By José Chavez | Contributing columnist
Remember the aroma of a meatball soup called albondigas, or the flavor of a roast with potatoes, onions and carrots, or steaming chicken and dumplings? These favorites can connect you to the emotions reminiscent of home, the warmth and the dishes prepared by mom or grandmother. My grandmother frequently made spicy green chili stew and red chili tamales for the Christmas holidays. How can food express the memories and feelings of the experience, and how can we put this into poetic form?
A poem can talk about food in general or the recipe for a particular dish. Some focus on just one food. Robert Frost wrote about a fruit in a poem called “Blueberries”. Many readers will remember reading about the sweet plums aptly described by William Carlos Williams in his poem “This Is Just To Say”. Gary Soto wrote a coming-of-age poem titled “Oranges” and a playful look at a common experience in “Eat While Reading”. Oranges often symbolize the purity and sweetness of love and romance. Famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote a passionate poem about another familiar food in “Ode to Tomatoes”. These verses are good examples if you love food, poetry, or want to start writing food poems.
On the lighter side, Shel Silverstein wrote a poem, “Sorry I Spilled It,” which mentions food that fell in bed because someone wanted to have breakfast there. Children will easily connect with foods that taste, smell, look, and playful. I created the setting for this culinary poem by imagining that a fruit salad could dance. My latest book, “Dancing Fruit, Singing Rivers” features a proud, smiling melon head in the center, surrounded by music and fruits that start to dance:
grapes like little raindrops
melons like little heads
papayas like small blocks
strawberries like little hearts
jícamas like small walking sticks
and cucumbers like little half dollars
and the little hearts make me smile
This book encourages families and children to develop healthy eating habits by choosing fruits and vegetables. Both jícamas and cucumbers are mentioned because they are common in fruit salads sold locally in Mexican markets. They pair well and are worth trying if you haven’t tasted them together.
There may be foods that hold memories of hardships in another place and time.
I wrote a poem, “Roswell 1961”, about life when I was 7 years old. It takes place in New Mexico, where my parents and I were born. The story involves a young Latino boy from a large low-income family in a town in southeastern New Mexico. One afternoon, a boy and his little sister are walking down the street.
I walked to grandma’s house last night
with my little sister, lots of things to eat there,
Hot flour tortillas, stuffed
with spicy green chili and papas.
In a later stanza, I describe what I’m going to eat for lunch and how embarrassing it will be if other kids notice my meager meal.
Lunchtime and I already know
on fried frijoles
between two slices of white bread.
Hide it from keen eyes.
Milk costs only ten cents,
but the water sounds great today.
I like the taste of water,
“No hagas un escándalo,” Mamá always says.
Our family couldn’t afford lunch in the cafeteria, and milk alone would cost ten cents. My mother’s warning not to cause trouble or escándolo by trying to borrow money from school resonated with me. If my teacher or anyone else found out about our predicament by asking someone for milk money, I would certainly pay for the mistake when I got home.
Food is a thematic element; therefore, the poem may take the form of a haiku, a Shakespearean sonnet, free verse, or any other setting chosen by the writer. The poet can first identify the structure and place the food in it, or the food can come first, and a frame built around it. The beauty is that a poet can decide on a method that meets his desires.
Our taste buds might invite us to try something new, like Californian dishes with spicy nachos, shrimp fajitas and a salsa side with beans, corn and small pieces of avocado. Where else can our palate take us? We might love the joy of creating modern recipes like tilapia en papillote (parchment paper), Spanish brown rice served with banana slices, black beans, and crispy Baja-style pico de gallo?
Our culinary tastes will help us build a tasty poem that others will enjoy as well. Great food and good writing!
José Chávez is an award-winning bilingual children’s poetry author and lives in Riverside with his family. His new book is “Dancing Fruit, Singing Rivers” (WPR Books, 2020).