Finding the Finer Balance
What’s good for the soul isn’t always good for the body, but the soul needs what it needs. In summer, when dining moves outdoors, so many of us become well-nourished, somewhere deep in us, by food that simultaneously compromises the very health of our hearts: blood pressure and cholesterol levels driven up, arteries made harder by salt- and fat-enhanced foods made with love and longing cooked or baked straight into them.
It is hard to resist or reject anything about which we feel so deeply, that can make our hearts sing with such pleasure: barbecue and collard greens, sweet potato pie, grits, everything made hot with grease, macaroni and cheese, catfish, cobbler, gumbo and black-eyed peas. So, also, what’s good for the soul may not be good for the soul.
Poetry also feeds the soul, and the soul cannot do without it. It rubs raw, simmers and marinates long past the point of denial or forgetfulness; its directness or even obfuscation on the tongue goes straight to the heart of things and won’t let go. All artists know that some of the content or raw materials that routinely fuel their work can also do them short-term harm: Their ingredients and inquiries require balancing a kind of reckless abandon to and accommodation of myriad curiosities and questions with more pragmatic and sustainable impulses— with a respect for the laws of gravity, for instance, and pragmatism, together with all of the (sometimes equally lovely) responsibilities and domestic or familiar imperatives that keep us fully steeped and tethered to this life.
As both a poet and someone who loves to cook, I have learned, in time, to balance my sense of adventure with a certain discipline and precision: a sauce, caramelized with sugary pears, good vinegar and Zinfandel and pan juices (see: grease), like certain combinations of words and thoughts, can only go so far. It is possible to go over the edge, to burn or burn out. The poet and the creative cook in me know this.
When it comes to writing poetry made from that old and particular recipe that combines praise and pain and longing, love and loss—that singular combination of hard, beaten-down blues and brilliant lightness—no one does it quite as well as Kevin Young. He is the executive chef of words: They trip off his tongue delectably; their taste is sure, to be savored, lingering long after the reading or first hearing. His poems simmer so sweetly, even as they carry deft, daring, even dangerous strokes.
I am thinking of his “Ode to Kitchen Grease,” a seductive-sounding death knell to what we both want and shouldn’t have:
Once we were close.
Once we let you hold
our children, cook up
whatever you wanted—& cook
you sure could! You put your foot
in it, made food stick
to our ribs…
Even at the beginning of the poem you can hear the wariness: what once was essential is also not so good for you. As he’s gotten older, the poet realizes, the grease he was once both nourished and nurtured by has become a “grey grandfather,” a “bent elder” which has become “too much upkeep/& high pressure,” one that has, in fact, “sent many,” a favorite mother-in-law included, “to an early grave.” But Young can’t help himself: His propensity toward word-play also pays tribute: The rest of the poem registers the soul’s strong longing for what might leave it over-satiated:
Still, some mornings
you drop by, uncool, right after
breakfast bacon’s been made—
sniffing around the kitchen
& already asking,
What’s for dinner?
& I sure wish you’d stay.
I love the duplicity of the poet’s language here, as it registers what’s tantalizing and tasty and deeply troubling in the same breath: pan drippings (“drop by”), heat (“uncool”) the singular smell that lingers long after certain good meals somehow still clings to the very walls (“sniffing around the kitchen”) and arteries of our beings. Grease is like that casual neighbor you let in but also know is up to no good, who does not have your best interests at heart. Praise gods of myriad and healthier cooking oils, he no longer means to stay, but the longing for what he has to offer still lingers after he is gone. Just because one’s better off without “home cooking” doesn’t mean it’s not missed.
Many years ago the writer, anthologist and connoisseur of food Molly O’Neill wrote a piece about how making magnificent meat loaf or good garlic mashed potatoes were the marks of a good cook, and how one could certainly tell the difference between such simple dishes made with love or made without it. She was trying to make a point about the difference, also, between truly distinguished chefs and merely good ones: The great ones know how to cook from the heart and to put something of their hearts into every dish, no matter how humble or even unhealthy.
I am prepared to argue, along with Kevin Young, that such soul-touching food is also, in moderation of course, good for us. Here he is, again, in his “Ode to Grits:”
…You must know
I love you by the way
I like you plain, maybe
buttered up a bit.
Salty, you keep me
on my toes, let me
believe, this once,
Since I’ve just had grits, yesterday, at Lucille’s Creole Café, here in Boulder, Colorado, where I have been visiting my son, I can testify, with clarity, to their charms. And I can also speak to the chef ’s sure touch when it came to sprinkling in the love, because, well, I could taste it.
Most of us find the balance: lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, good grains and proteins, judiciously added sugars and salts. And we know that the occasional inviting in of food for the soul won’t hurt us. Like the reckless and finely tuned energy of love, like edgy and fully grounded poetry, like a long and languorous summer of grilling and picnics and barbecues, this also keeps us alive and all the happier for being so.