February 5, 2023

Cooking with the Muse: A Sumptuous Gathering of Seasonal Recipes, Culinary Poetry, and Literary Fare by Stephen Massimilla and Myra Kornfeld

Review by Hannah Howard

Cooking with the Muse: A Sumptuous Gathering of Seasonal Recipes, Culinary Poetry, and Literary Fare by Stephen Massimilla and Myra Kornfeldwww.cookingwiththemuse.com
Tupelo Press, ISBN, 1936797682 / ISBN, 9781936797684

The best poems are utterly delicious. Like a soul-satisfying meal, to share, savor, devour, and digest them is one of life’s true joys. They make a day brighter, a romance more romantic. They capture our imaginations, stir our hearts, make us softer, better.

In Cooking with the Muse: A Sumptuous Gathering of Seasonal Recipes, Culinary Poetry, and Literary Fare (Tupelo Press, 2016), co-authors Stephen Massimilla and Myra Kornfeld extol the happy, profound (yet rarely explored) culinary-literary marriage with 150 ingredient-driven and poetically-inspired recipes, intertwined with food-centric poems, essays, historical notes, and stories.

A bibliophile’s cookbook? A chef’s foray into the literary? Yes and yes. But there’s more, and Kornfeld and Massimilla’s “love, respect and admiration for the deep philosophical, personal, and emotional value of the earth and traditional approaches to farming, cooking and eating” unfold on page after page. Cooking with the Muse is a love story, and an ecstatic one.

Great food starts with the gorgeous ingredients that poets so often celebrate. Talented chefs—and poets—have a way of taking a beautiful carrot, say, and highlighting, elevating its carrot-ness. Cooking with the Muse celebrates the perfection of nature’s stunning gifts. There are plenty of fish recipes and poems (Cornmeal-Crusted Cod; Seared Tuna with Purple Potatoes and Cherry Tomato Sauce, and a poem by that same title) and meat recipes (Cranberry-Glazed Roast Turkey; Plum Brisket); but, given how they show up even in the dishes I just mentioned, as well as in so many of the poems, fruits and vegetables play a starring role throughout.

It makes perfect sense that the season’s bounty gets plenty of time on stage. The unfolding of the year’s seasons is both the organizing principle and the heartbeat of the book. The volume begins with a divine autumnal Blackberry Parfait and a luscious essay on Galway Kinnell’s luscious poem “Blackberry Eating.” Unveiling delight after delight, the book weaves through winter and spring and concludes with summertime’s crimson cherries. This is the cycle of life, loss, and rebirth as told through the poetic celebration of wholesome, soulful, and big-flavored dishes and experiences.

Take the “ephemeral and verdant” vegetables of springtime. Each March, winter’s frost thaws to make way for sweet shoots and bright greens—renewal, possibility, and a whole lot of flavor. We learn about William Carlos Williams’s “sluggish / dazed spring” and Jefferson’s gentlemanly asparagus. Rilke’s luxurious lines echo a Spring Greens Soup “that tastes delightful and variegated, an ode to an entire birthing garden.”

…The soup! Fresh dill, fragrant tarragon, ginger and bright lemon turn the spring’s harvest of bok choy, mizuna, escarole, and chard into a whole hugely greater than the sum of its parts. This is a bowl that “opens the emerald doorway to the limitless possibilities of spring.” And across the book’s spine, a poem by Massimilla opens its own doorways: “Love is love/ of nothing but from to the base of the mountain/ where oil and cheeses cool in caves shaded/ by cypresses.”

Cooks and poets know love is an indispensable ingredient. Kornfeld and Massimilla are a couple, and their love for the food they make and the literature and history they delve into is infectious. Kornfeld is a chef, educator and the author of three previous cookbooks, including The Healthy Hedonist. That title encompasses that rare combination of sincerity and unabashed pleasure she channels. We’re going to feast, but it’s going to be on only the very best. In Cooking with the Muse, wholesomeness and lust not only coexist, but uplift each other.

Massimilla, a poet, critic, professor, and painter, is scary brilliant. The abundant references to literary heavyweights and historical lore may have felt intimidating if not for the way they are delivered—with light-heartedness, warmth, and passion. Like sharing a bowl of I-Sold-My-Birthright Lentil Soup or a generous slice of Someone-Who-Loves-You Rhubarb-Strawberry Crumble Pie, chewing on the history of the summer squash, unpacking the wondrous complexities of a Wallace Stevens poem about pears, and following the tale of Siddhartha Gautama reaching enlightenment beneath a wild Sacred Fig tree all feels a memorable and extraordinary treat.

We have been invited into this surreal world where all words are pregnant with meaning and feeling, where everything tastes wonderful. It’s a magical place to be. I want to stick around.

Like the fanciful and fabulous sonnets and odes by Massimilla and others in this book, this is food rooted in tradition with a totally modern sensibility—food I am excited to cook because it is all pure poetry. Yam Waffles with Maple-Pecan Butter beside an essay on the poetry of yams. Chicken Cutlets crusted with coconut and almond. Spring Pea and Fava Bean Risotto juxtaposed with poems about peas and fava beans. Chocolate Fudgy Nibby Brownies and “A Dithyramb to Chocolate.” Turkish Lamb Stew so fragrant, my head gets spinny.

As a cook and writer myself, I experienced Cooking with the Muse as a special sort of revelation. Marvelous meals become great stories— real food, honest words, make every aspect of life better. They are how we celebrate ourselves, each other, and the world that we call home. They are how we give and receive love and nourishment, what the Sufi poet Hafiz calls “the pleasure/of such an open-hearted garden.” Taken together, they are the best part of our humanity. Here is a smorgasbord of powerful poems, stories, and memories so delicious, I can taste them.

Kornfeld and Massimilla feed so much more than our bellies.

I’m hungry. I’m in.

Publisher: Tupelo Press For more info, visit: www.cookingwiththemuse.com