November 16th, 2012
This is a poem I wrote six years ago for my friend Susan Weiss, a lapsed vegan. Recently I was visiting White River Junction, Vermont, on business, and stopped at the Baker’s Studio on Main Street to grab a cup of tea and a bite to eat. If I hadn’t written this poem six years ago, I would have written it in the Baker’s Studio. They’ve got the Real Deal, an incredible rarity nowadays. So I offer this poem in honor of that shining morsel of heaven where I-89 meets I-91 above the Connecticut River.
In southern China
they eat civet cats, roasted whole and
braised in soy and hoisin sauce to hide the
gamey taste. The civet lives on durian, a
spiky fruit, foul-smelling, with a flesh as
subtle as the custard dreams are made of.
On North Street, Burlington, Vermont
near the oriental grocery stores,
expatriate Africans sick for home may find,
neatly piled on a tiny shop’s back shelves where
stray Vermonters are unlikely to venture,
zip-locked bags of dried grubs, hard tan curls in
assorted sizes, but when I approach the clerk to
ask how are they cooked I chicken out and
buy instead a round brown deep fried thing that
disappointingly tastes just like a doughnut.
tales of famous family Friday night
spaghetti dinners regaled the worldly Yankee
sophistication of a friend of mine whose own
family’s odyssey had landed him in high school
there among the pines and walleye pike.
At last one evening he found himself seated among
half a dozen scions of Scandinavia
logger-large and hunching over gleaming
formica facing a bowl of naked noodles,
pale and gleaming, and a bottle of ketchup.
original home of the scarlet condiment’s forebears.
In New York
Brooklyn, to be precise, my newly-wed mother
scandalized her husband and parents-in-law by
pouring ketchup onto her scrambled eggs, an
act so odd that even the rubric “goyish”
couldn’t encompass it; but she was from
Chicago, so what could you expect? And I
have taught my children to follow the same strange ways.
they will heap anything – bacon and cheese, whatever –
onto baked goods ubiquitously sold as “bagels”
that are neither dense nor chewy; fine-grained
bready toroids with the crust removed and a
shiny glaze engineered in its place. Those, and
hand-coiled rings purportedly en manière de
Montreal, sweeter and maltier than anything
I remember, are all you can get around here. But
In Buffalo, New York, 1960
Mastman’s redolent deli, full of derma
stuffed with kasha, knishes, pickled herring,
smoked whitefish, lox – the “real nova” – and
bins of “Jewish hockey pucks,” just plain or
pumpernickel, forged of fully developed
gluten, steam, and fire, as heavy as history,
yielding to the teeth like summer to fall
(in those days, gradually), holding warmth but
autumnally flavored, bagged by the dozen or one
“with a schmear” of cream cheese impasto slapped on by mustachioed
Mastman himself, unobtainable now,
rarer than civet cats with their strong sauces,
digested and carried into internal exile.