Book Review: Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps

book2-07-480x480My experience of my heritage is curiously American, curiously Jewish. My paternal great grandparents immigrated from Ukraine. I don’t know when, or if my grandfather was born yet, or if my paternal grandmother’s parents were also from Ukraine, or what my family’s name was before their passage through Ellis Island. In fact, I don’t think anyone knows what my family’s name was before. More than Jewish — an identity which my grandfather kept private and my father kept hardly at all by the time I was born — I saw them as big men in suits talking big business and 1950s New York zeitgeist, which is to say, I saw them as American.

But my father also loved to talk about and cook “Jewish peasant food,” reminiscing at holidays about his celebrations as a child of a big orthodox Jewish family, a big Baltimore Jewish community. But I had to ask my father to enroll me in Hebrew school when I was eleven so that I could be bar mitzvahed. I had picked up on this significant religious and cultural tradition from an American television show, “Hey Arnold!” It was also the age at which I first found the word “kike” and the age I can first remember my friends making anti-Semitic jokes. I don’t know if they learned their prejudice from a television show.

“Jews have been targets of genocide throughout history, but the Jews who were able to escape were often upper class and better able to assimilate,” Aaron Samuels said to me over the phone. I called him to discuss the sociopolitical aspects of his book, Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps. “We see this in Egypt, Babylonia, Persia, Russia, and so on.  Assimilation was a survival tactic, but not all Jews had access to it. Today Jews of color represent a counter-narrative to that assimilation.  But we need to remember that Jews have always been a multiracial group, since the beginning of our people.”

What’s most exciting to me about Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps is the strength of its counter narrative. It documents in beautiful and powerful verse Samuels’ navigation of his socially constructed identity and his personal experience of self as they mutually evolve from his childhood into his future. He writes his Judaism, his blackness, his masculinity, his sexuality.

Samuels’ book is in the Jewish tradition of midrash, the active construction of communal identity through retelling and reinterpreting stories. “What Really Happened on Mt. Moriah” is a harrowing retelling of the binding of Isaac that reroutes the Jewish abolition of human sacrifice through a collection of servants rather than a patriarchal sage. Samuels recasts the ten plagues and expands the stories of Moses’ exile from Egypt. But what feels most crucial is how he applies this technique of retelling to his own experience.

Sometimes it’s within one poem, like the winding repetition over locks of hair in “Which Keeps Me” or embedded in the structure of the poem as in “Covered In Grass”, which borrows from Tyehimba Jess’ contrapuntal technique. Some figures and events surface in several poems. Samuels’ repeated examinations of his brother, Jacob, and adoption of his voice in some poems fashions a powerful lens on family, culture, and the making of race. In “Tashlikh”, Samuels mythologizes his brother:

I imagined him a fourteen year old boy with cornrows. I imagined him skinny and fragile and guilty, and willing to jump into any sludge puddle to avoid his brother’s disappointement.

But we all saw a squid titan, a Moses of sorts, presenting the ram’s horn to his people like commandments, standing in a puddle of bread crumbs, happy to have something to blow about.

Reading poems with this much power loaded in the language and so much emotional candor makes me feel powerful myself. Aaron’s ability to take traditions like the dozens and midrash and unify them in one poetic language illustrates modernity in Judaism and historicity of black peoples, subverting common oppressive narratives. For many years I have been unsure in how to navigate my own Jewish identity, which has felt swallowed up by assimilation. Aaron’s defiance in the face of literary biases that devalue black expression, in the face of personal struggle between communities with which he identifies, in the face of a society bent on dehumanizing him and using him to dehumanize others, and his courage in closely studying himself and the world around him, empowers him and empowers me.

Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps by Aaron Levy Samuels is published by Write Bloody Publishing and can be purchased through their webstore.

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Book Review: Meg Eden’s A Week With Beijing

10703867_366566943505699_4637561000111228413_oI’ve never been to Beijing, so Meg Eden’s invitation to take a trip there via poetry was exciting. My exposure to Eden’s poetry, particularly her collection The Girl Who Came Back (which draws heavily on the Enchanted Forest, a dilapidated abandoned amusement park in Ellicott City) made me feel confident that even in a foreign land she would guide me with an expert eye to the private, hidden, and silent features that define the places I’ve known.

Eden’s Beijing is a woman expending outrageous effort and demanding complete control for the sake of her appearance, heightening the stakes of Eden’s attempt to take a candid look at her. But Eden does not shy away, leading the collection with “A List Of Banned Chinese Social Media Search Terms,” which additionally serves a short list of themes that seem constantly just behind the lips of Eden’s Beijing as she says, “there are some things that shouldn’t be talked about.” She proceeds to lead us on a tour of Beijing’s bedroom where bras and other sundries litter the floor.

megeden_headshot

Meg Eden

However, the strongest moments of the collection aren’t Beijing’s moments of vulnerability, but the speaker’s own. Through the collection, Eden’s speaker moves from a position of enthusiasm and excitement to disappointment to distance and detachment. The language that accompanies these transformations is insightful and inventive:

If we are name-stealers,
then call me Wendy Zhang.
Let me be twenty poets.
Let me run whole-heartedly
through pavement-seas
with this dangerous freedom.

From the picture Eden paints, I would be disappointed too. Beijing, both personified and as a setting is dirty, mean, judgmental, and inconsiderate. Inhabitants of the city are hustling bootlegged CDs, bootlegged restaurants, and bootlegged theme parks (the phrase “copyright infringement” appears twice in three pages). But these are many of the same pictures painted by American media, which reminds me that in reading this collection I haven’t really left the US at all. At times Eden constructs scenes that feel uncomfortably close to stereotype. I have no point of comparison to know whether Eden’s representation is accurate, and if it is then more power to her for having courage to broach the uncomfortable (which is explicitly mentioned in the dedication), but I felt like some poems weren’t giving me the whole story, that there was a side I wasn’t seeing. For example, despite the mentions of “infringement” there was no discussion of shanzhai.

Florentijn Hofman's contemporary pop-art icon Rubber Duck was copied several times over by shanzhai artists (Photo: http://hyperallergic.com/75107/how-pop-art-got-ripped-off/).

Florentijn Hofman’s contemporary pop-art icon Rubber Duck was copied several times over by shanzhai artists (Photo: http://hyperallergic.com/75107/how-pop-art-got-ripped-off/).

One pair of poems particularly felt like a missed opportunity in this respect: “A List Beijing Composed Of Her Phobias” and “A List Of Beijing’s Discovered Phobias”. The former is totally blank. The latter includes “the young and their lack of fear,” “foreigners and their voices,” “the uncovering of infringed dolls,” and “the compounding of questions.” Both poems are exciting conceptually in allowing space for Beijing to speak both on and off the record, and while they are sharply executed in their current form, both poems seem dominated by the common American conception of China. The first poem a Chinese wall, the second implicating the communist goverment’s efforts to expunge the relative social and economic freedom of the West. But China is more than its government, even if Beijing is the seat of power, and I’m left wondering what the “the young…the derelict…the disabled” of Beijing are afraid of. We never hear from them except as objects and images.

In spite of this limitation, Eden’s eyes would give the government good reason to be afraid. Another pair of powerful poems will likely double as beautifully worded journalism for many readers, myself included. Eden works imagined quotes and quotes reimagined into twin reports on the harrowing details and broader socioeconomic context of a factory fire. And in these twin poems, Eden’s careful wording deftly lays out the facts of the tragedy, in this case creating space for the reader to navigate the confused and complicated structure of Chinese society.

Meg Eden’s work has been published in various magazines, including Rattle, Drunken Boat, Eleven Eleven, and Rock & Sling. Her work received second place in the 2014 Ian MacMillan Fiction contest. Her collections include  “Your Son” (The Florence Kahn Memorial Award), “Rotary Phones and Facebook” (Dancing Girl Press) and “The Girl Who Came Back” (Red Bird Chapbooks). She teaches at the University of Maryland. 

What You Eat: Shopping Cart to Table

This is the story of many of our meals. We pace aisles, snag this and that from shelves, hand some cash to the cashier, and make our way back home to roast, fry, braise, or microwave. But even a home-cooked meal is far from homegrown, and the modern agriculture industry in Western capitalist society has distanced us from the origins of the food that keeps us alive.

A la Art 1

Photo credit: Kristyna and Marek Milde

While walking alongside the Brooklyn Bridge, I came across several shopping carts repurposed. The carts carried a bounty of potted plants. In place of prices, ingredients blooming out of the carts were tagged with growing times. I stopped to snap a few photos, noted the name of the project, and went home to research further.

Á la Cart, a participatory workshop and installation, was a project of Kristyna and Marek Milde, two Brooklyn-based artists raised on the uniform food of communist rule in Czechoslovakia. “It always appeared to us that in the West there was a universe of choices; however, here the unification and monopolization is clearly happening too—for different reasons but with similar results,” Kristyna noted. For the Mildes, food is an inherently political vector, representing both “the powerful weapon or tool of self-reliance” and the act of eating as “agree[ing] to [the] highest degree [by] making the subject part of our body.”

To the Mildes, this political significance amplifies the already intense emotional role food plays in our lives. Created as part of Smack Mellon’s exhibition FOODshed: Art and Agriculture in Action, the project was focused on community and human interaction from the outset:

We have started by inviting members of the local community in DUMBO Brooklyn, inexperienced in gardening, to actively engage in the process of growing ingredients for a single dish of their choice. Each participant adopted one supermarket shopping cart filled with soil that served as [a] garden bed, and attempted to cultivate ingredients for his/her favorite recipe. The development of the project was documented and the participants were asked to take notes about the experience. . . . The project took place in the growing season of 2014 starting in May and was finished in late September with a public event presented at the Dumbo Street Festival that featured the harvest and a gathering of the participants, who met to eat and to share their experience and ideas about the urban gardening and sustainable food production. The idea of Á la Cart is to serve both as a living sculpture and a platform for growing food. It is not meant to be a farm or a professional gardening course but rather a playground encouraging new experiences while reconsidering the limits of consumerism.

Milde, A la cart, 2014, Smack Mellon, Galelry, DUMBO 01 copy

Photo credit: Kristyna and Marek Milde

Challenging participants to truly bring up their food from the soil, there were some surprises on the way to the table the Mildes laid in September. In the four months of growth, one cart of eggplants never got larger than the size of pickling cucumbers, and another grower found that they could not produce enough strawberries to sufficiently flavor their ice cream. But far from failures, Kristyna shared that “having eggplant since [the street festival] is different, and part of the meal is appreciation of the farmer who patiently took care of this plant for such a long time.” And despite the fact that the Mildes call their own backyard garden a “rather symbolic operation,” they produced a delicious caprese salad and a refreshing mint lemonade. What’s the difference that made their tomatoes so much more appetizing? Kristyna says,

The tomato of today is not the tomato of yesterday; it is a completely different product, a different species with different chemical content rooted rather in the drug and oil industry anchored by the patent office than in the soil and trellis. The change is not limited to tomatoes; it extends to the whole commercial food production controlled today by few companies. Therefore we think that it is time that we reconsider the passive position of the consumer and claim back the power connected with producing food, in the sense that we support active engagement and awareness for the ways and methods food is grown and processed.

A la Art 3

Photo credit: Kristyna and Marek Milde

As someone used to strange looks from roommates about pickles bubbling on the countertop or about the pot of yogurt in the oven, I can certainly get behind advocating for a deeper level of involvement with food. In our current culture, foods that have been everyday staples across the world for millennia are now largely believed to be impossible to cook in one’s own home without the wizardry of a high-tech gadget. Gadgets may be how industry gets it done, but as a culture we can choose to cultivate a deeper relationship with our food rather than have it dictated to us by corporate or political interests. Artists like Kristyna and Marek Milde can help lead the way.

A la Art 4

Photo credit: Kristyna and Marek Milde

You can read my full interview with them about Á la Cart and other projects here. The interview further explores their experiences in communist Czechoslovakia, the aesthetics of Á la Cart, and the dangers that the artisanal food movement faces from marketers seeking the next trend.

 

Concerning Craft: Shirley Brewer – Revisited

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Please meet poet and educator, Shirley Brewer. Shirley previously contributed to the Concerning Craft series exploring the creation of her poem “Fairy Tale, Interrupted”, which we published in our Summer 2012 Audacity issue. In the interim she released a collection of poetry, After Words, a reaction to the murder of Stephen Pitcairn in Baltimore. When she showed up again in our Summer 2014 issue I wanted to seize upon the opportunity to return to one of our contributors to explore not just their approach to their craft in the present moment, but to observe an evolution in technique and aesthetic. Without further adieu, Shirley Brewer on her poem, “Above Chicago“:

I have developed a daily habit I find most nourishing. Every morning I read The Writer’s Almanac. Starting the day with a poem keeps me focused on my passion. I also enjoy reading the prose tidbits Garrison Keillor includes beneath the poem – birthdays of writers/anniversaries of events in history. I sometimes find material for new poems there.

Such was the case this past January 25th, when I read about the first transcontinental commercial jet flight on that date in 1959. I might have let that nugget pass, but knowing Carl Sandburg was on the plane tweaked my interest. I love Sandburg’s poetry, and once visited his family home, Connemara, near Flat Rock, North Carolina, where I bonded with a newborn goat named Wyatt. The Sandburgs raised goats, and the estate was still flourishing.

In writing “Above Chicago,” I decided to begin with actual items from the flight menu. Have the reader salivate! The names of the dishes had great alliteration: Maine lobsters, filet mignon, macaroon ice cream balls. I courted assonance in the first stanza as well: macaroon, ooze, saloon, fueled troubadour. I could have submitted this to LPR’s Food issue!

Although I have no idea about the actual flight plan, I love imagining the jet flew “Above Chicago,” and I can visualize Sandburg singing lines from his famous poem about that iconic American city. He was quite the musician, as well as a superb poet. I wanted to include crimson, as Sandburg used that word in a number of his poems and I think it must have been a word he liked.

Gin and ink wed inside his journal, a line that just appeared! Sandburg – in his early 80’s at the time – did keep a journal. And the booze flowed freely on that flight. Like all of the other passengers, Sandburg participated in the frivolity of the occasion! One of the pleasures I relish in poetry is selecting a verb that sounds fresh and fits, and wed seemed like a winner.

I decided to end the poem with another reference to Sandburg’s Chicago poem. Hogs and butchers in the last line to balance the filet mignon in the first line! What pleases me about crafting a poem is making word choices, and playing with sounds. It may take at least a dozen or more revisions, but it’s such a joyful task!

The subject of my previous Concerning Craft piece was Cinderella, in my poem, “Fairy Tale, Interrupted.” Poetically speaking, both Cinderella and Carl Sandburg piqued my interest! And when I care enough to write a poem, I’ll begin the process and see where it takes me. I think, initially, I wrote “Fairy Tale, Interrupted” as one stanza of fifteen lines, before I decided it would work well as five tercets. I often don’t decide on the format until I’m well along in my writing. Two stanzas of nine lines each seemed to work well for “Above Chicago.” I wanted to begin the second stanza with Sandburg’s reference to Chicago as City of the Big Shoulders, an image I find miraculous.

I obviously had a long history with Cinderella – a story and movie I have loved since childhood. A blurb on The Writer’s Almanac inspired “Above Chicago.” Whatever the genesis, once the idea set in – I want this idea to be a poem – I go into my space where I just write and see where it takes me.

Both poems surprised me. In “Fairy Tale, Interrupted,” I start by writing about Cinderella. Then, I speak directly to her. I didn’t plan that ahead of time. In “Above Chicago,” I initially thought I would write only about Sandburg on that transcontinental flight, maybe touch on the food and drink, and Chicago inserted itself! I love it when that happens.

In both poems, I pay attention to sounds. I’ve already mentioned alliteration and assonance in “Above Chicago.” In “Fairy Tale, Interrupted,” each tercet ends with a rhyming word.

“Fairy tale, Interrupted,” appeared in LPR’s Audacity Issue. I think of Carl Sandburg as a thrillingly audacious poet. Maybe I’ll write a poem in which Cinderella meets up with Carl Sandburg. And they’ll raise a goat named Wyatt.

Every poem is an internal adventure. Whether the source is family, the past, mythology, an item in the news – the poet invites us to experience the depth of his/her vision. I find the process both challenging and exhilarating. The poem I craft tomorrow may be totally different than anything I have previously written. I can only hope all of my poems carry some freshness into the world. Carl Sandburg once defined poetry as “the journey of a sea animal living on land, waiting to fly in the air.”

Oh, Carl, I’m glad you flew in the air on that first transcontinental flight! 55 years later, I honor your journey – the literal one as well as the metaphorical. I know you’d concur that, in poetry, there’s always a place for cat feet and glass slippers.

Shirley J. Brewer graduated from careers in bartending, palm-reading, and speech therapy. She has served for two years as poet-in-residence at Carver Center for the Arts and Technology inBaltimore County. She also teaches poetry at LitMore in Baltimore, and at Howard Community College. Shirley presents workshops on Creativity, Poetry, and Healing Through Writing. Recent poems appear in: The Cortland Review, Innisfree Poetry Journal, Pearl, Comstock Review, Passager, as well as in Little Patuxent Review and other journals. Her poetry chapbooks include A Little Breast Music, 2008, Passager Books and After Words, 2013, Apprentice House/Loyola University.

What You Eat: Better Late Than Never

In preparation for our Food issue (submissions are open until November 1, after which they’ll simmer ’til winter), I’ve asked members of the LPR community to share stories of what they eat. Food occupies such a central place in our lives that we can’t help but grow with it. Whether we have been preparing the food that we grew up with all our lives or, as is the case with this entry from former LPR Online Editor and current BrickHouse Books Fiction Editor Ilse Munro, only got around to it recently, we can call on the sounds, smells and tastes of our most formative and transformative foods to walk back into our own narrative histories. And on Poetry Editor Laura Shovan’s suggestion, each piece in this series features one or more recipes so that you can cook yourself through an experience. If you have a transformative experience with food, leave a comment and I’ll be in touch.

And now that I’ve laid the table, Ilse Munro:

My mother and me, drinking champagne at her 90th birthday party in Ellicott City, MD (Photo: David Cash)

My Latvian mother and Latvian me at her 90th birthday party in Ellicott City, MD (Photo: David Cash)

Right before my mother turned 90, she confessed that she had actually wanted to name me “Nora.” After the protagonist of Henrick Ibsen’s A Doll’s Housearguably the most influential feminist character in literature. Only, what with World War II and all, she failed to tell my father, who filled out the registry form. This went a long way toward explaining why I never learned to cook at my mother’s knee. Or her mother’s, for that matter. Born in the seventh decade of the 19th century, Oma became a successful businesswoman after her first husband was killed by a Russian firing squad. But this did not mean that they did not transmit their love of Latvian food to me. Or their strong opinions on how to present it.

So for my mother’s 90th birthday bash, I decided it was high time to go whole hog. I invited the entire neighborhood over to my house on the appropriate Thursday. Along with champagne, I served finger food and raspberries-and-cream chocolate cake, none of my own making. Then I had another bunch over for Sunday brunch, where I served Latvian dishes that I had never in my life made. I started preparations after midnight to keep it a surprise, but nothing could ever get past that woman. I was simmering pork for an aspic and watching dough rise for klinģeris, the traditional birthday “cake,” when she appeared. Her eyes, dimmed by two decades of macular degeneration, conspired to keep my secret.

Whazzat? Whazzat?” she asked, standing on the stairs in her nightgown.

“Nothing, Mom,” I said. “Go back to sleep.”

When she woke in the morning, I knew that the hours of nocturnal labor were well worth my while. Because of beginner’s luck and because, unbeknown to me, I was running out of time to show how much she meant to me, everything was perfect. I had even remembered her and Oma’s mantra: presentation is everything. The scalloped Bundt cake pan that I had pressed into service gave the turned-out aspic the required elegance, and the carved carrots and other garnishes that I had added to the bottom gave it a whimsical wreath. The butter for the bread had taken the shape of sea shells. And the radishes atop the salad had been formed into florets. Oma had taught me that anything worth doing was worth doing well. The better-late-than-never thing was what I learned entirely on my own that day.

Latvian Birthday Brunch Menu

  • Galerts (Pork Aspic)
  • Gurķu un Redīssu Salats (Cucumber and Radish Salad)
  • Kliņģeris (Sweet Saffron Bread)

Source: A Taste of Latvia by Siri Lise Doub

Galerts (Pork Aspic)

  • 2 fresh pork hocks
  • 1/2 pound lean pork, either shoulder or tenderloin
  • 1 carrot, cut into small pieces
  • 1 onion, cut into small pieces
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 3 peppercorns
  • 1/2 cup chopped tomato
  • 1 or 2 tablespoons unflavored gelatin
  • 2 egg whites
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • garnish items such as hard-boiled egg sections and carrot slices shaped as flowers
  1. Bring pork hocks and meat to a boil in plenty of water. Boil for about 20 minutes.
  2. Add carrot, onion, bay leaf, peppercorns and chopped tomato. Simmer about two hours or until meat is tender.
  3. Remove from heat. Remove pork from broth and set it aside.
    Strain the broth with a sieve. Bring the strained broth to a boil again. Turn heat to low and let simmer.
  4. Mix gelatin and water according to package instructions. Add to broth.
  5. Beat egg whites. Add to broth. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Arrange the parsley and other garnish items artistically in the bottom of an aspic mold. A Bundt cake pan is a good substitute. Individual molds or pans can also be used.
  7. Chop the meat and add it to the mold or pan. Cover the meat with broth.
  8. Refrigerate 24 hours.
  9. Place a serving platter over the top of the pan or mold and turn the mold or pan over unto the platter. Remove the mold or pan and decorate the dish.
  10. Slice and serve with vinegar–I used balsamic vinegar, but white vinegar in more traditional–or horseradish sauce and crusty bread slathered with unsalted butter.

Gurķu un Redīssu Salats (Cucumber and Radish Salad)

  • 1 cup sliced, scored cucumbers
  • 1 cup sliced radishes
  • 1/4 cup chopped dill
  • 1/4 white onion, finely sliced
  • 2-4 tablespoons sour cream
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and chill for 20 minutes.
  2. Garnish with dill sprigs and radish florets.

Kliņģeris (Sweet Saffron Bread)

  • Very warm milk (120-130 degrees F) or 1/4 cup warm water and 2 cups warm cream
  • 1 teaspoon saffron
  • 5 1/4 cups wheat flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 ounce packages dry yeast
  • 14 tablespoons (1 3/4 stick) butter
  • egg yolks
  • 1 cup sugar
  • vanilla
  • cardamom
  • dried lemon or orange peel
  • ginger
  • 1/2 cup golden raisins
  • tablespoons cinnamon
  • tablespoons candied peel
  • sliced almonds
  • confectioners’ sugar
  1. Mix warm milk, saffron, wheat flour and salt. In a separate bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water by letting it stand for 5 minutes. Add yeast to flour. Knead dough well. Cover with a damp, clean dish towel and set aside in a warm, draft-free place (about 80 degrees F) to rise for 1 to 2 hours. (If the room is cold, place pan of covered dough on rack over a large pan of steaming water.)
  2. Mix butter, 2 of the egg yolks, sugar, vanilla, cardamom, dried lemon peel and ginger to taste. Beat until foamy. Add to dough. Knead.
  3. Mix raisins, cinnamon and candied peel. Knead into dough. Add flour, if necessary. Set aside to rise again for 45 minutes.
  4. Roll out dough to about a 1/2 inch thickness. Roll into a long sausage. Twist into a pretzel shape or figure 8 and place on a baking sheet. Let rise again for 20 minutes. Brush with 1 beaten egg yolk. Sprinkle with almond slices.
  5. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bake for 30-40 minutes. Before serving, sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar.

Download Ilse’s Latvian Birthday Brunch Menu.

Ilse Munro was born in Latvia and came to the United States as a war refugee. She was a NASA and Defense Department consultant, the online editor at Little Patuxent Review and now serves as the fiction editor at BrickHouse Books. Her short fiction, collected in Cold and Hungry and Far From Home, appears in TriQuarterly, Atticus Review and Wake and made her a finalist in the Glimmer Train Family Matters Contest and the Short Story Award for New Writers. Her novel, Anna Noon, is in the works. She lives in a historic millworker’s house in Maryland. For more, see http://ilsemunro.com.

Ilse and her aspic were immortalized in 2013 by Clarinda Harriss, who gave both walk-on roles in her short story “The Vinegar Drinker,” which was included in her collection The White Rail. For more on Ilse’s enduring relationship with food, see “From Playing with Food to Playing with Words,” one of the posts on DISPLACED PERSON, her site.

What You Eat: My Mint Chip Cake

In preparation of our Food issue (submissions open until November 1, after which they’ll simmer ’til winter), I’ve asked members of the LPR community to share stories of what they eat. Food occupies such a central place in our lives, that we can’t help but grow with it. Whether we were unpacking our first heavy box of pots and pans or, as in the case of this entry from Meg Eden, stepping simultaneously forward into adulthood and back into childhood, we can call on the sounds, smells, and tastes of our most formative and transformative foods to walk back into our own narrative histories. And on Laura’s suggestion, each piece in this series will feature a recipe, so you can cook yourself through an experience yourself. If you have a transformative experience with food, leave a comment and I’ll be in touch.

And now that I’ve laid the table, Meg Eden:

Meg Eden

Meg Eden

I don’t remember the first time I had my aunt’s mint chip cake. I never thought about the fact it was green, or how it was something we only ate at Thanksgiving. I took eating it for granted—I took for granted that everyone in my family could cook, that we all lived within the same mile. I took lots of things for granted, the way kids do.

Every Thanksgiving – after my uncle read Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, we would eat brunch and my aunt would bring out the cake. But my cousin and I couldn’t wait that long. Instead, we’d run upstairs and play N64 games until my parents said it was time to go.

During that time, my aunt and uncle’s house was like my house. They lived on the same street as us. My cousin was less than two days older than me. Every Saturday I’d come over and he and I would play video games, trade Pokémon cards, create a new civilization in the middle of the woods, or develop a new company idea and strategize what we’d do once we got millions of dollars. Other people made food for us and we ate it. Thinking too much about it would slow us down from taking over the world or becoming heroes.

Gradually and without explanation there were no Saturdays anymore. Once we were in high school and my cousin got his first car, he drove me around the cul de sac to show me its leather seats, smooth turns, and his stick-shift abilities. Sometimes he’d skateboard over and we’d complain about our teachers or talk about what we wanted to do with our lives. He’d tell me, “You have weird friends, Meg.” But my friends were just normal nerds who sat around and played the video games my cousin and I used to. It was his friends that I worried about. But when I began dating my first boyfriend, those visits ended.

I still came over to the house though. I came over like it was my own house. Now that I had no reason to be there, it became a sacred place. I would go to swim in the pool alone when no one was home. It was there that I recuperated from my weeks which were becoming more stressful, more adult-like.

And my aunt must have understood this change, because it was then that she began making mint chip cakes for me. She made them for my birthday, when I was sick, when I came over and vented frustrations. Every day became Thanksgiving, as Thanksgiving itself began to disappear.

When my aunt was too sick to host Thanksgiving, she prepared a mint chip cake for me and left it in my mailbox. I tried to make it last longer, cutting it into smaller and smaller pieces, but eventually it would all be gone. Was that what it meant, to get older? It was then that the mint chip cake became something large and extravagant to me—something that I was afraid of losing, despite how much I might grab for it. What was it that I was nostalgic for—my relationship with my cousin? My family? Being a girl?

My aunt became more and more sick, and eventually the Thanksgiving brunches disappeared. My mother told me I shouldn’t go over there and bother her, that she needed rest. But I would still go over without her knowing, swimming in the pool, hoping that someone might come outside.

It was when I was graduating college that I wanted to start making my own mint chip cakes. I asked my aunt for the recipe, and she said she’d send it to me, but for several months I didn’t get it. I waited, afraid that she had forgotten, but that Christmas, a large box arrived at my door. Inside there was a bunt cake mold, a cake display, several ingredients, and the recipe:

Mint Chip Cake

Prep Time: 10 | Cook Time: 50 | Makes: 14 | Difficulty: Easy

Ingredients:

  • 1 package yellow cake mix
  • 4oz package of pistachio pudding
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/3 cup oil
  • 8oz sour cream
  • 1/3 cup creme de menthe
  • 8oz chocolate chips
  • 8oz creme de menthe chips or crushed up Andes mints
  • Powdered sugar

Directions:

  1. Mix together cake mix, pistachio pudding mix, eggs, oil, sour cream, and creme de menthe. Stir for 2-3 minutes.
  1. Add chocolate chips and mint chips, mix together.
  1. Pour everything into a greased bundt pan. Bake at 350°F for 45-55 minutes.
  1. Optionally, sift powdered sugar on the top of the cake after removing from the oven.

My boyfriend came over, and we baked the cake. It was full, and briefly tasted like being a girl again.

Meg Eden’s work has been published in various magazines, including B O D Y, Drunken Boat, Mudfish, and Rock & Sling. Her work received second place in the 2014 Ian MacMillan Fiction contest. Her collections include  “Your Son” (The Florence Kahn Memorial Award), “Rotary Phones and Facebook” (Dancing Girl Press) and “The Girl Who Came Back” (Red Bird Chapbooks). She teaches at the University of Maryland. Check out her work at: https://www.facebook.com/megedenwritespoems

What You Eat: Senses Lost and Found

In preparation of our Food issue (submissions open until November 1, after which they’ll simmer ’til winter), I’ve asked members of the LPR community to share stories of what they eat. Food occupies such a central place in our lives, that we can’t help but grow with it. Whether we were getting lost in the smell of summer strawberries or, as in the case of this entry from Lorraine Whittlesey, watching our enjoyment of food slowly slip away, we can call on the sounds, smells, and tastes of our most formative and transformative foods to walk back into our own narrative histories. And on Laura’s suggestion, each piece in this series will feature a recipe, so you can cook yourself through an experience yourself. If you have a transformative experience with food, leave a comment and I’ll be in touch.

And now that I’ve laid the table, Lorraine Whittlesey:

Lorraine Whittlesey

Lorraine Whittlesey

If you had to make a choice, which one of your senses could you live without?

As a professional musician I always felt that a hearing loss would be tragic; not because I couldn’t continue composing (I can hear music in my head and most of my compositions are already completed before they hit the staff) but because I wouldn’t be able to hear music via a live or recorded performance.

I’m also a synesthete who experiences crossovers for some of my senses; when I hear music I experience textures and shapes, and when I smell and taste certain foods I can often ‘see’ their colors.

It never occured to me that I would, one day, suffer from ‘anosmia’: the loss of the sense of smell. As most people know, when one loses their sense of smell, the taste buds are also compromised. The ability to taste is referred to as gustatory perception.

This loss didn’t happen overnight but over a period of a few months due to some serious medical conditions that affected my respiratory system.

Those close to me know I’m a consumer of fine food whether as a customer in restaurants or as a cook. I’m also lucky enough to have several friends who are quite skilled in the culinary arts. Most cooks will tell you that when you use the best ingredients available it’s difficult to go wrong. I’ve maintained (peripatetically) a blog titled You and the Food and the Music and often post about my recipes and restaurant experiences via social media. Some of my favorite reading materials are cookbooks. One could safely say that all things, culinary, have maintained a place of importance on my list of priorities.

As a consequence of not being able to smell the good things, I experienced a greatly reduced desire for food and became mildly depressed. For weeks my culinary range of interest was reduced to sipping on chicken broth or tea. There were a great many inconveniences associated with my condition but my keenest sorrow through this medical morass was my inability to smell, therefore, to taste anything.

After certain medical procedures were successfully completed my taste buds gradually improved and I began to taste the primary properties of salt and sweetness in a more intense way. Then came the other taste experiences of sour, bitter and savory (also called umami).

When my senses were basically restored and I felt as if I could appreciate my favorite dishes I decided my first effort would be a perennial favorite, eggplant parmesan. I planned a special evening with some of my closest friends who would appreciate this repast and share the joy I experienced as I tasted the results of my first serious cooking efforts after several months of simply eating to stay alive.

This is the recipe for the first entree I prepared.

Eggplant Parmesan

  • 2–3 thin eggplants (if too wide the many seeds can make the eggplant taste bitter)
  • 2 1/2 cups good quality tomato sauce, homemade or store bought (I prefer Marinara)
  • 8–10 oz mozzerella, shredded
  • 3/4 cup grated parmesan
  • 4 eggs
  • Bread crumbs
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  1. Preheat oven to 325 F.
  2. Remove the skin and slice eggplants no thicker than 1/4”.
  3. After slicing the eggplant, alternately layer pieces on paper towels and sprinkle each layer lightly with salt. Let sit for about 1/2 hour till some of the moisture has been absorbed.
  4. Place bread crumbs in a deep plate and whisked eggs in another (I incorporate a few splashes of water with the eggs).
  5. In a large cast iron or other skillet (at least 2″ in depth) heat olive oil. Don’t bother with extra virgin olive oil since that’s best used for dressings.
  6. The secret to this particular version of eggplant parmesan is to first dip each eggplant slice into the breadcrumbs, shake off excess crumbs, then dip into the egg mixture before frying. It gives the eggplant a unique texture and sublety different flavor.
  7. Make certain oil is heated to a medium temperature then add 3 or 4 slices of eggplant at a time, turning once when the first side is lightly browned (about 2 1/2-3 minutes). Place slices on a flat plate covered with paper towels to absorb extra oil. Repeat the process until all sliced are browned.
  8. In large baking dish (9×12″) add a few tablespoons of sauce to the bottom and distribute evenly. Add slices of eggplant across the dish then distribute half the mozzerella across the eggplant. Sprinkle a few tablespoons of grated parm across the top. Begin the process again staring with the sauce. Sauce should just lightly cover the eggplant. After the top layer of eggplant has been added, put some more sauce over the top and sprinkle the remaining parmesan cheese on top.
  9. Bake for 40 minutes or until the top layer is slightly browned.
  10. Turn off heat and leave in oven for an additional 30 minutes or so.
  11. Serve with a green salad and sliced Italian bread. A wine of your choice is highly recommended. My preference is a medium bodied Chianti.

Since re-gaining the desire to give my time and attention to serious cooking (about a year ago) my sensitivity to smell has occasionally fluctuated but without too much variation. Certain medications can interfere with some sensations, but for the most part it has been as close to what I’ve ever experienced my adult life. I continue to experiment with new recipes, watch certain cooking shows (I could watch Julia Child re-runs ad infinitum and love Extra Virgin), re-visit my favorite dining establishments, and support newly discovered places. Many of my friends are either restauranteurs, good cooks, food and/or restaurant reviewers or others who are, one way or another, “in the business.”

To my dear family and friends, I intend to resume preparing and serving the traditional holiday dinners. I’ve certainly missed the cameraderie and joy that come with the gathering of the clan. I’m most grateful for the science that identified the source of the problems and was also able to address and remedy the situation.

For a list of my favorite local restaurants please contact me at privatesector(at)verizon.net

Lorraine Whittlesey, a former member of the Peanut Gallery for NBC TV’s Howdy Doody show, is a classically trained pianist and studied T.V. and Film Scoring @ UCLA. Her commissioned works have been performed by the Baltimore Symphony and Concert Artists of Baltimore and have been premiered at Carnegie Hall. She scored and performed the original music for the Baltimore documentary “We Are Arabbers” which was filmed by Joy Lusco Kecken. Arista Hip Hop Artists “Naughty By Nature” used her music on their Album “19 Naughty 9.” Her collaborators include Michael Salcman, Clarinda Harriss, and Joyce J. Scott. She wrote “Zippy the Pinhead: the Musical,” based on Bill Griffith’s syndicated comic strip and is in the process of adding two more acts.