extends

from the canvas edge into my lived space

where the painting hangs, included as offering

to the sombre air,

to anyone who comes to this threshold, empty.

Carolyn McCurdie

Super Wine

The news is early or his clock is slow,

so he grabs his mug of tea and pops

a biscuit in his pocket,

the top pocket of a faded old coat.

It’s a wreck of a thing, this coat of his.

a shamefully limp and grubby article,

but he wears it through the news and Campbell Live

and on into the night,

and he wears it when he leaves his little flat

and slips up the lane and out into the park

and lights a cigarette

(his skinny nine-o’clocker

and the last of the day).

And he smells the smells of mown grass and woodsmoke,

and he walks across the park towards the lights,

the lights of the houses on the hill,

secular stars of silver and orange,

and he walks beneath the frosty stars themselves,

this unmarried, unmended man,

this unmarried, not-unhappy Earthling,

A Super Wine forgotten in his pocket.

Geoff Cochrane

from Pocket Edition, Victoria University Press, 2009

If you love me you’ll buy Bluff oysters and cook asparagus. Even though I don’t like either.

for Kirsten Holst, for feeding me many good things

and for Alison and Peter, for their Bluff oysters and asparagus

When I am no longer who I was

I can only hope that I will be loved by someone

so much that every day during Bluff oyster season

they will buy me a dozen Bluff oysters.

Even though they don’t like Bluff oysters

they will buy them for me

and every day I will exclaim

“I can’t even remember the last time I had Bluff oysters!”;

they will nod at the extreme length of time it has been.

When I am no longer who I was                                                                                      

and when Bluff oyster season is over

I can only hope that I will be loved by someone so much

they will cook me freshly picked asparagus every day.

Even though they don’t like asparagus

they will grow it for me and pick it for me

and lightly steam it

so that I can relish it served with hollandaise sauce

(although some days more lazily served with butter and lemon).

I will eat it with my fingers

and let the sauce (or butter) dribble down my chin;

no one will mind or tell me to be less messy

it will just be moments of edible joy.

In reality I don’t like Bluff oysters (or any oysters)

and I can’t stand asparagus (the taste and texture are disturbing);

I can only hope that maybe someone will love me enough

to buy and cook me the things that I love

even though they hate them, even though I won’t remember.

Paula Harris

the great pumpkin war

standing in the kitchen crying

beaten by a vegetable

thought by now it would be easier

people have suggested this (people i trust)

the myth of progress

you do something every day it gets easier

in reality each day the dirt accrues

it multiplies between cupboard doors

i am running out of resources

i am getting further & further into

the ten-year warranty on the fridge compressor

one day soon i will have to pick up the knife

& address the pumpkin in the room

bought so cheaply from the farmers’ market

now growing larger by the day

taking up all the bench space

i fear for the fruit bowl

my mother says to drop it from a height

she throws hers down the stone garden steps

my previous attempt resulted in

20 minutes lost to searching for an unscathed pumpkin

trying to break open a pumpkin at night

is like starting a winter war in russia

i am letting everything get out of control

i sleep knowing it is getting worse

i do not think i can win at this

i do not think i can carry on in any capacity

Rhys Feeney

from AUP New Poets 7, ed Anna Jackson, Auckland University Press, 2020

The Cheese Scone Recipe as Promised

What’s the secret, people ask,

why do your students return

year after year to your class?

Cheese scones, I say, crisp

on the outside, soft inside

like all good characters. First,

turn up the heat, 200 degrees

should do it. Next, sift two cups

of self-rising flour, holding the sieve

high, letting the flour fall like snow

in the air, then add a heaped half

teaspoon each of salt, mustard powder

and a good pinch of cayenne for a lick

of fire. Stir and rub in 30 grams

of butter. If in a hurry, as I usually am,

you can grate the butter or cheat

with the food processor,

but do not go all the way, stop

at the crumbly stage, add 75 grams

of grated cheese, then beat a large egg,

with about 75 mils of buttermilk,

(if you have none, add lemon juice to milk,

rest it for ten minutes). Breaking

the drought pour into the dry ingredients,

mixing first with a knife, then lightly

with your hands to bring the soft dough

together. If it seems too dry

add more buttermilk, but like

it’s a newborn and precious, go easy

with your handling, remembering

scones and poems need a light touch.

Cool hands, my mother said,

though mine have always been hot.

Roll the dough out in a rough circle,

not too thin, about 2.5 cm thick.

With students due any minute,

I usually take the lazy way, divide

it roughly into 8 triangles but you might

be wanting to impress your mother

or daughter-in-law, and have the time

and the aesthetic sense for fluted cutters.

Appearance improves the taste

so brush the tops with milk, sprinkle

on a little grated cheese, and a dusting

of cayenne. Bake on a high shelf

for about 15 minutes till golden

and irresistible. Making scones

is not dissimilar to crafting a poem,

you need to pay attention to detail,

measuring, mixing, letting in air,

but there the recipe ends.

What I haven’t talked of can not

like metaphor, be quantified, the secret is

to bring to the process, a little of you.

Diane Brown

the children open their

lunch boxes to each other

a ham sandwich

for a Fijian fried egg and three cassava sticks

a mini feta quiche

for a South Indian roti parcel stuffed

with cumin and okra

a tub of yogurt

for a Middle Eastern pouch of semolina

sautéed in ghee and cardomens

a celery stick

for a Tongan plantation ladyfinger banana

a juice box for

fresh Kiribati island toddy

the wooden decks approve

their slats on standby to suck evidence

of sharing and spit them into the crawl space

beneath the salivating joists

it’s the allergies

                            the adults

                                                the food policies

                                                                                  and

the way fear feeds us all

Mere Taito

P r o p e r t i e s


You’ll need oil –
For your forehead on Ash Wednesday, for the insides and outsides
of your palms. For sore inner ears and lifeless hair. For removing
the evil eye – that’s the most important. Though not one in the family
knows the ritual, better to be with, than without.

Grapes and leaves –
For your rice and pinenuts, for your grape jelly.

And ash –
For the grape jelly – vine cinders to be precise. For holy crosses
over the front doors of your houses or workplaces. For the bottoms
of incense holders – hubris to clear it out.

Rose petals –
For gravestones, but mostly for the preserve that fits into a spoon
followed by icy water.

Water
From the priest, for drinking in the first month of the year
and sprinkling in every room. For keeping in the fridge thereafter.
For putting chamomile into – tea or warm compresses.

Garlic
For everything. For mashing up and applying with honey to sores.
For rubbing on styes. For wrapping in bread and swallowing whole
when feverish. For shooing away evil by saying the word alone –
along with a spitting sound.

Vana Mansiadis

from Ithaca Island Bay Leaves: A Mythistorima, Seraph Press, 2009

1.2 To the cookbook

Turning east, I drove towards blue grey

Mountains down which cloud crawled

From summits which were already sky. High in it

A glare like grubby porcelain told me that morning

Was advanced. The nibbled winter paddocks were over-

Written in a language no one had ever taught me:

Glottal, almost choking, wet. Lines

Of leafless shelter-belt enwrapped the shorter

Rows of berryfruit trellises in need

Of pruning. My destination: an art gallery.

My mission: to speak about art and poetry.

It was going to be all over before I got there.

Quintus Horatius Flaccus, help me

In my hour of need, help me turn my back

on landscape that wants to be art, on poetry with feet

Of clay. The lovely world has everything I need,

It has my kids, my sweetheart, my friends, it has a new book

With mouth-watering risotto recipes in it,

The kind of plump rice you might have relished,

Horace, in the Sabine noon, yellowed with saffron.

‘The zen poet’ is another of you, he wrote a poem

About making stew in the desert which changed my life.

A good cookbook is as good as a book of poems

Any day, because it can’t be more pretentious

Than the produce you savour with friends as night falls.

Ian Wedde

from The Common Place Odes, Auckland University Press, 2001

Custard

When I was smaller than the family dog,

Dad would tell Mum

that he was taking me to kōhanga.

Then we’d go to the bakery

and get as many custard pies

as we could handle.

Park up by the river,

talk,

eat,

listen to the radio a while.

He’d light one up

as fat as the mighty brown trout,

captured and killed

and lull me to sleep

with a puku full of custard

in his red van

with all his windows up.

Now I am grown

and you ask me to explain something you said.

My eyes glaze

and all I can see is that

red van,

pastry flakes resting

in the corners of my sleeping mouth.

Ruby Solly

from Tōku Pāpā, Victoria University Press, 2021

The Poets

Diane Brown is a novelist, memoirist, and poet who runs Creative Writing Dunedin, teaching fiction, memoir and poetry. She is the Poetry Editor for ‘The Mix’ in the Otago Daily Times. Her latest book is a poetic novella, Every Now and Then I Have Another Child, Otago University Press 2020.

Geoff Cochrane is the author of 19 collections of poetry, mostly recently Chosen (2020), two novels, and Astonished Dice: Collected Short Stories (2014). In 2009 he was awarded the Janet Frame Prize for Poetry, in 2010 the inaugural Nigel Cox Unity Books Award, and in 2014 an Arts Foundation of New Zealand Laureate Award.

Rhys Feeney is a high school teacher in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. You can buy Rhys’ debut collection, “soyboy,” as part of AUP New Poets 7

Paula Harris lives in Palmerston North, where she writes and sleeps in a lot, because that’s what depression makes you do. She won the 2018 Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize and the 2017 Lilian Ida Smith Award. Her writing has been published in various journals, including The Sun, Hobart, Passages North, New Ohio Review and Aotearotica. She is extremely fond of dark chocolate, shoes and hoarding fabric. website: www.paulaharris.co.nz | Twitter: @paulaoffkilter | Instagram: @paulaharris_poet | Facebook: @paulaharrispoet]

Vana Manasiadis is Greek-New Zealand poet and translator born in Te Whanganui-a-Tara and based in Tāmaki Makaurau after many years living in Kirihi Greece.  She is 2021 Ursula Bethell Writer-in-Residence at Te Whare Wanaga o Waitaha Canterbury University. Her most recent book was The Grief Almanac: A Sequel.

Carolyn McCurdie is a Dunedin writer, mostly of poetry and fiction. Her poetry collection ‘Bones in the Octagon’ was published by Makaro Press in 2015.

Neema Singh is a poet from Christchurch of Gujarati Indian descent. Her work appears in Ko Aotearoa Tātou: We Are New Zealand(2020) and A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand (2021) and she is currently working on her first collection of poetry, a series of poems unfolding the layers of culture, identity and history contained within ordinary moments. Neema is an experienced secondary school English teacher and holds a Master of Creative Writing from The University of Auckland.

Elizabeth Smither ‘s new collection of stories: ‘The Piano Girls’ will be published in May by Quentin Wilson Publishing.

Ruby Solly (Kāi Tahu, Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe) is a writer, musician and taonga pūoro practitioner living in Pōneke. She has been published in journals such as LandfallStarling and Sport, among others. In 2020 she released her debut album, Pōneke, which looks at the soundscapes of Wellington’s past, present and future through the use of taonga pūoro, cello, and environmental sounds. She is currently completing a PhD in public health, focusing on the use of taonga pūoro in hauora Māori. Tōku Pāpā, published in Februrary 2021, is her first book.

Mere Taito is a poet living and working in Kirikiriroa.She is interested in the way poetry can be used to revitalise minority Indigenous languages like Fäeag Rotuạm ta.

Joy Tong picks wildflowers from neighbours’ fences, pets strangers’ dogs and chases stories in the streets. She’s a student, musician and writer from Tāmaki Makaurau and her other works can be found in LandfallMayhem and Starling, as well as A Clear Dawn, an anthology for NZ-Asian voices.

Ian Wedde was born in Blenheim, New Zealand, in 1946. He lives with his wife Donna Malane in Auckland. ‘To the cookbook’ is from a sequence called The Commonplace Odes, published as a book by Auckland University Press in 2001. He was New Zealand Poet Laureate in 2011.

Ten poems about clouds

Twelve poems about ice

Ten poems about dreaming

Eleven poems about the moon

Twelve poems about knitting

Ten poems about water

Twelve poems about faraway

Fourteen poems about walking

5 thoughts on “Poetry Shelf Theme Season: Twelve poems about food

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  3. Pingback: Paula Green’s Poetry Themes – Janis Freegard's Weblog

  4. Pingback: Poetry Shelf Theme Season: Thirteen poems about light | NZ Poetry Shelf

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