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In Praise of Cravings
How To Eat a Poem. Words by Amy Key, Illustration by Sinjin Li.
Good morning and welcome to the first edition of Vittles Season 6: Food and the Arts. A reminder of the season theme can be found here.
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TUNAFISH SANDWICH PIECE
Imagine one thousand suns in the
sky at the same time.
Let them shine for one hour.
Then, let them gradually melt
into the sky.
Make one tunafish sandwich and eat.
— 1964 Spring
Reading Grapefruit, Yoko Ono’s 1964 book of instructional texts last week, reminded me that language is a tool for making a world that does not yet exist. Speculate! Invite the impossible! Ono’s texts show how we can exceed the limits of the world as they are presented to us by Bad New Governments everywhere. A poem is a recipe for the imagination that puts the reader in the position of maker. Playing with words can be the first step in making other futures. As Ursula K. Le Guin noted in a speech in 2014 :
“We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.”
Conservative political forces want us to look down the barrel of austerity and see the world they describe as inevitable. The writing of Amy Key, whether in her poetry or prose, makes gorgeous abundance feel possible once again. Key’s facility with colour makes my pulse race. The synaesthetic connections she forges between colour and flavour in this essay blur my vision and appetite so that I, too, crave colour as never before. RMJ
In Praise of Cravings (or, How To Eat a Poem), by Amy Key
One dismal January I woke from a dream in which I prepared a salad. The salad’s pale green colour was its organising principle. I craved the idea of pale green. Tips of crocuses disturbing bare earth; the insinuation of something new, something barely green, green only in its emergence into the world. I wrote the dream into a poem:
I dreamed a recipe:
peelings from a pear
and the hard stem
dressed in lime juice
and olive oil.
I called this recipe
It was January
and I was craving.
Not that kind.
I first encountered this desire in my subconscious, then made it real through language. I wanted a salad of the palest greens I could find because I needed to eat the idea of newness. I needed the palate of the ingredients to persuade me into a year I was resisting.
I’ve never made Palest Greens real in a material, culinary sense, but it struck me how often my cravings have this quality. What I want – a feeling, a desire, a resolution or understanding that is eluding me – occurs to me through food.
Craving is a mode of expression, and food is how I translate it. Sometimes it is through texture: I want to hear the operation of my jaws echoing in my head. To crunch is to be reminded of the mechanical reality of being embodied. I want the strange communion of eating ice cream, the way it melts on the tongue, dissolving into the body’s internal knitted network of streams. Sometimes it is the eating equivalent of a sauna or plunge pool I’m after: hot, crisp lasagne collapsing into chopped iceberg lettuce. Excess then relief. Even though I hate my hands being sticky, sometimes I am mentally wringing the juice from a peeled mango as though it were a wet sponge. I’m stripping the red wax away from a Mini Babybel and squeezing it into the shape of a chunky button. In the process it loses its sheen and takes on a matte-ness, like aged plastic. On other occasions I crave something dense, like a chocolate truffle, but there’s a craving behind that craving – biting down on someone’s shoulder. How gently can I keep them between my teeth, like a mother cat with a kitten in its mouth? I want tender resistance, for my bite mark to quickly fade. In the absence of someone to bite, and nothing comparable to eat (the Mini Babybel would fit the brief), I reach into my cutlery drawer for the cork of an old wine bottle and rest it between my teeth, enjoying the quality of exerting different kinds of pressure. It relieves the craving for a time.
When I crave a colour, it is most often about the pleasing collaboration of two colours together. This goes with this. I remember a friend of mine – an artist – telling me that the way to work out which colours will look good together in an outfit or art or the home is to think about what’s nice to eat. Red strawberries and the liquid ivory of cream. Cat-paw pink prawns and the cut stem of a rose, green like avocado. Deep-red tomatoes and spring leaf-green basil. The racing-car green of courgette skin and the bright paper-white of feta. Golden chickpeas and the cut grass of parsley. Silver mackerel against irrepressible beetroot against the deceptive neutrality of horseradish. The McDonald’s livery of fries and ketchup.
Then there’s the transformative role of tableware in satisfying my craving for colour. Blood orange, sliced and arranged on a green plate – an aesthetic wallop. A pomegranate’s seeds tapped out onto pearly porcelain, its juice like ink blots. What is it I’m after? I’m after a desire being met. I don’t like solid blue plates, for example, because blue isn’t an edible colour to me. But a blue pattern on the oaty colour of old earthenware suggests an elegance about whatever is arranged on it which feels aspirational. Spears of asparagus lined up like daffodils in the border of a municipal park. I imagine taking a sharp blade to their stems, all my cuts clean. I let them rest where they fall.
Sometimes I fail the colours I’m working with. My regular salad of tomato and sliced fennel is best when there are enough green fennel fronds to garnish both the red of the tomato and the white-green of the fennel. Sometimes I get the quantities wrong: the red outguns the white, or the white outguns the red. Or I’ve layered the tomatoes and fennel in a way that obscures both of their qualities. I eat it all the same, but the opportunity for a further increment of pleasure has been lost.
Because I live alone, I often eat alone. Cravings can take the shape of people I love. I make my pal Becky’s pasta dish – fennel and courgettes in a buttery parmesan sauce – for myself. The colours are pale greens that verge on yellow. I have a Camellia meal: cold poached salmon, potato salad, coleslaw. The colours are pink-orange and cream. I make something I know my sister would want to eat – spicy pork belly, greens, rice, smacked cucumber. The colours are vivid – emerald and amethyst against white. I wake with a desire for a meal I’d eat at my grandparents’ house: on each person’s plate there would be one slice of ham and half a boiled egg. Then there would be small cut-glass dishes containing individual elements: cucumber, tomatoes, beetroot that vibrates with vinegar. A jar of salad cream. Some chopped iceberg lettuce. Occasionally pickled onions, occasionally cress. This salad was an event – each separate salad item attended to, respected. Salad was never served as a complete meal in my family home, so I make an event of salad just for me, and I think of all the times I sat in my grandparents’ dining room, eating salad and feeling looked after, wondering if there would be something for dessert – a slice of Artic roll, or some tinned fruit cocktail and squirty cream. These meals, where I’m attended to by the simple thoughts of others, are a one-sided communication, but somehow also a craving met. For the duration of planning, cooking, and eating the meal, I have a companion.
As a fat woman, I can feel inhibited talking about food because the gaze from which I imagine (and know) I’m perceived is one of greed, as though I can’t be trusted with my own appetites. Because of my fatness I’m disallowed hunger. I refuse to be disallowed craving. But I’m rarely alienated from my desire to eat, and the possibilities of pleasure it offers. My confidence – that I can rely on myself to satisfy a craving – feels like a foundational aspect of my character. Where eating is concerned, I’m content to both know and be surprised by my desires, and I value the simplicity of being able to resolve most cravings myself. Ahh, you need something frisky and sour. Placid and beige. You need green on green on green. Something chompy, a whole big plate played on one note. You need salt. You need sweetness. You need to be practical. You need Haribo eaten straight from the fridge. You need to be frugal. You need something, I think to myself, and I fry an egg and drop it in a bowl of instant ramen, spooning chilli crisp onto the egg before I eat.
Rather than being something that I should negotiate with, restrain or deflect, cravings are ways in which I am in touch with my body’s communicative abilities. If I disowned my cravings, refused to listen to what my senses were lacking or wanted more of, what else would I miss of my own embodied desires? It’s already hard enough to listen to the body through the interminable piped noise of purity, wellness and correct-seeming behaviour. Eat this, not that. Drink this, not that. Fuck this way, not that way. Dress like this. Move like this. Think like this. Transact like this. And don’t you dare give in to a craving. Occasionally – not often – I find myself not quite satisfied. I want more, something else, but I consider these seemingly fresh needs as an invitation to try again. Perhaps I crave something I’ve not yet encountered. So I eat and I crave. I allow for mistakes. There’s pleasure in not being certain something will work. Pleasure in the lifelong experiment of meeting my needs.
A recipe (of sorts)
I think about making Palest Greens. I even buy the ingredients for it, but the craving has gone; it was satisfied through a different medium. Instead, I let a piece of toast go cold before I butter it as though it is a cake I am icing. I want my toast and butter intact, for the collaboration of the two to occur only through the eating.
I’ve grown maudlin with the summer failing. After a swim in Beckenham Park lake, my friend Rebecca and I find unripe acorns on the brittle, yellow grass. I try to resist the feeling that autumn is coming. The acorns, with their lurid, queasy green, should not be there this early. We pick some up, choosing ones where the little acorn hat is still attached to a thread of a stem, which is attached to a fine branch. They have the thin shell of cobnuts. I mentally crack them open between my teeth. Imagine myself as an Iberian pig, feasting. It helps dislodge my fear of winter.
The following week I drive to Somerset to catsit for a few days, arranging a catsitter for my own flat. I briefly wonder if my catsitter also had to arrange someone to care for their cats, if there is an endless daisy chain of sitters. The place I’m staying has a pear tree. In the kitchen there is a bowl full of pears from that tree. Some fell, taking sections of their branch down with them. From a distance, it is hard to know where the pears end and the branches begin. The pears have a bloom on them. The branches also have a bloom of lichen. Green, brown, gold, yellow. I can’t locate the right words for the brownish colour of the pears. Muddy gold? I come across this colour again in the sea in Suffolk, which is pear-coloured, green but churning the gold of sand. I find them very beautiful, but I only want to look at them, not eat them. Again, I have all the ingredients for Palest Greens, but I can’t locate the desire to prepare it. Instead, I roast the broccoli just before it begins to lose its appeal, and I core and quarter one of the pears, eating it standing in the kitchen while waiting for some water to boil. The pear is not ready.
Back at home there is one day left of August, then September comes with its impetuses: get organised, take pleasure in change, devote yourself to comfort. Try as I might, I can’t key into the anticipatory feeling of it. Dead leaves are piling up in my patio garden, brittle like kale I’ve crisped up in the oven. The sound kale makes when tipped into a bowl is autumn. I want to counter all this rustling, a noise that fills my ears every time I look out of the window. I want to hold back winter. I decide to eat gold.
On a low heat, I roast some small, plum-shaped yellow-and-orange tomatoes with olive oil and garlic. Then I put a pan with two large fennel sausages into the oven. I am going to eat the sausages and tomatoes with polenta. I almost always mess polenta up, but I enjoy eating the results regardless. Opening the fridge to get some butter out, I realise I have a single corn on the cob. It strikes me that the husk of the corn would make an excellent mackintosh-style coat, were it processed into a fabric – it feels like how I’d imagine waxed linen to be, and it is the pale green of my poem. I knife off the kernels, and from their cut side they leak milkiness onto the chopping board. Some have come away from the cob in sections; these panels shine like a glass mosaic. I scrape the whole lot into a frying pan, then grate parmesan onto the cleared board. I check how things are going in the oven. The tomatoes have surrendered their integrity; I remove them. The sausages I turn over – what I’m going for is a glossy, conker-brown colour. Back on the hob, the corn in the pan is losing moisture, becoming toasty and filling the kitchen with the smell of cinema. In another pan I heat stock and cream and then slowly tip in the polenta, stirring erratically to try to make the whole thing smooth. I’ve misjudged my liquid-to-grain ratio again. I add more liquid, beat more chaotically. The whole thing is reminiscent of when I was a kid and attempted to fill the moat of my sandcastle with a small plastic bucket of sea water. The red silicone of my spoon against the golden grit of the polenta. I drop in a slab of butter, then sweep in the parmesan. I’ve arrived at a mashed potato-type consistency. That will do, I think, even though it’s completely wrong.
Using a spatula, I lift out a large wodge of polenta and shuffle it into a shallow pink bowl. It looks dune-like. I spread it a little to make it into a raised, vaguely flat circle. In the middle I place one sausage. It shines as though it’s been lacquered. In a performatively casual flourish, I spoon the roasted tomatoes and juice around the edge of the polenta, topping it with the toasted sweetcorn. Gold on gold on gold. The bowl is heavy in my hands. I eat watching TV, a French series called The Bureau, about the secret service – the DGSE. The meal, with its richness and its goldenness, exists in a space between summer ending and autumn beginning. It satisfies something in me. I think it might be the idea of eating the sun.
I watch another episode of The Bureau. Some of the scenes take place in the DGSE’s staff canteen, and I’m charmed every time by how many characters have a plate of grated carrot as part of their lunch. I get this pleasure in the episode I watch – when I see it, I understand why people talk about colours popping: the carrots pop. Then I wash up, combining the leftover polenta, sweetcorn and tomatoes into a too-small Tupperware that will mould it, jelly-like, into a neat square. Before settling back down, I use a fork to retrieve the second sausage from its pan, where it has cooled and shrunk a little in its skin. On the sofa, I hold the fork in one hand and eat the sausage straight from it, in smug, immodest bites. I think of a line by poet Chelsey Minnis:
‘I will scold myself for many things in the future… but never for this.’1
Amy Key is a poet and writer based in London, where she works in the public sector. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Luxe (Salt, 2013) and Isn’t Forever (Bloodaxe, 2018). Her first work of non-fiction, Arrangements in Blue, will be published by Jonathan Cape in April 2023.
Sinjin Li is the moniker of Sing Yun Lee, an illustrator and graphic designer based in Essex. Sing uses the character of Sinjin Li to explore ideas found in science fiction, fantasy and folklore. They like to incorporate elements of this thinking in their commissioned work, creating illustrations and designs for subject matter including cultural heritage and belief, food and poetry among many other themes. Previous clients include Vittles, Hachette UK, Welbeck Publishing, Good Beer Hunting and the London Science Fiction Research Community. They can be found at www.sinjinli.com and on Instagram at @sinjin_li
Vittles is edited by Rebecca May Johnson, Sharanya Deepak and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.
‘Preface 6’ from Bad Bad (Fence Books, 2007)