Food is love, Food is life

Lilly Deng

blog - food

To me, the only real pleasure in life is food. I remember as a child my math Ph.D. father watching in horror as his daughter was far more interested in cooking shows than any math workbook he tried to pass onto me as fun. I spent my allowance money on food. I remember once saving up $14 to buy fresh blueberries and real butter for a blueberry coffee cake recipe I found. Up until then, I had only ever had canned blueberries courtesy of Betty Crocker, and we, like many working-class households in America, were a margarine home (if we had margarine at all).

The first time I ever had truffles I nearly fainted from delight.

It’s no surprise then that so much of my poetry, or at least, the poetry I like writing best, involves food. I can’t help myself – I’ll take a bite into an especially flavorful noodle soup and out will pour a poem. Food culture is deeply ingrained in American culture. Can you think of the last social activity that anyone had that didn’t involve food?

Food is fun. Food is flirty. The pet names with food imagery are endless: cupcake, honey, sugar, sugar pie, sweetie pie, peaches, buttercup, pudding, love muffin…I could go on.

second image for blog - liiy

Food is imaginative. Food is storytelling. My all-time favorite poem is Mary Karr’s “For My Children”. There are several lines that grip me every time I read it, from her describing her “mayonnaise jar of cash” to the fruit she stole from orchards. But it’s this line that I love and replay over and over:

                                         Once I saw
my entire history in an avocado seed,
a quick replay of all my dawns,
until I stared, breathless, at the green pulp
in my cupped palms.

Food is consolation. Food is empathy. Think the practice of sitting shiva and the mitzvah of bringing food. I remember vividly Elizabeth Gilbert’s anecdote about her sister from Eat Pray Love, that her sister was the type of woman who upon learning that a child was diagnosed with cancer, responded swiftly, “That family needs casseroles.”

From the humble burger to the noble trifle, there’s a food memory that fits every emotion and occasion. Food has been part of great love and great sorrow, and I’ve shared two of those poems with you below.

          Bon appétit.

My Little Dumpling

Move over, ant.
My little dumpling
carries 101 times
its body weight

in its delicious folds.
My mouth surrounds
the leeks, the chives,
savoring the juices

that take me to Shandong,
my mother’s kitchen,
Canal Street, my perfect
bamboo steamer at home.

My little dumpling,
mon petit chou:
I would not love you more
if you were a pork bun.


In pictures her long hair swayed
as she peddled to markets,

fetched the day’s produce,
sung ballads with hair down.

It’s not just on the
bathroom floors anymore.

Her softness falls like piano dust
on welcome mats and rice bowls.

I picture her knitting warm caps
to cover sparse baldness,

her knotted fingers worn
tough as steel sponges.

I touch her wintry cheeks
translucent as lychee hearts.

Her face is hollow without
eyebrows and peach fuzz.

I inhale her smell of lemon
and crystallized ginger,

her failing follicles are shorter
than eyelashes she’s lost.

Tomorrow, she will cast off
the yarn and shape her hat.

What she wears now covers her,
the lightest crochet of snow.

Lilly Deng is a poet based in Santa Monica, California. She is an alum of poetry workshops at the Southampton Writers Conference and Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Lilly's poetry has been published in the North American Review, Prairie Schooner, South Carolina Review, and others. Both of these poems appear in her upcoming chapbook When We Stood & Other Poems, due out next month from Finishing Line Press. Lilly is featured in issue 296.4 of the North American Review.

Illustrations by: Malin Koort, illustrator and artist based in Uppsala, Sweden. I mainly do editorial illustrations, but have also created book covers, furniture patterns and stamps for the Swedish Post. I have a couple of different techniques that I work with (ink drawings and digital collages) but during the last year I have worked mostly with paper illustration, and therefor also been learning more about lighting and photography. I like to make images with a lot of detail in them, and try to tell many small side stories next to the big story. Most of all I want to create illustrations that make people happy, and maybe remind them of something they had forgotten about.