Quiet Kitchen of the Night
by Kim Sunée
There are things I've done for love that, at first, did not seem to have anything to do with food but I've come to understand that the two demand an acquired taste for endurance and memory and longing. For love, I've fled to France with a French industrialist after six months of a fairy-tale courtship only to get lost in recipes in hopes of finding myself. I've endured a survival trip on the Mana River in the Amazon, third-degree burns on my thighs, and hot peppers registering off the Scoville chart. For love, I've humiliated myself and flew to Tunis on a whim in the middle of a hot June afternoon to be with a poet who lied about being in the process of a divorce. I remember sitting alone at the Café des Nattes in Sidi Bou Saïd, hoping that my life wouldn't end in a country where I couldn't speak the language or have a last meal of hot fried chicken and red beans and rice, or at least a bowl of pasta, pancetta, and cream with an egg on top.
"A restless young woman's poignant search for identity, accompanied by dozens of recipes....Vivid writing and an inspiration to head to the kitchen." Kirkus Reviews
I grew up in the city of original sins. In New Orleans, we fry oysters and crawfish, alligator, and 30-pound turkeys. When I used to throw dinner parties in Haute Provence for CEOs, Swiss bankers, a Bedouin Prince from Saudi Arabia, and the local mystery writer, I always cooked up the perfect meal truffles from our own backyard lightly tossed into a soft scramble of eggs, anchovies cooked down into a rich thick garlicky sauce to pour over boiled cardoons, and long-simmered stews bursting with marrow. But sometimes, after all the guests had gone, sitting in the stillness of my kitchen in Provence, I longed for the impossible dish, something from my New Orleans childhood something so spicy and served forth from a deep cast iron skillet that had been in my grandfather's family for generations, or perhaps a taste of Korea a country I resembled even though it would never be mine.
Since the search for a taste of home has nourished me my whole life, it was impossible not to include recipes in my memoir. For me, they are like poems, illustrations of indelible moments in my life. So when Powell's asked for an original essay, I thought I would write about how both food and poetry became main characters in Trail of Crumbs. But when the guidelines only required that the writer do what the writer does best write I decided to share these small acts, four poems of food and love, and loss, and a dream of the impossible dish.
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I don't think I'm lonely anymore
and when you call I try, instead,
to talk of favorite places
to taste icy oysters
on the half shell.
I prefer lemon and thinly-sliced shallots.
You like the bite of grated horseradish
and sweet catsup.
We talk of where we'll meet next
Cairo, Cayenne, probably New Orleans
in a courtyard ripe with fig
and night-blooming jasmine.
We'll toast to the story of life
we somehow continue living
while mothers die of heartbreak
and friends lose friends.
Across the ocean someone is losing
her land, another is going hungry
going out on a limb
searching for a definition of freedom.
Hush, you'll say
light candles, break bread,
pour wine. Let's practice
the simple, small acts of the living.
Touch me, here
in this quiet kitchen of the night.
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for Dorothy Hoppe
Outside, the car motor is running.
Inside, my grandmother's lungs are beating
to the panicked rhythm of a june bug
caught between window and pane.
This may be the last time
I see her, staring beyond
a bone white bowl of melted lime sherbet
to a photo of her wedding day.
I have failed because there's nothing
I can cook that will give her a reason to taste.
The world, she says, has eaten her up
her trembling body now empty of hunger.
She gestures to the glass jar
wrapped in Sunday's paper.
Inside is hot crawfish bisque
made from my dead grandfather's recipe.
Rich without cream or butter,
just stuffed crawfish heads
in a sweet tomato gravy,
extra spicy herbed dressing.
Outside, a small summer shroud
of Louisiana heat as I climb into the car,
my bare thighs stick to the leather seats,
the smooth glass jar propped against my belly.
Inside, I'm smiling because now I know
the secret: Use only Binder's French bread
she whispered, and make just enough
to always keep you wanting for more.
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The Dream Life of Food
Mexico opens her mouth
and laughs, stops momentarily
to listen to the cicadas
busy with their evening-song
while her daughter chars poblanos and anchos
over the open fire
so slender are her fingers, so deft
as she manipulates the flame
To concentrate better, Mexico lowers the volume of the small
television set, so there are only images
angry men with their blown up faces
speaking soundless words.
I slice ripe pears into a bright green bowl
of grilled sweet corn, the kernels
crisp and milky, full of promise
and I think to myself
that this is a gift
to feel so fearless
in face of so much.
Here, a mother and daughter can busy themselves
with orphan's rice, dishes of deep mole amarillo and still-warm tortillas
enough food to feed an army
as countries, with the luxury of money and time,
wage wars for the rest of the world.
In this half-sleep I almost blink away the cake
but luckily I am already tasting it,
a recipe so illogical no chef would ever make it.
Smooth batter, the exquisite color of stars.
My tongue fills with rich dulce de leche
and a top layer of tender pearl-white rice whipped into a mousse.
Mexico and her daughter let me split open
the pomegranate ripe with juice
that stains my wrists and hands.
I adorn the frosting with seeds
like jewels, traces of indelible bloodlines
on a cake offered only in a dream.
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A Pasta Poem for Two
We sit at the bar at Babbo anticipating
linguine with clams. You also want mint love letters
because you have been reading to me from Heat, and let's order
the duck liver ravioli as well, you say, perhaps the pappardelle
and then we'll decide about the rest.
A man squeezes in behind us and I can smell his wool jacket
that must have been hidden in a secret chest for years,
a whole family of moth-life aflutter at the thought of an outing.
Sweet, tender girl at the bar smiles as I squinch my nose, and push away my plate.
You lift me off the barstool and hold me close
to smell the last traces of melograno I soaped you with after
our second or third shower of the day.
We dance to Ibrahim Ferrer singing Beny More's Como fue
(We are in mothball heaven, you will write to me later, who needs love letters?)
You gently guide my waist to spin me around and place your hand
just for an instant on the heart of my belly
as the tender bar girl smiles again,
pours us wine that is good and sways
stained with life itself.
All poems copyright Kim Sunée 2008.
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Kim Sunee was born in South Korea, adopted, and raised in New Orleans. She lived in Paris and Provence for 10 years.