Review: “Cooking with the Muse”

By on Sep 11, 2016 in Reviews

Cooking with the Muse

Title: Cooking with the Muse: A Sumptuous Gathering of Seasonal Recipes, Culinary Poetry, and Literary Fare

Authors: Myra Kornfeld and Stephen Massimilla

Publisher: Tupelo Press, April 1, 2016

Hardcover, 494 pages

ISBN, 1936797682 / ISBN, 9781936797684

Link to purchase:



My copy of Cooking with the Muse arrived, cornucopic and gorgeous, after much anticipation. This hybrid treat – part literary and gastronomic history, part poetry anthology and commentary, part beautifully written cookbook – provides many sources of pleasure. The book itself is lovely to look at, comfortable to hold, and fun to read. Dip into it and you find yourself learning all sorts of interesting things about food and culture and poetry and inspired to run to your local market, buy a ton of healthy ingredients, and take on the kitchen with verve and excitement.

Stephen Massimilla and Myra Kornfeld, poet and chef, married to one another, have married their love of poetry and healthy food in a well-organized and inspiring way.

Cooking with the Muse announces itself as a visceral response to a virtual world and asks that the reader give care and attention to what the writers call “the poetry of food.” Beginning with a history of the intersection of food and writing, the book continues by first explaining how to select the best ingredients, teaching us some basic techniques, and then organizing its contents by season. For each season there is a collection of recipes with the inspired qualities of poems, concluding with suggestions for seasonal meals. And to each season are attached many poems and stories, commentaries and insights.

I open, randomly, to page 260. There I find “Goan Green Coconut Fish Curry.” The title of the recipe is itself a poem. I notice the alliteration in the title and the colors brought to mind. I trust the cadence of the words. Already I’m combining ingredients – my love of the sound of words and my love of good food. The recipe is preceded by a photograph — it is in resplendent color — and helpful instructions about exactly what ingredients to get and where to get them. I learn that the curry mentioned in the name is not the yellow powder that comes to mind but rather leaves that when “sizzled in hot oil . . . give off an irresistible citrus flavor.” I’m ready to run off to 26th Street in Manhattan (where the Indian grocers can be found) and buy myself a bunch of leaves. Following the helpful advice is a clear recipe, with useful hints provided, anticipating the questions a cook might have in attempting to follow the instructions.

Following the recipe are notes by both the cook and the poet. In this instance, the poet has more to say than the cook. The reader learns what curry is and what it isn’t. The reader learns about Goan cuisine – “it almost always includes fish,” Massimilla tells us. And we learn about the relationship of Goan cuisine to Portuguese influence (“the most important ingredient in Goan cooking, the chile, was introduced by the Portuguese”). The next page contains a poem by Mrigaa Sethi, “All of Creation,” in which Indian cooking and love come together: “The secret of recipes is also the love made after dinners,” writes Sethi. Culinary and erotic joy permeate this book.

My random selection is apt because in their book Massimilla and Kornfeld have extended their search for good food and good poetry to the entire world. This book is multicultural and historical in its reach. The writers aim to capture culinary and literary traditions that expand our knowledge of time and place. So Mrigaa Sethi and Dorianne Laux, Basho and Rumi, Thomas Nashe and Roy Blount find homes for themselves in these pages. The range and erudition evident in this book instructs and delights.

The authors are advocates of healthy eating, but they are not caught in any doctrinaire culinary path. The reader can satisfy vegetarian needs, yes, but can also find meats and fish, grains and fats. Kornfeld and Massimilla oppose refined sugars but show us the glories of maple syrup and other natural sweeteners. Nothing in this book goes against pleasure.

Another pleasure in this cornucopia can be found in Stephen Massimilla’s own poems. Massimilla, in many cases following Neruda, writes about food in poems that employ a language as lush as the ingredients in the curry described above. This, from a poem called “Yellow From the Fire”:

                                    And in the Hagia Sophia, priceless in rays
                                       of the eggshell domes,
                                   a small plain bowl,
                                   most buttery of all the Sultan’s treasure,
                                   Byzantine perfection of its glaze;
                                   yellow from the fire, phoenix in the gyre,
                                   mixing bowl for ocher,
                                   pastry dough, chickee fluff, yolk.
                                   O life, luster, halo, joy:
                                   Be the Color-Meister of my soul.



Here’s what to do. Go out and buy this book. Go to the best market you can find and buy up the ingredients suggested in some of these recipes. Get together with the people (or person) you love the most. Take turns in the kitchen while another person reads aloud to you from the book. Eat your fill and go to bed happy.


Ruth Danon is the author of the poetry collections Limitless Tiny Boat (BlazeVox), Triangulation from a Known Point (North Star Line), the chapbook Living with the Fireman (Ziesing Brothers), and a book of literary criticism, Work in the English Novel (Croom-Helm). Her poetry was selected by Robert Creeley for Best American Poetry, 2002, and her poetry and prose have appeared in Versal, Mead, BOMB, The Paris Review, Fence, The Boston Review, 3rd bed, Crayon, and many other publications in the U.S. and abroad. She is a clinical professor of creative and expository writing at NYU and founder and director of NYU's Summer Intensive in Creative and Expository Writing.