For decades, Roslyn native Stephen Massimilla has been teaching the greats of modern literature to generations of students at Columbia University. Recently, Massimilla published his own volume of verse, Forty Floors from Yesterday. Now, the Roslyn resident has coauthored, with his wife, Myra Kornfield, Cooking with the Muse: A Sumptuous Gathering of Seasonal Recipes, Culinary Poetry and Literary Fare, a cookbook that is a wide-ranging anthology of culinary poems and recipes, described by the publishers as “including the equivalent of a complete book of new food poems and poetic prose pieces—as well as enlightening essays, lore and notes on the poetry of food. This is a feast of words, as well as [a] guide that makes preparing fresh, home-cooked meals more enriching and exciting…Cooking With The Muse is perfect for the bibliophile with an interest in reading about nature, the seasons, food, culture, ingredients and global flavors, as well as for cooks looking for inspiration.”
Massimilla said that the two subjects, food and literature, often go hand in hand. The anthology, he said, concerns “everything having to do with food and everything having to do with poetry.” An ambitious project, published by Tupelo Press, it contains 200 color photographs, and is described by Massimilla as a “coffee table book.” But it is more than that. The reader will be introduced to some of the finest verse in poetry, both ancient and modern, including those of Homer, Rumi, Chaucer, Milton, Gerald Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, D.H. Lawrence, Claude McKay, Pablo Neruda, Wallace Stevens, Sylvia Plath, Galway Kinnell, Zora Neale Hurston, Mary Oliver, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, Tom Robbins, Wendell Berry, Michael Ondaatje, Jorie Graham, Jane Hirshfield and many others.
The volume, the publisher added, also contains a complete seasonal cookbook featuring 150 recipes inspired by cuisines from around the world. These dishes highlight fresh, local ingredients and encourage the use of seasonal produce, wild seafood, traditional fats and meat from pasture-raised animals.
The sections are also divided into the seasons, starting with autumn, where such crops as corn, apples, eggplant and squash are celebrated.
The winter section features a range of healthy comfort food poems—from Anya Silver’s sonnet “French Toast” paired with “Nut-Butter-and- Jam-Stuffed French Toast” to Seamus Heaney’s sonnet on peeling potatoes paired with “Shepherd’s Pie with Colcannon Topping.” The poetry of Keats and Rumi is paired with vibrantly spiced Moroccan dishes to awaken the wintry palate. The spring verses and recipes revolve around artichokes, greens, asparagus and peas. In summer, succulent fruit abounds, even in the meat recipes.
Massimilla teaches poetry at Columbia. His wife, meanwhile, has long reminded her husband that cooking is a form of art itself, indeed, a form of poetry. “We got together,” recalled Massimilla of the joint effort. “The book is a marriage of recipes and poetry.”
One example is the selection from Wendell Berry, the prolific farmer/poet who is still active. Berry, Massimilla noted, wrote a poem that was, in part, about raising peaches. And so, the editors combined that verse with a peach recipe.
In addition to teaching at Columbia, Massimilla also teaches at The New School for Social Research in Manhattan.
For his publishers, Massimilla and his wife also gave the following interview:
Q: Where did the idea for the book come from?
A: Well, Myra was always coming up with new dishes, writing and revising recipes, and writing about food, while Stephen was always coming up with new poems and writing about poetry. It occurred to us that these interests were complementary, that a true cook is already a poet of sorts and that it takes a poet to cook up vibrant ways to write about food. We realized that poems and recipes had a lot in common. We got to thinking that we could write a book together, one that would be about the marriage of recipes and poetry, and the synergy between the two.
Q: There are other seasonal cookbooks out there. What makes this one unique?
A: The book not only celebrates ingredients and dishes in season, it does so with a wonderful array of appetizing poems, preambles, epigraphs, notes and literary essays about those ingredients and dishes. Not only the poetry, but the prose throughout this book is unique. The introductions and essays explore the relationship between cooking and writing, and between savoring food and savoring words. The book is also an ode to global flavors. It’s both entirely practical as a cookbook and as an inspired, collaborative work of art.
Q: There is a real movement for locally sourced food as well as ethical animal treatment. Where do you fall on that scale? What would you say to those who might not have the access to this fresh, local food that you have?
A: We are both advocates of a real food philosophy, one that honors and encompasses traditional farming practices (raising animals on pasture and so on), that entails using plenty of good-quality traditional fats and slow-cooked stocks, and that involves preparing foods such as nuts, grains and legumes in the manner that makes them the most digestible. A farmer we know and trust always said that “cheap food makes expensive medicine,” and we wholeheartedly agree. Nowadays, with the help of farmers’ markets and the Internet, anyone can access well-sourced food relatively easily.
Q: How does the real food philosophy approach manifest itself in your daily lives?
A: Our way of cooking and eating feels satisfying and poetic. There’s frequently a bone broth bubbling on our stove. The health benefits are profound, and the flavor is wonderful. Since we freeze the broths, we always have them on hand and can whip up something delicious very quickly. In that sense, what we advocate is a slow food/fast food approach, which runs throughout the book.
Q: In what ways does it make sense to explain, discuss, showcase and celebrate poetry and food together?
A: Cooking and poetry are both inspirational, creative and celebratory. They’re both about traditions of nourishment in the deepest sense. They both reflect our values and feelings. They’re both inseparable from human relationships, as well as our relationship to the earth, the seasons and the spirit within us.
Q: Which was more fun, testing the recipes or finding the poetry?
A: Testing recipes is a bit more like revising and reediting poems than finding them or coming up with original poems. It’s an exacting process full of trial and error, but it was great to to have had so many delicious meals during the writing and construction of this book. The recipes were also tested on many people through our cooking events and classes. We wanted to make sure that the recipes would be
clear and easy to follow for cooks
of all levels.
Q: So, was it just as much fun to work on the poetry?
A: Oh yes. We met regularly to pick out the poems that either inspired the recipes or complemented them. We agreed that we both had to be excited about every poem, even Stephen’s original poems. This book is truly a marriage of the minds—and hearts and souls—on every level.
Q: Who do you think is the ideal
audience for this book? What do you hope they will get out of it (besides delicious food and food
A: There is something for everyone in this book. People who are interested in literature. People who love to eat with friends and have a fun anecdote to share. It includes recipes that can easily fit into any diet, so they’re great to pair together for a dinner party with guests with different dietary preferences, be they vegetarian, gluten-intolerant or Paleo. But ultimately it’s for people who love food, who want to be well-nourished and love to read, so hopefully everyone.
Q: Do you have favorite recipes, poems or dishes that you recommend for a beginner?
A: From the very start, we experienced a big thrill when we saw how the literature and recipes were coming together, starting with an autumn recipe that pairs Galway Kinnell’s scrumptious poem “Blackberry Eating” and another piece by Mary Oliver with a luscious “Blackberry Parfait.” This dish is both sophisticated and perfectly appropriate for a beginner cook. It’s also good for a first-time reader of poetry since the essays are designed to make the poetry more accessible. In a more sophisticated vein, we’re really excited about the Middle Eastern feast in this book, which is spiced with the poetry of Rumi and Hafiz.
Q: What was your process of pairing recipes and poems?
A: Some of the poems inspired new recipes. At other times, recipes inspired new poems. What’s more, we often discovered that a recipe and a poem, when placed side by side, inspired other musings. As we worked on the outlines for the book over the years, we also realized that certain pieces fit together in sequences that glowed. All the poems and recipes interlock like multicolored jigsaw pieces in a grand puzzle of the image of a mural.
Q: Have you ever written a book together before? What were the biggest challenges?
A: We’ve always worked together as mutual sounding boards for pieces we were working on, but this is our first fully collaborative book. Collaborating has been less a challenge than a source of inspiration and support. We simply could not have written this book without each other. We admire each other’s skill sets, and we feel lucky that they complement each other.