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A Catalogue for Cooks

by Mark Doty

arrives when the checkbook’s down to zero,
a circle clean as an empty skillet.
This small town’s gardens—droopy squash
and sturdy, good-natured marigolds—
pale beside these wonders of the hungry world:
wild black cherry syrup from Modena,
“green-gold, extra-virgin” olive oil pressed
in the Tuscan hills, fennel, lavender
and savory from Provence, olives grown
in one small plot in Cataluna called
Les Garrigues, preserved apples from Shantung,
“aromatic and slightly translucent,”
bay leaf wreaths, Seville marmalade, a wine
vinegar “aged over many years, transferred
to smaller and smaller barrels of oak,
chestnut, mulberry and juniper,
growing darker, richer and more fragrant.”


In my father’s letter are photographs
of the season’s watermelons, measurements
and statistics. This one, seventeen inches,
this twenty, as though they were green
and dappled trout. Long rain strands his trailer
in a mud plain, splits the biggest melons
with more juice than the rinds can hold; the vines
are so laden my stepmother cans juice
for days, jars and crushed grapes filling her
narrow kitchen till it threatens to burst.


On the gardening show, Sunday morning’s
distraction, a city terrace heavy
with vegetable life: widening eggplant,
basil and dill, blackberries espaliered
across a brick wall above Manhattan.
The mulberries drop—if the birds
don’t find them first—confident they won’t fall
ten stories down. All summer this garden
yields green-horned caterpillars,
sprays of herbs, endless gazpacho.
Seventh Avenue below also seems
to bloom, various, rowed with bright taxis
and umbrellas, in the sudden shower,
twining the walk like black squash blossoms.


Edward Weston photographed peppers
with a kind of ravishing sensual
eye, vision’s appetite. I’m glad that these
photos are in black and white; otherwise
in that luscious green I would see only
abundance, which here has turned to curves
of darkened silver, a bodied abstraction.
These hips join to other hips, and ideas
of arc and bend are visible. A good
recipe is a physical form of
the verb to satisfy, and a cookbook’s
a manual of Platonic ideals.


To cook is to meld elements of land-
scape, solid bits of light and cloud, water
swollen into globes of fruit, blue or blushed.
Swell of field, hill and orchard. Precision
matters less than essence; the essentials
are no hurry, a sharp knife, whatever
the day has offered, the world’s consent
to be shaped to our intentions.
Price need not be an obstacle; clever
cooks find what is plentiful and often
given freely, and discard little. You
don’t know what may prove precious. The idea
is to get the recipe by heart, and
let the hands work their revisions, adding
more of this, less that, until what’s done
is done, is seasoned as you will, and serves.


Recent work by Mark Doty has appeared in Ploughshares, Crazyhorse, and The Iowa Review. He is the recipient of a 1985 Massachusetts Artists Fellowship. (1985)

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AGNI Magazine :: published at Boston University ©2008 AGNI