"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Hungry Heart

" . . . Such lowly ancestry
they have, these sprouts, so plain! They could be beads
or dresser knobs or marbles for a game . . . "
from the poem "Brussels Sprouts" by Catharine Savage Brosman

Thanks to the miracle of the internet and google search, I recently had the good fortune to encounter the work of contemporary poet Catharine Brosman and to "meet" her via e-mail. I had been experimenting with my camera, a pound of Brussels sprouts, and a few leeks, and was so pleased with my results (see "Still Life with Brussels Sprouts and Leeks," above) that I thought to myself, "There must be a poem out there somewhere to go with this picture." How delighted I was to discover Brosman's beautiful ode to the Brussels Sprout, just in time for St. David's Day (March First). Brosman herself observes that not many poems have been written on the topic of Brussels sprouts, and I know she is right, because I have searched! She (and LSU Press) graciously consented to my use of her unique vernal poem on my daily blog (see "My Vegetable Love," on the Quotidian Kit, March 1, 2011).

Brosman has written poetry on a variety of other vegetables, fruits and seafoods. The striking imagery of "Artichokes," "Mushrooms," "Lemons," and "Asparagus," was in my mind as I shopped for produce a few days after reading, her book Passages: Lemons "Seasoning the mind"; asparagus offering "all the images you wish"; mushrooms "decomposing in a bitter alchemy." My favorite has to be the secret interior of the artichoke: "A final leaf, and I have reached / the void of things, the emptiness within--but / no! for at the core . . . one finds . . . a hunger of the palate, / of the heart."

Everybody's Got a Hungry Heart
Portobello Mushrooms in the Brattleboro Food Co-Op
Photo by Leif K-Brooks

The next two poems, "Portobello Mushroom" and "Truffles," capture beautifully this dual hunger of palate and heart. The narrator of "Portobello" longs for "purity," though not to the point of death. Life itself, as the mushroom exemplifies, can be "ugly," "rotten - looking," "disgusting," full of "nastiness and needs." In "Truffles," the hidden fungus is "almost a disease" yet "the taste of love is there." Brosman writes that "at an appearance at a Georgia university a few years ago, I read, as the last of my selections, the Portobello mushroom poem in front of a large crowd, mostly students; they were wild about it."

Here are the poems:

Portobello Mushrooms
They’re now in vogue, along with fava beans, veggie burgers,
feta cheese: all good for us, perhaps, but not uniquely so—
imported often and expensive, sought in grocery stores
and fancy restaurants by food snobs, vegetarians,
and others who have “principles.” Where’s the bello part
in portobello? Ugly and quite rotten-looking, they resemble
some strange, slimy creature living underground, or rather,
in the sea, a cousin to a sting-ray or a jellyfish, a slug

or barnacle. Good heavens, they’ve got gills! And I’m
supposed to have that in a pita sandwich, or, worse still,
in lieu of steak! Unless they’re finely chopped,
they cannot be disguised, and even then, that dark brown skin
looks awful, surely tough. Cèpes, champignons, morelles
they too are fungi, like the portobello, but at least
they’re small and delicate and generally pale; yet I’m not sure
that they are not disgusting also. Do we really want to eat

a reproductive organ sprung tumescent from dead leaves
and compost? Gastronomic tolerance is quite amazing,
if you think of it: consider liver, tongue, brains,
tripe, and kidneys, not to mention mountain oysters. Writing
this, I fear I shall end up a vegan or a Jain, not on account
of “principles,” but after much reflection on such things.
I understand the man who starves himself, less from a saintly
impulse than through yearning for a kind of purity,

an unadulterated, out-of-body state, forswearing nastiness
and needs. But that is death. Serve up the mushrooms, then,
well diced and in a sauce, with garlic or another flavor, lest
they seem too close to nature: that my nature, too,
may be transcended, sublimated, borne beyond itself—
a feint (for even Adam and his rib-mate, newly fashioned, ate
of Eden’s fruits) yet an ideal—the being of the angels
without appetite, their wings transparent and their bodies light.

by Catharine Savage Brosman
© 2011.
"All Rights Reserved."


Such a temperamental food—changeable, that is
deteriorating easily, and fitting thus a lovers’
dinner. Earthy too—in Paris, they are sold
still cradled in their soil, all damp and secretive,
suggestive of the body’s appetites—and seasonal,
like love, but more autumnal, being mold,

a fungus, almost a disease . . . Good heavens,
are they really a comestible? But those who know
them swear by the sensation: what aroma
in their pulp, what taste when they are perfect!
(the idea of pigs’ snouts, dogs’, and compost
notwithstanding). —There on my plate, it lay,

that tender truffle, once, with pâté de foie gras
and rounds of toast, intended to be savored
gracefully, enjoyed—a gastronomic jewel,
and more: epiphany, epitome of love. Bon appétit.
—Deep in his sea-blue eyes, the flavor
flashed and flamed. A bite, another bite, a kiss

across the table, more champagne. Thin coins,
they were, those moments of delight,
epiphenomena, mere flickers in a looking-glass,
or little tongues of fire on the river, silvered
by the setting sun, as twilight played
among appearances. The evening ended, wisps

of gustative remembrance on the wind,
and willow branches weaving in embrace. Now
I sometimes buy white truffles, tinned,
and serve them with a trout au beurre, my friends
exclaiming that the taste of love is there—
a luminance in flesh, the dark heart of the woods.

by Catharine Savage Brosman
© 2011.
"All Rights Reserved."

["Truffles" was published in Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture in 2003, and "Portobello Mushrooms" appeared in the same magazine in 2009. Brosman's upcoming collection, Under the Pergola will include the above "Portobello Mushrooms" and "Truffles," as well as a number of other food poems -- on Blueberries, Watermelon, Endive, Radishes, Figs, Grapefruit, and "Composition with Broccoli, # 2."]

The Yellow Morchella rotunda, a true Morel
photographed in France by Pascal Blachier

My personal introduction to the morel occurred one Spring, thirty - six years ago, just a month before my high school graduation, when my friend Yvonne invited me mushroom hunting. We rode the same school bus, but she lived just a little further out than I did, and in a more wooded area. I was never one for hiking or campfires; however, this particular excursion sounded not only pleasant but practically literary, like Wordsworth and his daffodils, or "gathering nuts in May." After all, it was May, and we hadn't much homework, and the sun lasted long into the evening. Yvonne said we should be able to find a lot; and she was right -- the morels were everywhere! However, I was startled abruptly out of my Wordsworthian reverie by Yvonne's observation that "obviously the brush hog had been through recently."

What? Should we turn around and run home? "No, it'll be okay." How could she remain so calm? She didn't seem the least bit bothered by this fearful news, so I tried to be a good guest and follow her lead, but visions of tusks and wild boars and razorbacks were racing through my head. I picked the rest of my mushrooms nervously and totally mystified by her lack of agitation.

As you might have already figured out, the last laugh was on me when I finally made it home and informed my parents of my brush with danger. It turns out that all the while that I was envisioning something like this:

Yvonne had something more like this in mind:

Well! How was I to know that
a Brush Hog (aka Bush Hog)

was not the same thing as
a Bush Pig?!

Next Fortnightly Post
Saturday, May 14, 2011

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

and my previous Catharine Brosman post
on The Quotidian Kit:

"My Vegetable Love"
March 1, 2011

1 comment:

  1. Michael L. writes:
    "Love Brussels sprouts lightly steamed & then sauteed with garlic, olive oil & breadcrumbs. But find those huge portobellos highly overrated in flavor, compared to the shitakes. Altho I've tried steaming the ports & serving them with Chinese sweet & sour sauce, and that is not bad. There should be more poetry about food and less about neurotic moodiness."