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Poetry and Recipes

In addition to my position at Rutgers as a part-time business librarian, I am also a food writer and historian. While the vocations might not seem connected, they really do work well in tandem. The database-searching proficiency I gleaned through my M.L.S. (Rutgers, 1997) combined with many years working in corporate libraries allows me to assist and instruct the Rutgers community in finding business information. These research skills along with my writing experience (my undergraduate degree was in journalism) and a deep interest in culinary history helps me gather the information I need to write about food.

Which is why I was pleasantly surprised to recently discover more writing synergies––the links between recipes and poetry. My current book project is a combination cookbook and history of Delmonico’s restaurant, which includes editing and rewriting recipes. Some of these are classic Delmonico recipes (e.g., Eggs Benedict, Delmonico Steak and Baked Alaska), but others have been contributed by modern chefs, giving the original Delmonico’s recipes a contemporary spin, such as Tara Cox’s Baby Benedicts or Carla Hall’s Mini Baked Alaskas. The difficulty here is maintaining a sense of consistency throughout the book while preserving the voice of the chef contributors.

At the same time, I’ve also been assisting with the Rutgers New Brunswick Summer Tales program. As we started delving into the second session focusing on poetry, it made me think of the similarities between recipes and poems. A well-written recipe flows in a way that is both lyrical and descriptive, with each step moving the cook through the process, qualities I also appreciate in a poem. A poem’s various verses and stanzas also move the reader through the story or message.

I haven’t written much poetry in my life, but I can imagine it is probably easier to conceive and write poetry that comes from one’s own thoughts, experiences, and emotions, like the second poem in the Summer Tales series, Persimmons by Li-Young Lee. Lee is obviously writing about events from his childhood, vividly dredging up memories and imagery in the way he strings her words together. I love the way he describes how to choose and eat persimmons in colorful detail. This not unlike how I approach writing a recipe. Those I have created on my own or reconstructed from a historic dish are easier to write as I have a point of reference, and know exactly how to describe the sights, textures, and tastes of the various ingredients, techniques, and final products.

I have so enjoyed participating in Summer Tales, as it has given me much “food for thought” in my understanding of poetry and short stories. This has allowed me to see these types of writing in a different way and relate them to my own work, boosting my research and writing skills. Accessing and conveying information is key in my role as a librarian and writer––invoking all the senses casts the widest net.

lemon sherbetHere’s a recipe to try. This is my grandmother’s lemon sherbet, so simple and refreshing for the summer––and perfect for July, which is Ice Cream Month! I tried to add some poetic and descriptive cues to the instructions … see if you can spot them.

Grandmother Lawrence’s Lemon Sherbet
Serves 6-8

  • 1 ½ cups sugar
  • 1 quart milk (I use 2%)
  • Juice and zest of two lemons
  1. Bring the sugar and milk to a boil in a medium saucepan, stirring constantly to make sure the milk doesn’t burn. Take off the heat and pour into a large glass bowl. Let cool for about 10 minutes and then cover the bowl and transfer to the refrigerator for about an hour.
  2. While the mixture is chilling in the fridge, zest the outer yellow layer of the lemons over a small bowl (a microplane or zester works best, but you can also use a vegetable peeler or a knife), making sure not to scrape off any of the white pith, which has a bitter taste. The zest should release a bright, citrusy aroma. Then juice the lemons. Strain the juice through a fine sieve to remove any seeds and pulp, adding the juice to the bowl with the zest. TIP: If you roll the lemons back and forth a few times on the counter before juicing them, they will yield more of their flavorful liquid.
  3. Remove the bowl from the refrigerator containing the milk mixture. Add the lemon juice and zest, stirring well to blend the lemon flavor throughout. Transfer to the freezer and freeze for several hours until the bowl feels icy to the touch and the sherbet is frozen stiff, checking periodically and stirring if necessary.
  4. When ready to serve, scoop into dishes and garnish with a fragrant sprig of mint if desired.

Want to read more about the history of sherbet? Read the original post about Grandmother Lawrence’s Lemon Sherbet.