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Poetry Review: what is amazing by Heather Christle

The cover of what is amazing by Heather Christle

The cover of what is amazing by Heather Christle

I first read what is amazing by Heather Christle at 2:30 in the morning when I could not sleep. I thought I would start by reading the first two or three poems then read something less interesting until I felt sleepy. I read the book all the way through in one sitting. My initial response was a combination of “you cannot be serious” and “oh, that’s good”.

what is amazing is a challenge if you are looking to enjoy and read traditional poetry. I enjoy well-done experimental, modern poetry as well as a well-crafted sonnet. I heard the echoes of Walt Whitman (compare “Oh, Captain, My Captain” to its antithesis Christle’s “The Seaside!”), Emily Dickinson  and William Carlos Williams. I am not sure that is a good thing to hear such loud echoes of other poets in published poems. It is not the same thing to drag the ghosts of great poets into your work as to point at a particular poem and say, “It is like that.”  The challenge is to craft your truth as reflected in a William Carlos Williams poem. Christle expresses her truth, a very 21st-century truth, in the poetry presented in what is amazing.

The collection is divided into three sections. The rationale is not obvious. You have to sit and think about the poems as a group which is probably the best way to approach what is amazing.

The poems in this collection are tasked to generate feelings, empathy within the reader. The reader is vital to Christle’s poems. The poems are not a voice speaking, telling you what to think, but an invocation of an emotional response within the reader.

The collection starts out with “The Seaside!” letting the reader know this is not a book of traditional poetry. My favorite poems are found in the middle section of the book. The middle section poems have clearer, tighter imagery. “Spider” is my favorite poem in the collection. The imagery of “Difficulties” and several other poems throughout, such as “If You Go into the Woods You Will Find it has a Technology”, reminded me of Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884) by E.A. Abbott. “Basic” is an amusing poem invoking the computer programming language BASIC. Modern subjects and images are used as the voice and objects interact and attempt to generate an emotion in the reader. These are not easy poems. I think the reliance on imagery and the reader’s response to the imagery makes most of the poems ineffective when read aloud.

After sitting with what is amazing for several weeks I still have the alternating responses of “that does not work” and “very good”. Some things work in this collection, and some attempts are not successful. I will read along and stumble over a couplet that is like Emily Dickinson and that bothers me. I would recommend what is amazing as a solid introduction to what will be 21st-century poetry. What is a unique 21st century emotion or sensibility? I have not figured that out, yet, and Christle is working on it, too.

By Heather Christle, what is amazing (2012), Wesleyan University Press. ISBN: 9780-8195-7217-6.

http://www.wesleyan.edu/wespress

Recipe Review of “Perfect Baked Eggs” by Celeste Rogers, in Cook’s Illustrated, November/December 2012

Figure 1 A baked egg in a cream-spinach bed in a 10-ounce ramekin.

The recipe and article “Perfect Baked Eggs” by Celeste Rogers (no relation to me that I know of) in Cook’s Illustrated, November/December 2012 is an attempt to demonstrate how to bake an individual egg with a spinach filling (Fig 1). For the most part this is about as good of instructions on how to bake an egg without overcooking it that I have seen. The ingredients are basic ingredients already in the kitchen and freezer.

I have looked for a recipe to successfully make little, single egg dishes for years. I have tried several recipes including Scott Peacock’s “Eggs with Cream, Spinach, and Country Ham” in Gourmet, January 2008. Peacock’s “Eggs” recipe should work but never has. I have since traipsed along tinkering with the egg dish every fall and winter looking for something I can use as a contribution to a holiday breakfast. Rogers’ “Perfect Baked Eggs” worked well so that I would not have to tinker with it if all I wanted was a simple egg dish. I will have to jazz it up to make it Christmas Morning material.

What I will criticize is the size of casserole recommended for the dish. Rogers recommends “6-ounce ramekins with a 3 ¼-inch diameters, measured from the inner lip.” I think this is to small. I only have 4 6-ounce ramekins and had to use 2 10-ounce ramekins in order to fill out the six servings the recipe made. The difference surprised me (Fig 2). The 10-ounce containers did not overcook the eggs after the 6 minutes in a 425 degree oven followed by the ramekin siting 10 minutes on a wire rack. The eggs in the 6-ounce dish are firm after cooling and will be fine to eat, but with the 10-ounce casseroles the soft egg will nicely mix with the spinach filling.

Figure 2 Side-by-side comparison between the baked egg cooked in a 10-ounce ramekin and a 6-ounce ramekin.

I recommend the use of Parmesan cheese. It is a dry cheese that will not make the dish greasy or watery like cheddar or any other generic cheeses in the dairy section of the average grocery store. If you can spend the money to purchase the good Italian Parmesan cheese, do that. You will not be disappointed.

The oven time Rogers recommends, 6 to 8 minutes at 425 F if using a metal pan to hold the ramekins and 500 F if using a glass backing dish, is to long. The 6-ounce ramekins were overcooked. Temperatures are correct, I think. Since the demise of Gourmet I have had to look to Cook’s Illustrated for good recipes. I have noticed Cook’s Illustrated recipes tend to recommend times that will overcook the dish. I have wondered if this is an effort to make sure the food is fully cooked, even when the writer and recipe recommend checking the internal temperature. This is a recipe where, in order to prevent overcooking you will be standing or kneeling in front of the open oven door watching the eggs cook until the egg whites are just full white.

I will make the “Perfect Baked Egg” recipe again. I will also tinker with it. What I have found with these egg casseroles is 5-ounce spinach and 5-ounce finely chopped “woodsy”-tasting mushroom is good. What I like is adding, per ramekin, a half slice home-smoked bacon, frozen firm then sliced into 1/8-inch slivers with kitchen shears, then fried with grease discarded (bacon grease does not add anything good to the taste of the egg casserole no matter how fresh the smoked bacon is so stick with Rogers’ 2 tablespoons butter to cook the shallot in at the beginning) and two large, cooked shrimp, frozen firm then sliced into less-than ¼-inch pieces added to the spinach/mushroom/shallot/half-and-half/Parmesan mixture.

Recipe and demonstration video can be found at the Cook’s Illustrated website if you are a online member by searching for “baked egg” .

I served the baked egg with French Onion Soup (Gourmet magazine recipe), milk, and for dessert Chocolate Pudding Cake.

Poetry Review: Silver Roses: Poems by Rachel Wetzsteon

Silver Roses: Poems (2010) by Rachel Wetzsteon, Persea Books, Inc.

I completely enjoyed this collection. It was like having an intelligent conversation with a complete stranger and there was nothing awkward about it.

Even though the collection’s three sections are united in theme, I will refer to several poems in chronological order. The opening poem “Among the Neutrals” sets Wetzsteon’s exploratory flag solidly in the ground to say: Decide, refuse ambivalence and a world of “maybe”. This is an interesting way to start this collection, in the scheme of things. I would like to why this selection was made.

The second poem, “Freely from Wyatt” is my second favorite poem. There was an immediate emotional response. Stanza i. While I do not understand the purpose of biscotti in the culinary world, I understand Wetzsteon’s sentiment. Homemade apple dumplings work just as well. Stanza ii. Yes, exactly! Stanza iii. Yes, exactly! You are welcome here.

“An Actress Prepares” touches upon something I wonder about when reading contemporary poetry. I flow with the poem until she gets half way through and the voice of the actress states: “Vote me off the island.” Will anyone in twenty years understand what “Vote me off the island” means? It is like watching an early 19th century English Regency costume drama/film and, in one domestic scene, there is a US Civil War quilt pattern on a bed. The vast majority of people would not notice such a pathetic detail, but I do. It’s like hitting a deep pot hole in the road. It threw me out of the suspension of reality. That said, I understand no one drives a horse drawn wagon through the woods on snowy nights these days (apologies to Robert Frost) as I as a reader “get” the emotional and physical sensation of the frigid isolation and impatient pull of the voice’s horse. This is not a criticism against Wetzsteon, just a question for the universe in general.

Many of the poems in the first two sections are what I would call writing exercise poems. Writers, after all, write and are passionate to the point of obsessive about their craft if they are to be any good. I found it odd to find them in a collection but they are quite well done. They are enjoyable and I would guess that Wetzsteon had fun doing them. Maybe that’s where the brightness of the first two sections originates.

The final section “The Tennis Courts At Stuyvesant Town” has a definite darkness to it. Wetzsteon is emotionally working through things, or at least attempting to, and not getting to the other side.

The final poem of the collection, “Silver Roses”, I was surprised to recognize as having read before. For whatever reason I thought it had been in “The New Yorker” but it wasn’t until after reading the bibliography at the end, I realized I had read the poem “Silver Roses” in an issue of October, 2010 “Poetry” which I had purchased. This poem at first read first stuck with me like fuzzy weed seeds stick to your socks. You cannot wash them off and must pick them off the sock cuffs. I knew what the voice was saying. It was the shared emotional feeling I have with my dad over a film or concert, the feeling of leaving a concert (here opera) and taking the desire for that reality into the street and walking to the car and driving home with a nocturne feeling of a magical night. It is that joyful, floating feeling you have in spite of yourself.

I did not read Wetzsteon’s biography and Grace Schulman’s Introduction until I had read the collection through twice. It came as a shock this was a posthumous collection.

I cannot imagine I am the first to make this sort of an analogy: It was like you are at a dinner party and the dishes are in the dish washer or sink and everyone is sitting back and drinking wine and talking, laughing and you have discovered a wine someone picked-up on their international travels which you really like (and you don’t really like wine) and the host (God, bless him) is staring at the empty wine bottle and you are tipsy and a little impertinent and you sit there with your empty glass and demand: “What do you mean there is no more of this wine?”

Silver Roses: Poems by Rachel Wetzsteon (1967-2009)

ISBN: 978-0-89255-364-8

http://www.perseabooks.com

Recipe Review: Zucchini Ragout with Bacon and Tomato from The Art of Simple Food (2007) by Alice Waters

for Norma….

Miss Bingley was engrossed by Mr. Darcy, her sister scarcely less so; and as for Mr. Hurst, by whom Elizabeth sat, he was an indolent man, who lived only to eat, drink, and play at cards; who, when he found her to prefer a plain dish to a ragout, had nothing to say to her.” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

 

 

The ragout of Jane Austen wrote about, and we are told enjoyed, was a relatively exotic, spicy dish that I can say was probably nothing like Alice Water’s Zucchini Ragout with Bacon and Tomato found in The Art of Simple Food (2007). Jane Austen’s contemporary, Regency Era readers would have understood the character comparison: Elizabeth Bennet preferred good, common sense, “John Bull” English food whereas Mr. Hurst preferred the exotic, imported food styles of the European Continent. “John Bull” was the patriotic English yeoman used in Napoleonic War propaganda to contrast the solid English people to the floozy Neopoleonic French. Elizabeth’s lack of sophistication that generations of readers, and Mr. Darcy, admire is what has kept Pride and Prejudice in constant print for over two hundred years.

Zucchini Ragout with Bacon and Tomato is not a spicy ragout. I had problems as I made this recipe from what I perceived as the limited use of spices. I eventually learned this recipe is not about decorating and compensating vegetables but celebrating fresh, summer vegetables.

Fig 1. Vegetables purchased at the farmer's market

I purchased several ingredients at the Saturday Farmer’s Market. Zucchini: $5.50. Tomatoes: $2.00. Onion: $0.50 (Fig 1). I did not have bread to toast, as suggested by the recipe, so I prepared brown rice. I roasted several cloves of fresh garlic and added the soft garlic the cooked brown rice.

The bacon from the recipe was home cured and smoked by my father. He used a maple cure. Once you have had fresh, home-made bacon, you cannot eat the stuff sold in the grocery stores. Home-made bacon stands, its broad shoulders straight and shouts as it touches your tongue, “Bacon!” Whereas store-bought bacon slouches into your mouth with its hands in its pockets and mutters “Yeah, I’m bacon.”

Fig 2. Zucchini was just added to tomato/onion mixture

The recipe is very straight forward (Fig 2). I would freeze the bacon firm to make cutting the bacon easier. I would slice and dice all vegetables before starting. The timing is accurate for the preparation steps. Once things start happening, there is no time to prepare ingredients without overcooking the other vegetables.

Fig 3. Zucchini Ragout with Bacon and Tomato served with brown rice

Fig 4. Next day, for lunch. Zucchini ragout warmed in a microwave and served with pasta.

Warmed up the next day for lunch at work, it tasted fine (Fig 4). The vegetables were a bit watery. I served it with pasta that is supposed to contain a serving of vegetables. I think this dish may be best consumed on the day of cooking.

As I have play with recipes from this Alice Water’s cookbook, I appreciate what she is doing. The quality and tastiness of the ingredients are on display. You could not successfully make this recipe “as-is” in January with anemic, hydroponic tomatoes and imported, cardboard zucchini. This zucchini ragout demands quality ingredients which I am lucky to have access to through my mid-Missouri, local farmer’s market. Go to the library and check the cookbook out.

Publisher: Clarkson Potter/Publishers

ISBN: 978-0-307-33679-8

Poetry Collection Review: The Alchemist’s Kitchen (2010) by Susan Rich

The Alchemist’s Kitchen (2010) by Susan Rich published by White Pine Press

I really wanted to like the first poetry collection I reviewed. I wanted to admire the collection as a whole with individual poems synthesizing into a well-rounded exploration of some grand idea. I did not desire to find myself disappointed.

When I plucked The Alchemist’s Kitchen from the 811 section of the “New Book” shelves of the public library, I had every expectation of liking the book. I went home, sat down and read straight through over 4 or 5 days. I admired the title and the concepts stated in the three sections of the book and looked forward to seeing how the poet explored and expanded the concept of an alchemist’s kitchen.

Alchemy is the art and science of taking basic, gross, undesirable material (example: lead) and processing it into a more valued, possibly “purer” substance (example: gold). Alchemy as a concept is used in industrial processing and in writing fiction: take society’s trash and transform it into “gold”.  The Alchemist’s Kitchen has the structure to accomplish showing the process of transforming emotional trash into jewels but does not produce.

Disappointed, I sat the book down beside my reading chair. For several days I scowled at it. I moved it from the kitchen table to the ottoman several times. Then, I picked up the collection and read several random poems.

Over the next couple of weeks, I read one or two poems before leaving for work in the morning, while supper cooked, or before going to bed a night. I slowly fell in love with the poems as individuals. I feel like I went to class with the girl who wanted to disappear and stepped in front of a truck. I can see Mrs. Myra Albert Wiggins mounting photographs in his shop. I know his smile as he watches his wife ride her bicycle down the street or when the playboys make snide remarks about his clothes. I feel sorrow for the refugee girl whose hand was cut off by a African bandit who thought her plastic, shiny, gold-colored bracelet had monetary value.

Here lies the problem with The Alchemist’s Kitchen. What Rich has is several poetry collections scattered throughout one book. There is more than one, independent, incomplete story told in this collection. If Rich was attempting to show that the multiple stories (for example, the plight of refugees all over the globe, the legacy of Mrs. and Mr. Myra Albert Wiggins) come to the same alchemical end, she does not accomplish that. I want to know more about Mrs. And Mr. Myra Albert Wiggins. I want to watch the story of the refugees from beginning to end. Some of these poems are beautiful, but as a whole the collection is not cohesive. If she could explore one story, the potential impact of that collection could be earth-shaking.

Publisher: White Pine Press (www.whitepine.org)

ISBN: 978-1-935210-14-6

Recipe Review: Peaches ‘N’ Cream Éclairs with Bourbon Caramel Sauce by Lawrence Karol in Gourmet, July 2007

Several years ago, for the family 4th of July picnic, I made several desserts. The cousins are still talking about the Pavlova. During the U.S. Memorial Day holiday at the end of May, the cousins start asking what dessert am I going to make for the 4th of July this year. Since the Pavlova, my dessert contribution is now expected to be dramatic and tasty.

For 4th of July, 2011, I prepared Lawrence Karol’s Peaches ‘N’ Cream Éclairs with Bourbon Caramel Sauce from Gourmet, July 2007. Because this is my mother’s party, she has always volunteered to buy ingredients. The nice thing about this recipe, and the author states this in his brief write-up, is that most ingredients can be found in a well-stocked pantry and refrigerator. The only ingredients my parents purchased for this recipe were the white peaches ($3.80) and heavy cream ($3.59). One nice thing about cooking at my parents’ house is they have every kitchen gadget you could want to play with.

Following the directions of the recipe, the choux pastry quickly came together with no fuss. After mixing the flour mixture of margarine, water, salt and flour in the sauce pan, I transferred the dough to a metal mixing bowl. It took longer than the recommended five minutes to cool the dough to the point I felt comfortable adding the eggs. I wonder if this isn’t because I was using a metal bowl and not a glass bowl. When I make éclairs at my house, I use glass mixing bowls. Perhaps the metal holds the heat longer than glass.

The recipe only made seven pastries instead of the recipe-listed eight. Before this recipe, I have not used a pastry bag to make éclairs. Usually, I evenly divide the dough into desired number of pieces, use a large spoon to place on the baking sheet and shape (Unorthodox?). The pastry bag was a two person operation: I held the pastry bag and my mother spooned the dough out of the mixing bowl.

Figure 1. Pastries were sliced after cooling.

Baking was easy. Placing the pastries in a preheated oven at 425° F for 15 minutes and then lowering the temperature to 400° F for 15 minutes (30 minutes total baking) produced lightly golden pastries (Fig. 1). Using my father’s silicon-lined baking sheet produced pastries that were the same color on the bottom as well as the top. When using a buttered baking sheet or a sheet lined with parchment paper, I often have trouble obtaining a uniform color on the top and bottom of the pastry.

Figure 2. Eclairs with peaches, whipped cream and caramel.

One disappointment is the pastries were not as puffy as other éclair recipes I like to make (Fig. 1). The pastry tasted rich, but crumbled when sliced. That said, the photograph of the finished dessert on page 20 of Gourmet, July 2007 looks rather not puffy. So, maybe the pastries were like they were supposed to be. The whipped cream seemed to glue the pastries together (Fig. 2).

Figure 3. Bourbon caramel sauce.

I found it difficult to keep the sauce at a constant temperature; the sauce was either to hot or to cool (Fig. 3). However, making the sauce was easy. I would suggest constant stirring. Once the sugar has melted, you need to take care when adding the water and other ingredients. The steam coming off the skillet could be dangerous. I lightly scalded the tip of my right index finger. The hot material splattered until the sauce calmed down.

Figure 4. My cousin holding the served eclair topped with the bourbon caramel sauce.

The finished éclair with the bourbon caramel sauce was amazing (Fig. 4). I was not prepared for the “Oh my God! This is good.” experience. The cousins, aunts and uncles loved it. My mother declared the recipe “a keeper”. Because this was a family pot-luck there was lots of food so only making seven pastries was not a problem like I feared. There were no left overs, yet everyone who wanted was able to have half an éclair.

I felt like I spent more time fretting over the bourbon caramel sauce than any other task involved with this recipe. There was much more sauce than pastries. The bourbon caramel sauce went wonderfully over my brother’s home-made vanilla ice cream.

If you have not made éclairs before, this would be a good introduction. Éclairs are extremely simple and quick to make. For such little effort, you can look good.

Now, the question is what am I going to do 4th of July, 2012?