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Flash in the Pan

What food would taste like if all recipes were poems



Doing a book review for The Poetics of Wilderness last week, I remembered some things I learned from a book of poems I bought from Simon Ortiz, one of the writers featured in that volume. The book, Woven Stone, includes a poem entitled “How to make a good chili stew” (pg. 174). The poem reads suspiciously like a recipe.

At this point I should admit that I don’t read too many recipes, preferring instead to let my own intuitive culinary guide—I call it the “third chakra”—dictate the flow of my cooking. That, and a few basic rules, such as keeping tabs on the fundamental interplay of the primary flavor groups of fat, acid, sweet, sour, hot, and garlic, are what guides my cooking.

Still, I have read enough recipes to be struck, more often than not, by the general similarity between cookbook protocol and the lab protocol from my days as an undergraduate biochemistry major. The poetry of flavor is reduced to numbers and rote, and a certain spontaneity gets lost in the shuffle. Let me be clear that I am not dissing recipes—there is room in The Pan for all of us. But I sure gravitated to that Ortiz poem.

“How to make a good chili stew” was written during a particular cooking session, and it conveys both the recipe itself and the limitations of that particular circumstance. As is often the case, the idiosyncrasies of a particular scenario shed light upon the universal.

In his list of ingredients, Ortiz writes:

• Chili (Red, frozen, dry pods, or powdered. In this case, powdered, because that’s all I have.)

• Beef (In this case, beef which someone who works at a restaurant in Durango brought this morning, leftovers, trim the fat off—and give some to the dog because he is a good guy. His name is Rex.)

• Onion (In this case, I don’t have any, but if you do have some around, include it with much blessings.)

Later on in the instructions, Ortiz notes, “Put chili and some water into a saucepan with bullion, garlic which is diced, and salt and pepper and onion which I don’t have and won’t mention anymore because I miss it, and you shouldn’t ever be any place without it, I don’t care where.”

Stop right there. Make a note to self. “Don’t get caught without onion.” A universal of cooking.

Ortiz goes on to note, “Make sure you smell the chili in the saucepan once in a while and think of a song to go along with it. That’s important.” Chef Boy Ari reads that line and can only wonder, what kind of world would this be if every dish had its own song? And, what is the song of a Big Mac frying?

Ortiz adds, “Smelling and watching are important things, and you really shouldn’t worry too much about it—I don’t care what Julia Child says—but you should pay the utmost attention to everything, and that means the earth, clouds, sounds, the wind. All these go into the cooking.” Finally, he advises: “And then you put everything into a pot—a cast iron one is best, like the one my Dad and I put a sheep’s head into at sheep camp with rice and pieces of bread dough for dumplings and buried it in the ashes and coals so it was cooked by the time we got back to camp in the evening from herding sheep.”

Ahhh. What if all recipes were poems? If all recipes were poems, then they could also serve as history lessons, anthropology lessons, personal guides, and spiritual advisors. Many people could benefit from poem-recipes, including people who can’t get out of their cookbooks, and those who don’t “get” poetry.

And what is poetry but a carefully presented diagram of a moment? Recipes for moments. Poems to make your mouth water. Poems to make you cry (with lots of onions). Most poems seem to be love poems, and a poem about food is no exception. Shoot, maybe I should write a poem...

All I know is, Mr. Ortiz’s open-ended format suits my cooking perfectly. I have a dish that I call Simon Ortiz Chili. It’s a little different each time, but it is always, unmistakably, Simon Ortiz Chili. Because I can, I take advantage of the huge selection of dried chili peppers at the Good Food Store, mixing in Santa Fe chilis, Indian chilis, Cayenne chilis, smoked chipotle chilis, even poblanos. Instead of bullion, I use a beef soup bone, and instead of beef, I use deer from the freezer. My cast iron has never held a sheep’s head, but it gets the job done. And, I always use lots of onion. 

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