Art of food

Henri talks with food writer, poet and feminist Sandra Gilbert

The Poetics of Ice Cream, a talk by Sandra Gilbert, Thursday, Feb. 19, 7 p.m., at the Humanities Center.
Humanities Center
Trinity 100
Chico State
Info: 898-5122

It will come as no surprise to Henri’s faithful readers—both of you no doubt aware of his sensitive nature—that while food writing is indeed a passion, he is a poet at heart. In fact, Henri actually wrote a “book” of poetry in second grade—in a little black composition book—titled Where the Cakewalk Ends. Mon père sent it to me shortly before he died.

And while it is definitely the work of a less mature writer, some of the poems aren’t bad, though the spelling leaves something be desired:

I lik weiners, I lik buns

I lik ice cream tons

I lik pie and I lik cake

If I dont eat my hart will brake

So of course Henri was thrilled to learn that the renowned poet, food writer and UC Davis professor Sandra Gilbert would be coming to Chico Feb. 19 as part of the Chico State Humanities Center’s year-long Food and Culture series.

Professor Gilbert has published eight collections of poetry, most recently Aftermath (2011), as well as four prose books including her latest, The Culinary Imagination: From Myth to Modernity (2014), the work from which her Chico talk will be drawn.

Henri Bourride: How did you first get interested in food as an area of academic study?

Sandra Gilbert: My ethnic heritage is very complicated and delicious. My paternal grandparents were French/Italian and Russian. Grandpa ran a restaurant in the market district in New York and was a fabulous cook. My mother’s family was 100 percent Sicilian, so we ate deep-dish Sicilian pizza, lasagna and those glorious golden rice balls called arancini.

A poet friend and I put together an anthology of food poems decades ago, and now the enterprise has born fruit not only in my recent book on the culinary imagination, but also in a collection of food writing that I’ve co-edited called Eating Words, due out this fall.

Have you encountered any obstacles in treating food as a serious area of scholarship?

Sandra Gilbert

Thirty years ago, when we tried to publish our anthology, there wasn’t a lot of interest, but in the last few years I haven’t encountered any obstacles at all. Everyone seems to be hungry for writing about food. In academia, “food studies” is a flourishing field.

You’re a poet, critic, feminist and food writer. Can you talk about where those different “selves” intersect and the degree, if any, to which they’re at odds with each other?

As a poet, I’ve been nurtured by the writing and thinking I’ve discovered as a critic and a feminist. I’ve always also felt that my range of vision was broadened and deepened once I began to meditate on what it meant to me to grow up as a woman in a culture where stereotypes of “femininity” had very specific problems and (for that matter) possibilities. As for food writing—I’m actually a writer about food writing, which seems to have evolved inevitably out of my other careers.

You’ve been invited to a dinner party. You are to bring one of your favorite dishes to share, one of your favorite books to exchange, and one of your favorite poems to read. What would you bring?

For a main course, I’d bring a turkey stuffed with my Ligurian grandpa’s famous stuffing.

For a book, I’d bring M. F. K. Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me, one of the earliest works in a genre that’s come to be called “foodoir.”

And I’d bring Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” an elegy for a nameless woman that also, amazingly, incorporates a discussion of ice-cream making.

Your talk is titled “The Poetics of Ice Cream.” Can you provide a preview?

I will read and discuss “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” and a few other recipe poems. I might also read and discuss one of my own political/culinary poems, a piece called “Mafioso” that was probably my first “real” poem.

From “Mafioso”:

Frank Costello eating spaghetti in a cell at San Quentin,

Lucky Luciano mixing up a mess of bullets and

calling for parmesan cheese,

Al Capone baking a sawed-off shotgun into a

huge lasagna– are you my uncles, my only uncles?