Winter in Des Moines is never easy, nothing like the gentle weather of Red Hen’s L.A. home, but this one has been a bear. The blizzards have made headlines. Now here we are at Valentine’s Day, and the snow that fell before Christmas remains on the ground. We’re crushed under chilly white sediment.
What’s a guy to do? Certainly I’ve got a desk heaped with projects. This bleak midwinter saw me complete the edits for my forthcoming Red Hen title, The Sea-God’s Herb: Selected Work on the Postmodern Project. Also I’ve got the usual stacks of grading. Yeah yeah yeah — enough about work, already. The real relief comes in the kitchen. My wife and I know how to celebrate a Hallmark holiday, and lighten the winter gloom, pulling together a great meal.
For my final blog, I’ll talk recipes, not reading lists. I’ll share, for starters, the mouth-watering possibilities in rare meat called guanciale. A pungent near-bacon made from the cheek of the pig, fresh local guanciale can be found in just two places on earth: in around Rome, and in and around Des Moines. La Quercia Meats of Iowa delivers unusual pork products (prosciutto would be another) so flavorful and traditional that they’ve won raves in the New York Times.
The dish that features guanciale is a hearty thing, with red sauce, red pepper, and onions. What, no garlic? Not if you ask the Romans, who make the meal a regular part of their menu from November through April. This is America, though, and in my kitchen I draw up the ingredients. I’ve got garlic cooking in the exceptional fat of the guanciale, and garlic amid the nuggets of the meat in the finished product. That’s bucatini all’Amatriciana, and you’ll find it in many a foodie’s diary. To prepare it well requires a skilled hand, and this winter I finally developed one.
But, look at that: talking about diaries, revisions, and skilled hand. You’d think I was still talking about writing. The very name of the dish takes us to the library, looking up bucatini (tubular pasta, its opening a hole or buca) and Amatriciana (in the hill-town of Amatrice, farmers and shepherds needed a bracing repast after their long, cold days in the fields). Then there’s the whole problem of describing the dish, trying to generate anticipation as well as get across its unique qualities. In my kitchen, anyway, I’m always a short step from my desk and its papers.
The poetry on Red Hen Press shares my sensibility. The books could be culled for an anthology of fine food reconfigured as lines on a page. Indeed, wasn’t the 2002 Saltman Award-winner State of Blessed Gluttony, by Susan Thomas? The book’s link is below. Thomas’s witty “Note” imagines the farewell letter left by Penelope of the The Odyssey, grown weary of waiting for Ulysses. Where better for such a poem to start than letting the man know what the palace has got for oil, mutton, and wine?
Even the experimental poetry of Kimberly Burwick, in Has No Kinsmen, includes a scary meditation on preparing salad. And Nickole Brown’s Sister samples classic Southern fare, and Camille Dungy makes significant menu distinctions: What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison. Really, the examples could go on a lot longer. But I think you see the point: that poetry amounts to cold-weather sustenance as good as anything in a dish. Besides, I’ve got lunch waiting.