Note from the author: The poem is set in the Midwest during the period of western migration, but it intends to make the reader consider how food and culture intertwine on several levels, from family to country. Perhaps it's good to remind ourselves of this linkage during this time of year when culture, family, and food are so prominent.
Recipes You Need
To Make a Cake Without Butter
Melt down a piece of salt pork, strain it through muslin, let cool, and then use as butter.
You can fatten a pig on any damn thing, but milch cows will eat you out of grain and green. Your father knows they’re prettier to look at—big eyes, soft ears, the wet nose and heavy tongue—but only one family nearby will be able to afford one. So when you’ve narrowed your choices to one young man and he brings his family for dinner, you’re more likely to have salt pork than butter. Once the salt’s out, fat is fat.
To Make Sugar of Sorghum
Boil sorghum until thick and it will granulate over 10 days in a warm room. Then pour into containers with perforated bottoms and let the molasses drain off.
Who do you send into the warm room to check? Send your daughter and tell her it’s a story about how the races separate. She’ll keep that phrase in her head for her whole life, when she moved out to Seattle, when she marries that boy from Boston who’d moved west to work with real timber for a few years. She’ll go back with him and their son, and she’ll always think about that dark sorghum syrup running out leaving white white white crystals.
A Good Receipt for Vinegar
Take forty gallons of water, one gallon of molasses, and four pounds of acetic acid. Mix and let sit for a couple of days.
There are other ways, other means, but the need for the bite of vinegar is strong. Sorghum molasses you already have, and the acetic acid should be cheap, even by mail order. Don’t handle the crystals directly. Pour them in. Let the molasses darken and sweeten those forty gallons.
Soak two quarts of freshly popped corn in three pints of sweet milk over night. when ready to bake, add three well-beaten eggs, a little salt, and sugar to taste. Bake like a custard pudding.
Popcorn is cheap, available, but you don’t want to give the extra to the pig. And you don’t have enough ingredients to have a dessert for the family, though tomorrow is Sunday. And you’ve about run through the credit at the store. You don’t have enough.
You can’t make them all content, and certainly not happy.
How to extend the custard?
You could give it a flavor like smoke. Hulls add flakes of texture. Tell yourself it’s good that way, that the family will want more.
James Engelhardt’s poems have appeared in the North American Review, Hawk and Handsaw, ACM: Another Chicago Magazine, Terrain.org, Painted Bride Quarterly, Cirque, Ice Floe, and many others. His book, Bone Willows, is forthcoming from Boreal Books. His ecopoetry manifesto can be found at octopusmagazine.com. He is the senior editor at the University of Alaska Press. James's poem is featured in North American Review's issue 296.4, Fall 2011.