Beaten by the Recipe, I Hear Stars


Yesterday I wrote about my colleague Karen Anderson entering into a poetic dialogue with cookbooks, particularly The Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook (or “the Big Red Cookbook,” as it is frequently called). She particularly hones in on the star recipes and examines the way that we may look to them as an escape from a life we find unfulfilling.

Here’s another poem from Karen’s current project. Karen imagines a housewife listening to the Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air radio show when she is feeling “beaten by the recipe.” While the “brown cake falls on the stove” (a metaphor for her life), the stars chat gaily about “wondrous colors: lime chiffon,/ruby red dressing, and stuffed-with-perfection/tomato salad.”

And then there is a spasm of anger. Karen moves between food and body in a revenge fantasy that helps explain why some people buy tabloids to learn, say, about Oprah gaining 25 pounds.

But despite her anger, the woman still calls in, even though it means taking time away from her housework. Her dream is, like the stars, to have hours to waste. And maybe he brown cake wouldn’t fall, may she’d get to that kidney shaped pool, if she’d just try a little harder.

Radio Cooking School

By Karen Anderson

Beaten by the recipe, I hear stars; disarmed chatting.
They love the same foods, wondrous colors: lime chiffon,

ruby red dressing, and stuffed-with-perfection
tomato salad.  The hours spent down at the kidney shaped pool,

I assume, improve the taste of their pie,
but none will say so, I hope, to me at home.

So slow, all the directions on how to be
beautiful: marshmallow, movie, coco-

nut, baby, whip cream, mayonnaise, marriage: that’s the
foundation, my own white ranch in the canyon.

I can just barely sit at the table and wait, flattened
and nasty between takes, as the brown cake falls on the stove.

I hope they are unhappy, pandowdied and dumped. Despite
the great tips, (the crumb coat, what little kids eat) what I like best

is my voice calling in: like them: costing time.

Karen’s poems, incidentally, are part of a large project which she is calling “Receipt.” Karen says that she takes her cues “from recipes, from cash register receipts, and from other kinds of ephemera that document the processes of cooking and consumption.”

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  1. farida
    Posted March 17, 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    Robin, this is a brief response to yesterday’s post and today’s post. I think Karen Anderson’s poems raise many questions and issues and one of those is whether such a life can be fully satisfying. In a way, if the domestic life is drudgery and boredom, you can almost understand the advice to try to find a way to transcend it.

    I understand that domestic life has plenty of moments of drudgery, but most jobs however beloved have those moments as well. The job women (and it is mostly women) do at home is incredibly important not just to the family but for the society as a whole. So I am of the view that it is important to “elevate the private domestic sphere”.

    I understand the querying of the yearning to have a “blissful domestic career” but plenty of women either make the choice(for little or no pay) to have a primarily domestic life for the sake of their families and others have no choice but to do so. I accept that there many women who long (or wish they had had the opportunity) to escape the domestic life, but I imagine that many women (and men) also take pleasure in that role, if not all of it then aspects of it. I am over simplifying a very complicated subject.

    I am adding an excerpt from “The Stone Diaries” by Carol Shields. (If excerpt is too long please delete it). While Mercy enjoys her “cooking and consumption”, it is also an escape from other things.

    “Well, it was a different story for her, for my mother. Eating was as close to heaven as my mother ever came. (In our day we have a name for a passion as disordered as hers.)

    And almost as heavenly as eating was the making — how she gloried in it! Every last body on this earth has a particular notion of paradise, and this was hers, standing in the murderously hot back kitchen of her own house, concocting and contriving, leaning forward and squinting at the fine print of the cookery book, a clean wooden spoon in hand.

    It’s something to see, the way she concentrates, her hot, busy face, the way she thrills to see the dish take form as she pours the stewed fruit into the fancy mold, pressing the thickly cut bread down over the oozing juices, feeling it soften and absorb bit by bit a raspberry redness. Malvern pudding; she loves the words too, and feels them dissolve on her tongue like a sugary wafer, her tongue itself grown wafer like and sweet. Like an artist — years later this form of artistry is perfectly clear to me –she stirs and arranges and draws in her brooding lower lip. Such a dish this will be. A warm sponge soaking up color. (Mrs. Flett next door let her have some currants off her bush; the raspberries she’s found herself along the roadside south of the village, even though it half kills her, a woman of her size walking out in the heat of the day.)

    She sprinkles on extra sugar, one spoonful, then another, then takes the spoon to her mouth, the rough crystals that keep her alert. It is three o’clock — a hot July afternoon in the middle of Manitoba, in the middle of the Dominion of Canada. The parlor clock (adamantine finish, gilded feet, a wedding present from her husband’s family, the Goodwills of Stonewall Township) has just struck the hour. Cuyler will be home from the quarry at five sharp; he will have himself a good cheerful wash at the kitchen basin, and by half-past five the two of them will sit down at the table – this very table, only spread with a clean cloth, every second day a clean cloth — and eat their supper. Which for the most part will be a silent meal, both my parents being shy by nature, and each brought up in the belief that conversing and eating are different functions, occupying separate trenches of time. Tonight they will partake of cold corned beef with a spoonful of homemade relish, some dressed potatoes at the side, cups of sweet tea, and then this fine pudding. His eyes will widen; my father, Cuyler Goodwill, aged twenty-eight, two years married, will never in his life have tasted Malvern pudding. (That’s what she’s preparing for – his stunned and mild look of confusion, that tender, grateful mouth dropping open in surprise. It’s the least she can do, surprise him like this.) She sets a flower-patterned plate carefully on top of the pudding and weights it with a stone.”

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted March 19, 2011 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    Wow, Farida, what a wonderful passage from Shields. I savored every bite. The conversation you have set up with Karen’s poems strikes me as some of those dialogues in the 1970’s at the height of the feminist movement. There were women who were angry at being forced into the kitchen, traditionalists who were content and who found themselves on the defense (and were angry about it), and earth mother feminists who embraced the kitchen in a way different than their mothers had. If we are to learn anything from those divides, it must be that we should be open to multiple voices on the subject.

    Here is one unintended consequence of feminism, at least in the U.S.. As women entered the workforce (which is to say, that part of society that officially pays wages–my own women students all but see this as obligatory now), they masked a stagnation of wages amongst the middle class. (Or maybe that’s a major reason why they were entering the workforce.) It is certainly possible for a family to live on a single income in today’s United States but it now takes careful financial planning. And college tuition can come close to making it impossible.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By A Villanelle for Graduating Seniors on May 16, 2012 at 6:13 am

    […] asked to read an appropriate poem. (Previous posts on Karen’s poetry have appeared here and here.) Karen chose a villanelle by Theodore Roethke and then, in a very nice touch, explained how the […]

  2. By Love Nature, Love Humans on October 3, 2013 at 8:14 am

    […] talk was part of our creative writing series, and my poet colleague Karen Anderson, who organizes the readings, thanked him profusely afterwards for inspiring her creative writing […]


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