Brain Pickings

John Keats’s Porridge: The Favorite Recipes of Beloved Poets

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What simple dishes reveal about the complexities of poetry as a creative act of constant transformation.

The relationship between food and literature seems to be an enduring one, from literary parodies of recipes to meals from famous fiction. In late April of 1973, poet and self-taught chef Victoria McCabe decided to formalize the relationship and mailed form letter requests to 250 of the era’s leading poets, asking them to share their favorite recipes. Some 150 replied, 117 of whom made it into John Keats’s Porridge: Favorite Recipes of American Poets (public library) — a tiny yet enormously delightful little cookbook spanning everything from Edward Abbey’s Hardcase Survival Pinto Bean Sludge to Claire McAllister’s Baked Stuffed Sweet Oranges. Only about half a dozen of the recipes were written in verse, at least half “were chosen for their ability to keep a poor poet full for a long time without putting too large a dent in the pocketbook,” and all were tested by McCabe, her husband, and their friends.

Allen Ginsberg offers his uncompromising borsch recipe:

Boil 2 big bunches of chopped beets and beet greens for one hour in two quarts of water with a little salt and a bay leaf, an one cup of sugar as for lemonade. When cooked, add enough lemon to balance the sugar, as for lemonade (4 or 5 lemons or more).

Icy chill; serve with hot boiled potatoes on side and a dollop of sour cream in the middle of red cold beet soup. On side also: spring salad (tomatoes, onions, lettuce, radishes, cucumbers).

Joyce Carol Oates cooks up some disciplined Easter Anise Bread:

1 dozen eggs
1 tablespoon sugar for every egg (¾ cup)
2 cakes yeast
½ cup oil
1 cup butter
1 teaspoon orange juice
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon anise seed
1 pinch salt
9 cups flour
Warm milk, enough to dissolve yeast

Beat eggs; add juices, yeast, and milk an beat slightly. Mix flour, sugar, salt, and anise. Now add to liquid mixture and mix until well blended. Let rise in bowl until nearly double in size. Punch down. Let rise again. Shape into four loaves. Place in greased pans. Let rise and bake for 20-30 minutes at 350 degrees.

Muriel Rukeyser makes an irreverent Omelette Philleo:

On the side of variousness in life, this is my omelette. It is made with all the combining of egg yolks and milk (or, for weight watchers, water) beaten, and egg whites and salt, beaten; the folding, slashing, and then the variation: fill with slices of cranberry sauce for a tart and various omelette. It is named for Philleo Nash, friend, former Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and Cranberry Prince.

I do not mention my pickled watermelon rind with scotch. Nor others.

Ultimately, what John Keats’s Porridge offers, besides the promise of some filling dishes, is an apt metaphor for poetry itself — even creativity at large — as an endless cycle of borrowing, remix, and transformation. As William Cole eloquently puts it in the introduction,

It’s interesting to note that nearly ninety per cent of all the recipes submitted are either the poet’s original recipe or his variation on a standard recipe. Few poets, it would seem, are willing to claim as favorite any old run of the mill standard recipe. This is not surprising when we consider the nature of the Beast: the poet as creator, inventor, who makes out of a few necessary ingredients a magic potion.

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