creative writing

All You Have to Do

These poems and images are the result of a sort of excavation of my paternal grandmother’s well-worn Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book (copyright 1950, and how!).

During the rugged formative period11.3.Tate.1
of our country, hunger was

the natural and best appetizer. Then
everyone knew how to pronounce

canapés, when to unmold aspic.
Now I am throwing out your peaches

frozen in zip-lock, ruined with Splenda. Can’t
tell the difference? I can. Yet your hands

sliced them; I pick your ring
out of the drawer, 6½ and slack on the right

finger. Do the ornaments have “sentimental” value?
Undrawling stranger, I don’t know the stories,

I drive to Poteau, but there’s nothing there, so I
drive home, say the only sweet things I know.

All you have to do if cooked white frosting
becomes sugary: beat in a little lemon juice.

Everybody or his neighbor had a cow,11.3.Tate.2
raised potatoes and onions, and could

get “quahogs” for the digging. But that’s not
the America of anyone I’m related to. Yours

meant thick slices of garden tomatoes sprinkled
with salt, chopped okra dredged in cornmeal and

fried until crispy. Popsicle on the porch swing
in a borrowed sundress because I was

growing and I came from a rainy place, ate
blueberries in tall grass, said “sorry” like my Canadian

mother. And when the thunderstorm hit and rain lashed
the dry grass of your always freshly mowed lawn,

I stood behind the screen door and just
breathed. All you have to do to “personalize”

scalloped vegetables: bake in
scallop shells or ramekins.

Minutes saved can easily grow11.3.Tate.3
into that extra hour or two a day

so many busy women want and need
a reason to dig the sodden bits of dinner

out of the sink drain again tonight. You invest
in the library. Rinse and fold the tinfoil

for reuse while your son crawls out onto a sheet
of glass. Cherry bomb under a tin can. Bicycle

handlebar just grazed a kidney. If you feel tired,
lie down on the floor on your back, put your hands

above your head. Scream into a dishtowel.
Play the organ. Get a manicure. Mop the blood

and drive to emergency. Your husband’s
a teetotaler. Guests for dinner again tonight.

All you have to do to make Chocolate Roll ahead of time:
make it at your leisure. Wrap and freeze it.

A world famous chef has advised women11.3.Tate.4
to be daring and experiment

with herbs and other seasoning.
And I’ll admit I get a thrill

when I use chervil or tarragon. But
I sometimes forget to notice humorous

and interesting incidents to relate at dinner-time.
At times, I confess, I dine alone on popcorn and yogurt

cups while reading Roland Barthes’ thoughts
on chopsticks: less predatory. Times have

changed. But while I fold powdered sugar
into tea-infused cream, she tells me

only 10% of department chairs are
female. All you have to do to lessen the size

of the “crack” typical of loaf cake: let batter
stand in pan 20 minutes before baking.

 
 
 
 

Have you ever seen a pale pink11.3.Tate.5
or delicate green angel?

Well, we have. Yet cherubs are no
comfort. A woman knows that eating

is the earliest form of love but
not how to keep the shadows out

of Sunshine and Sponge Cakes. For blood
lost, I drank red wine, replacement only in

mimesis. The bar of your “t” floats out
over your vowels like an accent grave. I buried

my metaphors in the summer warmth of
a California December. First, there is the very early

handmade “sad-iron.” Tired of wood and wool,
I’d asked you for “little plastic things.”

All you have to do if rosettes don’t come off iron:
fry a little longer. If not crisp, fry a little slower.

One way to become known as an artist11.3.Tate.6
with foods is to be clever

with sauces. Yet I bought my first gravy boat
only this Thanksgiving. Your BBQ

page is a mess, so maybe I’ll try it. Or chilli
if I can decipher the first ingredient. Suet

is beef fat, right? And is it your hair or mine, almost
black along the recipe for pecan pie? I favor

all-butter for flavor, but I’ll allow
that shortening makes for a flaky crust,

and I’m curious to try lard or duck fat.
My mother apologized for all the years

we ate margarine, though we were ahead of our time
in avocado and tofu. All you have to do to give

festive color to Apple Roll or Puffs: use a few red
cinnamon candies in place of cinnamon.

 
 
 
 

Just as an architect has his slide rule,11.3.Tate.7
you must have the right measuring tools

to keep proportions correct. Though I’ve sometimes
used a skewer when I couldn’t find a toothpick, I weigh

each lump of dough on the digital scale,
consider buying a madeleine pan. Half a

pig’s head in my freezer. Three dead
tomato plants on the balcony. 900 homes.

10 fires. I’ll never know what you were thinking
when the hum of the fridge paused, and the children

slept, and the house was finally quiet. I’ve never
witnessed a transformation as total as your

morning make-up. I have your high cheekbones,
your full lower lip, your hips too if I’m not careful.

All you have to do to make variations for Small Cake:
use only half the amount of ingredients.

A crusader wearing his armor
accidentally sat in some

freshly baked oat cakes. Your son spit
out his iced tea in chagrin when the minister

took the last piece of breast meat. The girls asked
for more “green popcorn.” Anything worth repeating

is worth stitching onto a pillow. Vegetables need
never be monotonous. There was never

anything I “couldn’t live without,”
but we still brought home some of them pecan

clusters and the notecards embossed with pansies.
Albequerque. Albuquerque. You were right the second time,

though my first thought would be “a” like an Italian dawn.
Your sons rose early and took their hunting rifles

from the shed. All you have to do to remove down
from ducks: brush with melted paraffin. Cool and peel off.


 

Statement of Poetic Research

Bronwen Tate

These poems and images are the result of a sort of excavation of my paternal grandmother’s well-worn Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book (copyright 1950, and how!). I grew up in Oregon while most of my father’s family still lives much closer to Oklahoma, where he was raised. Because of the distance, I only saw my grandmother on occasional visits, and when she died unexpectedly several years ago, I found myself with her diamond ring—which I reset to make my wedding ring—and this cookbook, because I like to cook.

Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book is a fascinating portrait of a 1950s imagining of an American past, from the photos of the “Early American Dining Room,” where visitors to the Betty Crocker test kitchens could sit and enjoy a meal, to the cheerful boast that “our delicious American hot breads are the lineal descendants of the crude hearth cakes of primitive people.” The origin stories we tell during the shared activity of preparing food take on mythic status in a nation or in a family. In the cook book, we find a cherry pie with decorative pastry hatchets for Presidents’ Day and the declaration: “If I were to design a coat of arms for our country, a pie would be the main symbol.” In my own family, I’ve learned to bake cornbread with bacon crisped into the top while listening to my dad or my aunts repeat the story of how my grandmother tricked her nieces into eating okra by frying it in cornmeal and calling it “green popcorn.” And I can’t make nutmeg-scented currant cakes of my mother’s Welsh family without remembering the story of how an elderly aunt once got rid of a hungry and unwelcome visitor by telling him that making Welsh cakes was the only sure way to get her hands truly clean after gardening.

Writing these poems gave me a way to explore these stories and why they stay with us. The poems are also a record of looking for my grandmother and puzzling over the traces she left behind in her cook book: a toothpick slipping out of the binding in the cakes section or a few attempts to puzzle out the spelling of Albuquerque back in the index. Finally, the poems became an encounter between the fifties’ ideas of womanhood and American identity that the book so constantly advocates (and that my grandmother surely felt the pressure of) and my own struggles to be a woman with both aspirations outside the home and a great love of cooking and nourishing and taking care of people.

A cook book can be a source of text and thoughts and provocations, but it is also a source of deliciousness, so I decided to accompany my poems with a Butterscotch Pie.11.3.Tate.8

My husband Caleb still gets a bit nervous whenever I make pie because of a Thanksgiving six years ago when he saw pie crust transform me from a rational being into a sort of fiend. The pie crust kept crumbling and cracking and refused to go nicely into the pie plate. And I got very intense and scary. For years after, when I’d ask him how he thought we could improve our relationship, he’d just bring up pie crust. But I’ve made many successful (and even some beautiful) pie crusts since then. And we both love pie of all kinds, so he doesn’t get nervous enough to try to prevent my attempts.11.3.Tate.9

I don’t always sift my flour, but I was determined to follow this recipe to the letter, so I went ahead and sifted.11.3.Tate.10

I used only vegetable shortening (no trans-fats though) for the same reason.11.3.Tate.11

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But wait, for the kind of pie I was making (a kind for which “filling is piled into the baked shell”), there was a fancy extra step that involved dotting the crust with butter and then folding it into a little package. I am a sucker for process or fancy extra steps of all kinds, so of course I went for it.11.3.Tate.13

I even got Caleb to take impressive step-by-step photos of the folding process.11.3.Tate.14

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And you can see my wedding ring with Grandma’s diamond in this one.11.3.Tate.16

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The resulting pie crust was honestly not one of my more handsome attempts, but it showed signs of being deliciously flaky, which is ultimately more important.11.3.Tate.18

 

I selected this recipe (apart from the fact that it sounded tasty) because it had been written over, which seemed to me like a clear sign that my grandmother had definitely made it, probably more than once. The residue-covered page was another encouraging sign. I called my dad and asked him about it a few days later, and he said that he could remember the taste of slightly weepy meringue mixed with butterscotch.

But there was also a bit of ambiguity to the writing on the recipe. Was the original recipe just rewritten in pen because the page had gotten stuck to another and torn? Or was there an actual modification? The 2 outside the brackets made no sense, so I ignored it. The quantity of flour seemed unchanged. Of more interest was the salt. The recipe for an 8″ pie clearly read “1/3 tsp. salt,” but the writing for a 9″ pie seemed to say “1 ¼ tsp. salt.” Clearly not a proportionate increase. I chose to see this as a sign of affinity between Grandma and me, since I reliably add extra salt to my sweets (especially chocolate chip cookies and anything involving caramel), and I added the full 1 ¼ teaspoons of salt.11.3.Tate.19

I used a cast iron skillet to melt the butter.11.3.Tate.20

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I let it get nice and brown and nutty smelling before adding the brown sugar.11.3.Tate.22

Things started boiling and got a bit crazy, but I still boldly paused in my stirring long enough to get a picture.11.3.Tate.23

But then I fell down on the job, because it looks like I just poured butter and brown sugar into a saucepan, but actually there’s milk and egg yolks made into a custard in here as well. Promise.11.3.Tate.24

See, there’s further evidence in the empty egg shells here. And in the fact that the pie had a pudding-type texture even though it was still steaming and needed to cool thoroughly.11.3.Tate.25

I ended up sending the pie with Caleb to his dorky game night after extracting a promise that he would bring a piece home for me. I like to feed people, and the thought of the two of us finishing the pie between ourselves, while totally conceivable, was not inspiring.11.3.Tate.26

I ate my slice the next day when there was decent light to photograph it. I piled it high with unsweetened whipped cream to offset the sweetness of the butterscotch. And while I ate it, I answered interview questions from my friend Kate about my writing process and my love of making objects (like pie and hats) as well as poems, which seemed rather appropriate.11.3.Tate.27