Charles Simic has a lovely mini-essay on the New York Review of Books website on how he came to love Italian food. Simic was born in Belgrade in 1938, grew up in the destruction of World War 2, and moved with his mother to Chicago in 1954. There was little food to love in his childhood. In one of his poems, he brags, “We were so poor I had to take the place of the bait in the mousetrap.” (The World Doesn’t End, 1989)
Simic recounts how when he was 18 he got an apartment and a job, and a co-worker took him to an Italian restaurant. The food was a revelation to him, and eventually changed his brag: “I don’t know how other poets imagine their muses, but mine is an Italian cookbook.”
That genial muse doesn’t appear so much in the early poems that touch on eating. He wrote a trilogy about tableware utensils:
This strange thing must have crept
Right out of hell.
It resembles a bird’s foot
Worn around the cannibal’s neck.
As you hold it in your hand,
As you stab with it into a piece of meat,
It is possible to imagine the rest of the bird:
Its head which like your fist
Is large, bald, beakless, and blind.
Wonderful poems, but not a place setting I want to sit down to. Later poems do celebrate the pleasures of the table, e.g., “Crazy about Her Shrimp.” There is a great Paris Review interview where Simic produced, on a moment’s notice, a Grand Unified Theory of Food and Poetry:
On the other hand, one of the main pleasures of your work, for me anyway, is the way it reminds us of all the ordinary pleasures of life, and urges us, or rather invites us, to enjoy them while we still can—things such as fried shrimp, tomatoes, roast lamb, red wine . . .
Don’t forget sausages sautéed with potatoes and onions! It’s also highly advisable to have a philosopher or two on hand. A few pages of Plato while working on a baked ham. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus over a bowl of spaghetti with littleneck clams. We think best when we bring opposites together, when we realize that all these realities, one inside the other, are somehow connected. That’s how the wonder and amazement that are so necessary to both poetry and philosophy come about. A “truth” detached and purified of pleasures of ordinary life is not worth a damn in my view. Every grand theory and noble sentiment ought to be first tested in the kitchen—and then in bed, of course.
Simic assmbled fifty years of poems in the recent New and Selected Poems, 1962 – 2012. Simic’s world is often described as surreal, but his diction is highly accessible. In the same interview, Simic said, “I wanted something seemingly artless and pedestrian to surprise the reader by conveying so much more. In other words, I wanted a poem a dog can understand.”
Highly recommended for all species.