Poetry Hour

How often do you think of poetry and barbecue at the same time?  Not often, in my case.  I sometimes think of barbecue when I’m reading a poem, but then I sometimes think of barbecue while I’m doing just about everything:  I can relate to Mr. Dick in David Copperfield.  On rare occasions, my mind is such that poetry and barbecue intertwine (“I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a pork butt”; “Shall I compare thee to the ribs at Archibald’s?”), but the result usually isn’t pretty and doesn’t scan.

Back in 2012, Jim Shahin, the Washington Post’s barbecue writer (lest you feel too sorry for Jim, he usually writes about barbecue outside of Washington), shared a poem about barbecue (and other Southern foods) by  the late Jake Adam York.  I just came across sit recently.  The poem shares some of the faults of most current poetry, but it has some very nice parts.


Because my grandmother made me

the breakfast her mother made her,

when I crack the eggs, pat the butter

on the toast, and remember the bacon

to cast iron, to fork, to plate, to tongue,

my great grandmother moves my hands

to whisk, to spatula, to biscuit ring,

and I move her hands too, making

her mess, so the syllable of batter

I’ll find tomorrow beneath the fridge

and the strew of salt and oil are all

memorials, like the pan-fried chicken

that whistles in the grease in the voice

of my best friend’s grandmother

like a midnight mockingbird,

and the smoke from the grill

is the smell of my father coming home

from the furnace and the tang

of vinegar and char is the smell

of Birmingham, the smell

of coming home, of history, redolent

as the salt of black-and-white film

when I unwrap the sandwich

from the wax-paper the wax-paper

crackling like the cold grass

along the Selma to Montgomery road,

like the foil that held

Medgar’s last meal, a square of tin

that is just the ghost of that barbecue

I can imagine to my tongue

when I stand at the pit with my brother

and think of all the hands and mouths

and breaths of air that sharpened

this flavor and handed it down to us,

I feel all those hands inside

my hands when it’s time to spread

the table linen or lift a coffin rail

and when the smoke billows from the pit

I think of my uncle, I think of my uncle

rising, not falling, when I raise

the buttermilk and the cornmeal to the light

before giving them to the skillet

and sometimes I say the recipe

to the air and sometimes I say his name

or her name or her name

and sometimes I just set the table

because meals are memorials

that teach us how to move,

history moves in us as we raise

our voices and then our glasses

to pour a little out for those

who poured out everything for us,

we pour ourselves for them,

so they can eat again.

Jim’s article can be found at  https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/all-we-can-eat/post/jake-adam-yorks-barbecue-poetry-a-state-of-grace/2012/11/19/23ea6488-3294-11e2-9cfa-e41bac906cc9_blog.html

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