Sunday, January 30, 2011

Dede Wilson’s Terrific Little Poetry Handbook

NOTE: since this blog is about both food and literature, it is important to be clear which Dede Wilson is being discussed here: the author of the little book featured in this post is a North Carolina poet, and NOT the Dede Wilson from Amherst, Massachusetts, who is – among many other things – Contributing Editor to Bon Appetit magazine and the author of the food blog, For the Love of Food .

I discovered Dede Wilson's poetry collection, One Nightstand (published in 2001 and available from the publisher, Main Street Rag) at one of the North Carolina Writer's Network (NCWN) conferences several years ago.  This delightful little book consists of 36 poems followed by a 17 page poetry class, all wrapped up into an incredibly succinct poetry handbook. In fact, this is one of those “desert island books,” the kind you would take along if you could only take one suitcase full of books: there would be others in the bag as well, of course, but it would be a foolish act bordering on the criminal not to take this one.

I have always liked Lewis Turco’s handbook, The New Book of Forms (see the Poetry and Prose section of Favorite Goodies from the Noodle Doodler at the end of this post), which lists a lot more forms than One Nightstand does, and it discusses some of them in much greater detail. For example, Wilson’s description of the sestina is two paragraphs occupying less than half a page, while Turco’s description is just over four pages and includes diagrams to help illustrate how this complicated poetic form is constructed. On the other hand, the great thing about Dede Wilson’s collection is that she illustrates each of the forms she discusses with one or more of her own poems.  She gives a brief but surprisingly detailed discussion of the form chosen for each of her poems in the section at the back of the book, with a workable definition of the form, typically some comments on its history, and definitions (or pointers to definitions, included nearby) of important related terms. For example, to understand blank verse – most commonly consisting of lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter – it is important to understand what iambic pentameter is. Wilson gives a one page summary of blank verse, distinguishing it from free verse, while on the facing page, she defines both iambs and pentameter. To complete the picture, she also gives – in three pages – a historical overview of free verse covering everything from contemporary poets espousing or rejecting it to some degree or other, to Walt Whitman’s publication of Leaves of Grass in 1885 and back again.  (According to the Benet Reader's Encyclopedia entry on Whitman, after Leaves of Grass became popular, Whitman was dismissed from his government position for having written an immoral book.) While most of Wilson’s poems are done in specific forms, she does include three free verse examples of her own (perhaps “two and a half” would be a better description: her poem “Undressing Billy Collins” is described as “free verse ending in a couplet”).

The forms that Wilson’s book covers range from extremely well known ones like the sonnet, the haiku, and even the limerick, to somewhat less well known examples like the triolet and the ghazal.  She even includes two forms that you won't find in Turco's compendium: the minute and the quatern. The minute is a 60 syllable form invented by the American poet Verna Lee Linxwiler Hinegardner, who was poet laureate of the state of Arkansas until she was de-throned in 2003 (apparently, prior to Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee’s appointing Hinegardner’s successor, it had been traditional for the state’s poet laureate position to be a lifetime appointment. For a more complete discussion, see the website HinegardnerLink). This interesting poetic form consists of three stanzas, each four lines long with syllable counts 8, 4, 4, and 4, and a fixed rhyme scheme (aabb ccdd eeff). Wilson credits Cathy Smith Bowers – who has just been named poet laureate of North Carolina – with bringing “this virtually unknown form into focus” with the publication of her collection, The Book of Minutes consisting entirely of poems in this form (it is available from Amazon: see the Poetry and Poetics section of Favorite Goodies from the Noodle Doodler at the bottom of this page).

The quatern is another interesting poetic form, and Wilson’s book was my introduction to it, an introduction that was extremely beneficial, as I will explain presently. Like the much better known villanelle and pantoum forms – both defined and illustrated in Wilson’s book – the quatern is based on repeated lines and a fixed rhyme scheme. Specifically, the quatern consists of four, four-line stanzas where the first line of the first stanza becomes the second line of the second stanza, the third of the third, and finally concludes the poem as the last line of the last stanza. The rhyme scheme for the first and third stanzas is abab, while that for the second and fourth stanzas is baba. The form was invented by Vivian Yeiser Laramore, the poet laureate of Florida from 1931 to 1975.  My own particular fondness for the quatern form stems from the fact that it resulted in one of the few poems I have so far managed to get published. This one appeared in the 2009 issue of Alehouse Press:

Rhapsody in People

Purple people-eaters eating

people with purple potatoes

at the annual business meeting.

First course: elbows and tomatoes,

followed next by toes alfredo.

Purple people-eaters eating

are fussy creatures, dontchankow?

Special main course of the evening:

a secret people seasoning

on cattlemen from Loredo,

purple people-eaters eating

popular cowboy tornedos,

served in little Winnebegos

made for convenient re-heating

later in the busy week ahead, those

purple people-eaters eating.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Niki Segnit’s Flavour Thesaurus

A few months ago, two of our British friends sent us a copy of The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit (thanks, Steve and Rebecca). Similar in some ways to Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg’s The Flavor Bible, the subtitle of Segnit’s book gives a good, concise description: pairings, recipes and ideas for the creative cook. Both of these books address the fundamental question of “which ingredients go well together?,” but the styles and approaches of the two books are quite different. Specifically, the food matching section of The Flavor Bible is organized alphabetically by ingredient, with each section listing good, great, and superb pairings with that ingredient, occasionally also giving pairings to avoid. While Page and Dornenburg give frequent quotes from eminent chefs about favorite pairings, the book doesn’t really give recipes. In contrast, The Flavour Thesaurus organizes ingredients into groups, discusses specific pairings and frequently includes brief recipes based on those pairings. In both cases, the authors’ intent is to encourage culinary creativity rather than a “cooking by the numbers”-type slavish adherence to fixed recipes.

The Flavour Thesaurus characterizes 99 ingredients, putting them together into 16 flavor groupings, organized along the same lines as a color wheel (e.g., orange lies between red and yellow, green lies between blue and yellow, etc.). These flavor groupings have descriptive names much like the adjectives often applied to wines, names like “Floral Fruity,” “Earthy,” or “Brine and Salt.” Some of the ingredients listed in these groupings seem very natural, but others were quite surprising, at least to me. For example, the “Floral and Fruity” group included entries like raspberry, rose, and blueberry that seem "fruity and floral," but I was not expecting to see coriander seed or white chocolate included in this group. Nevertheless, it is clear that a great deal of thought went into these assignments, which are sometimes based on a chemical characterization of dominant flavor components. For example, cabbage is assigned to the “sulphurous” group in part because “dimethyl sulphide (DMS) is an important component in the flavour of cabbage.” Further, this observation forms the rationale for pairing cabbage with seafood, which is also noted to contain DMS.

The pairings included in The Flavour Thesaurus are often quirky little vignettes, like the entry for cabbage and garlic on page 119:

“If, as Mark Twain has it in Pudd’nhead Wilson, ‘cauliflower is nothing but a cabbage with a college education,’ cavolo nero is a cabbage with a holiday home in Tuscany.”

This is as much of a definition as Niki Segnit gives for cavolo nero, which appears to be a very desirable species of cabbage (The Food Lover’s Companion, 3rd edition, by Sharon Tyler Herbst, defines “cavolo” as “Italian for ‘cabbage’.”). Segnit does give a recipe for bruschetta using cavolo nero, concluding with the advice that “kale will do fine if you can’t get the fancy stuff.”

Another interesting commentary appears in Segnit’s discussion of the pairing of capers with soft cheese, in the “mustardy” flavor grouping, where she recommends using French nonpareil capers, if possible. She goes on to say (page 103):

“They’re the really small ones that look like green peppercorns, and are highly regarded for their finer, radishy, oniony flavour. Spread the mix on crackers or rye bread and brace yourself for the little shocks of caper in each bite. The culinary equivalent of walking barefoot along a stony beach.”

In order to keep the book to a manageable length, it wasn’t possible to include everything, and some of the omissions are worth noting. For example, although “brine and salt” appears as one of the 16 flavor groupings, the ingredient “salt” does not appear in the book. Neither do black pepper or vinegar, or “the staple carbohydrates” aside from potatoes (e.g., neither rice nor pasta appear). These omissions stand in marked contrast to Page and Dornenburg’s Flavor Bible, which includes 10 sub-entries for different kinds of salt (ranging from “salt, fleur de sel” to “salt, vanilla”), along with a general entry on “saltiness,” 16 entries for various types of vinegar, four entries for different types of rice, and just over three pages devoted to pasta.

Overall, like Page and Dornenburg’s Flavor Bible, Niki Segnit’s Flavour Thesaurus is a really fascinating read, much like a visit to someplace new, with unexpected marvels tucked away everywhere you look. Although they are essentially devoted to the same subject – that of creative flavor pairings – the styles of these two books are quite different, and both are well worth reading. A word of advice about The Flavour Thesaurus, however: as the spelling of the title suggests, the book is written for a British audience, so some terms may leave American readers confused. As a specific example, in the “suphurous” section, between the entries for “cabbage” and “cauliflower” is a one-page entry for “swede.” It was clear from the discussion that the term referred to some sort of root vegetable, but neither my wife nor I had ever heard of it before. Fortunately, the Food Lover’s Companion had an entry that clarified things: “see rutabaga.”