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“A Dill in Every Soup” in Orion Magazine

27 May
Sweet, sweet contributor copies!

I’m happy to have a new lyric essay out in Orion Magazine‘s summer issue, “A Dill in Every Soup.” The essay spans the personal, gastronomical, and ethnopharmacological, leaping from Sappho to the Talmud to Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and more. Here’s how the essay begins:

I love to look at dill. I love to handle it, chop it. It’s an elegant shape. Its featheriness is touchable; I brush it on my cheeks when no one is looking. Its brightness when fresh soothes my eyes. It looks especially lovely beside a newly sliced lemon. Sappho tells Mnasidica to garland her hair with sprays of dill to garner “a glance of the blessed Graces.”

Do I love to eat dill?

While we wait for issues to hit mailboxes and newsstands, and in honor of strawberry season, here is my first essay to be published in Orion, “Cosmic Fruit,” from their Summer 2019 issue. Yum!

ETA: “A Dill in Every Soup” is now online, right over here!

Back in December, holding a bunch of dill.

“The Samoyed” in The Capra Review

1 Feb
The Unicorn Purifies Water (from the Unicorn Tapestries), 1495–1505, Met Cloisters

I’m happy to have new fiction in The Capra Review, and I love the art selected for the piece, The Unicorn Rests in a Garden, which is tangentially part of the story. (Just for fun, I chose a different unicorn piece for this blog post.) Other art mentioned in the story include Greco-Roman sculpture, Piet Mondrian’s abstractions, and Martha Graham’s choreography.

In a way, “The Samoyed” is a companion piece to my story “Old Boyfriends,” which appeared in Propeller Magazine in December 2013. Both stories started out as structural “imitations” of Chekhov stories, “Old Boyfriends” using “Gusev” as a starting point and “The Samoyed” using “The Lady with the Dog,” though I use the term imitation loosely. I wrote about that exercise here on my blog as well as for Ploughshares here. Anyway, here’s how “The Samoyed” begins:

“Modern art is fine for decor,” he said, popping a vodka-soaked olive into his mouth. “But I don’t find it meaningful.” His lips were full, his eyes a gelid blue, his jaw-line well-defined with a stubble that seemed to Jane too calculated.

continue reading

Bright Spots of 2020

24 Dec
A fun little sprite in the window of an architecture firm in Edgewater, Chicago

Back in December 2016, I remarked that world affairs were horrendous but that I would take a moment to celebrate some bright spots in my life. I’m not surprised that in the intervening years, I didn’t write a similar end-of-year post, and I know we’re not quite out of the dark yet, but I’m feeling hopeful for the future, nonetheless. Some reading, writing, and cooking highlights, forthwith!

According to my Goodreads Year in Books, the most popular book I read this year was War and Peace*, which in truth was a partial re-read during Yiyun Li and A Public Space‘s TolstoyTogether pandemic book club (which continues on as APSTogether). I first read War and Peace the summer between my first and second years at the University of Washington MFA program, as a way to counter my tendency toward sparse detail. It was quite pleasant to return to it this spring, but, alas, my reading life was too over-committed to stay the re-reading course with such a tome. The “least popular” book (for now!) I read won’t actually be released until April 2021; please add my college friend Julian Mortimer Smith’s wonderful collection The World of Dew and Other Stories to your to-read list!

Speaking of speculative short story collections by people named Julian, my one book review this year was of Julian K. Jarboe’s Everyone On the Moon is Essential Personnel. I am sad The Seattle Review of Books went on hiatus, as it has been a wonderfully thoughtful venue for book reviews. My “Dispatch from a Pandemic” in Another Chicago Magazine might be another “highlight” from 2020 except for the whole pandemic part! At least I got to fall in love with the art of Belkis Ayón, profiled in my ACM piece. My last writing highlight of the year is my first short fiction published since 2018 (!), “Hinges” in Gordon Square Review. I had a lovely time at their virtual launch party getting to know a segment of the Cleveland literary community, which I wouldn’t have been able to do under normal circumstances. This also gets me to closer to a side-goal I’ve had for several years, which I picked up from Seattle poet Susan Rich: get published in each of the 50 states. Still have quite a few states to go!

I am currently revising two novels, and between that, the pandemic, and writing 200+ “please vote” letters and postcards before the election, I think I’m going to cut myself some slack on “only” publishing three things this year. I think my biggest accomplishment, however, is learning how to make soup! I’ve made soup before. But it was always lacking the oomph my grandmother’s boasted, even if I knew the secret ingredient in her chicken soup is beef. I’ve started collecting vegetable scraps in a big tub I keep in the freezer. And, at least once a month this spring and fall (not so much in the summer), I have had a cauldron bubbling, and my, what a comfort that has been.

My winter break plans? Chinese BBQ, baby bok choy, rainbow cookies shipped from Brooklyn (courtesy of my sweet MIL); Robert Altman’s film Kansas City via our artsy cinema subscription, Metrograph; and, of course, the necessary trifecta of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, currently: Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, Michele Bombardier’s What We Do.

Have a safe, happy, and healthy holiday season!

*NB: Links to books go to my Bookshop.org affiliate page. If you click through and make a purchase, you’re simultaneously supporting independent bookstores, other authors, and me, via a small commission. (Want to make sure the commission goes to me? It should say “Anca L. Szilágyi” in the top left corner of the screen.) Thank you!

MALEFICIUM by Martine Desjardins

31 Aug

Last week I was nervously waiting at the eye doctor (nervous mainly because of the pandemic, and a woman sitting just a smidge too close, though everyone was masked if not double-masked) and reading Maleficium*, a slender novel-in-stories by Martine Desjardins (trans. Fred A. Reed and David Homel), when I came upon the chapter “Oculus Malignus,” a 19th century confession from a maker of tortoiseshell eyeglasses who has recently gone blind. (*Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.)

The speaker had traveled to Muscat in search of tortoiseshell. There, in addition to slaughtering turtles, he meets a missionary with a scar on her upper lip and “irises […] of an acidic ocher hue.” The missionary shows him her pince-nez, much finer than any tortoiseshell he’d ever seen. Greedily, he asks where she found such material, and she is happy to oblige. By staring directly into the sun, “her lachrymal glands [would secrete] a substance that solidified when exposed to sunlight, and formed scaly tears.”

All of the stories are sensory-rich confessions, nearly all from greedy men who had traveled from Montreal east in search of some prized exotic material. They all come upon this mysteriously seductive woman with the scarred upper lip and some other monstrous quality. They all suffer horribly for their transgressions. As other reviewers have noted, this could be a bit repetitive, but there is a certain satisfaction in seeing the particular twist Desjardins puts on each tale. The gem-like prose, even when discussing all manner of effluvia, is a joy to read.

Here is one more example that captures the beautiful but bizarre storytelling, this time about the woman’s ear:

“The circumvolutions formed a perfect helix at the tip of each lobe, and the vortex with its spirals drew me into the mysterious orifice of her ear canal. I would have liked to place my eye against it, as a keyhole; through a kind of subtle intuition, suddenly I was sure I would find the key to new architectures there.”

The saffron-rich first story inspired me to make a saffron-infused gin cocktail for the virtual version of Publishing Cocktails’ annual summer book swap. Last summer, when an actual book swap was possible, I gave one of my absolute favorite books, Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment and received Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s What Diantha Did. I hope next summer it will once again be possible to actually foist a favorite on a fellow book lover.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada

21 May

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear, translated by Susan Bernofsky, is a delightful triptych of a novel, exploring the lives and perspectives of three polar bears in captivity: a Soviet circus performer, her daughter Tosca in an East German circus, and Tosca’s son Knut in the Berlin Zoo.

A desire for connection—with humans, other animals, and ancestors—weaves in and out of the story. Of course, food always captures my attention, so here is the matriarch connecting with her soup:

In the mirror I saw my red-smeared lips, a masterpiece of the beets. I’d never eaten root vegetables voluntarily, but when a beet came swimming in my bowl of borscht, I immediately wanted to kiss it. Bobbing amid the lovely dots of fat floating on top—which at once awoke my appetite for meat–the beet was irresistible.

The unnamed matriarch pens her memoirs, struggles with an unscrupulous publisher, travels to East Germany and then Canada, where she gives birth to Tosca. The second section of the novel, which appeared at first to be from the perspective of a human performer in an East German circus, seemed a bit slow to me, and I wasn’t sure if it was because the stress of the pandemic had shortened my attention span or because Tawada’s fun imagining of a polar bear’s mind was so refreshing that I was eager to return to it. But her use of perspective is slippery; it’s thrilling to learn the human was trying to write Tosca’s story, but, as befits a human, was making the story about herself. For this problem, Tosca offers writing advice that is at once practical and surreal:

“First you should translate your own story into written characters. Then your soul will be tidy enough to make room for a bear.”

“Are you planning to come inside me?”

“Yes.”

“I’m scared.”

We laughed with one voice.

Tosca’s son Knut rounds out the story. We meet him as an adorable tiny cub nurtured by the zookeeper Mattias:

Knut would feel the trembling of these delicate human fingers, hear the oceanic sounds emanating from Mattias’s entrails–and Knut’s abdomen would take up the tune, trembling in harmony.

The zoo, the media, and politicians hold up Knut as earth’s savior from climate catastrophe. That is, until he is no longer cute. While Knut’s section feels a bit didactic at times, hammering in the point that society doesn’t care about things that aren’t cute, it is unfortunately warranted given how much work there is left to do to prevent catastrophe.

In any case, there is much more to Knut’s story than the issue of cuteness, which I won’t spoil. The novel’s gorgeous ending brings together Tawada’s playfulness with perspective throughout the book in a manner both uplifting and astounding. Read this book, and do something for our planet, please. Compost, start your own vegetable garden, green your roof, plant a tree or five million.

“Cosmic Fruit” in Orion Magazine

1 Jul

I’m thrilled to have my essay “Cosmic Fruit” in the gorgeous summer issue of Orion Magazine. It’s part of a collection of lyric essays on food and cultural memory that I’ve been slowly pecking away at for several years now, which includes “Dark Fruit: A Cultural and Personal History of the Plum” in Los Angeles Review of Books and “Used to be Schwartz” in The Rumpus. You can subscribe to Orion Magazine or pick up a copy at your favorite bookstore or newsstand. Here’s a taste of “Cosmic Fruit”:

UPDATE (7/9): You can also read the essay online here.

Cross-Country Drive in Lists, 10 Years Later

5 May
In the Badlands in 2009

In 2009, Michael and I drove west from Brooklyn to start a new life in Seattle. I was beginning the MFA program at the University of Washington, and we were ready for a new adventure in a region neither of us ever thought we’d live in. I documented that first cross-country drive in a list of lists here.

Nearly ten years later, we felt the pull to come back east; in April, we packed up our things and now we’re in Chicago, starting the next chapter of our lives. But of course! We had to take another cross-country drive, partly retracing our steps but also seeing lots of new things. And herein is a list of lists for our second crossing:

  • Mileage: Approximately 2400
  • Days: 9
  • Start point: Seattle
  • End point: Chicago

Parting image of the Pacific Northwest: Wet roads, sopping dark evergreens.

Cities stopped in to eat and/or sleep: Ellensburg, WA; Spokane, WA; Missoula, MT; Bozeman, MT; West Yellowstone, MT; Jackson Hole, WY; Rock Springs, WY; Laramie, WY; Cheyenne, WY; North Platte, NE; Lincoln, NE; Omaha, NE; Des Moines, IA; Iowa City, IA.

Detour: Petrified Ginko National Forest

Notable Spokane radio: Developing a trauma-informed perspective, on Native America Calling

Rivers crossed: Cle Elum, Columbia, Coer D’Alene, Clark Fork, Boulder, Jefferson, Missouri Headwaters, Madison, Gallatin, Snake, Buffalo, Hoback, Little Sandy, North Platte, Medicine Bow, Laramie, South Platte, Platte, Blue, Missouri, West Nishnabotna, East Nishnabotna, South Raccoon, North Raccoon, South Skunk, North Skunk, Guernsay, Iowa, Cedar, Mississippi, Fox.

Fauna spotted: bald eagles, hawks, bison, elk, alpaca, orioles, cardinals, starlings, geese, hundreds of horses, thousands of cows.

Best smelling city: Still Bozeman, ten years later. This time, instead of pine trees, it smelled of apple and smoked pork.

Most public service announcements about meth: Still Montana, ten years later. “Ask Me How My Gun Went Off.”

Most fun billboard: “Rock Creek Testicle Festival,” also in Montana.

Most awe: Western Wyoming.

Aw!

Best business name: Pickle’s Discount Mattress in Rock Springs, WY.

Promising overheard dialogue in Rock Springs: “I used to listen to Morning Joe, but I can’t anymore. I just wanna know what’s going on. Don’t rant at me!” This jived with our similar feeling of watching Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC for half a minute. Maybe we can turn it all off? Then again…

Notable Nebraska radio: Christian homeschool radio on social media and the “Pakistinian-Israelite Conflict”

Scariest downtown on a Sunday: North Platte, NE, mostly boarded up and closed, save for Hometown Cash Advance, Cash n’ Go, and a dollar store.

Scariest Victorian home to visit at dusk when no one’s around and the horses across the street are all staring at you: Buffalo Bill’s home, also in North Platte.

Notable Iowa radio: Agritalk. Regarding leaving the TPP: “Was the juice worth the squeeze?”

Happiest lunch spot: cheeky Gazali’s in Des Moines, IA, where we ate garlicky chicken shawarma after several days of burgers burgers burgers.

Unicorn in our Iowa City hotel room, with an excerpt from The Glass Menagerie

Best town name: What Cheer, IA.

Most adorable stop: Iowa City.

Most roadkill: Illinois 😦 Intestines coiled in the street like giant fusilli. My next novel will be a horror novel.

Notable Chicago radio that filled me with glee: Cardi B. on Polish-American Radio. Brr!

“a delightful little amuse-bouche of a book”

12 Dec

Paul Constant of The Seattle Review of Books had some lovely things to say about my new chapbook Sugar: “It’s a delightful little amuse-bouche of a book, with an ending that will charm Seattleites and tourists alike.” You can read more here.

This Saturday at 3 pm at the Chin Music Press shop in Pike Place Market, I will be reading from Sugar, as well as some foodie excerpts from Daughters of the Air. The fabulous poets Montreux Rotholz and Alex Gallo-Brown will join me, and there will be treats. Constant says it’s the literary event of the week! Here is the event on Facebook. Hope to see you there.

Sugar at the Chin Music Press shop and online

19 Nov

On Friday, I stopped by the Chin Music Press shop in Pike Place Market to sign copies of Sugar, my new chapbook, and Daughters of the Air. You can pop in to pick up copies while they last! (Also, get yourself a treat. I enjoyed a sesame red bean ball: crispy, glutinous, gooey, delightful.) Not in Seattle? You can order Sugar from Chin Music Press online right over here.

Set scene by poet & nonfiction author Michael Schmeltzer. Thank you, Michael!

Sugar, a chapbook from Chin Music Press

2 Nov

IMG_1169.JPGOh, my! It’s been a little while since I’ve updated this blog. Fun news: Chin Music Press is launching my short story Sugar as a lovely little chapbook tomorrow at the Short Run festival. The story first appeared in Gastronomica in 2013; it’s a modern, fabulist fairy tale set in Pike Place Market—and Chin Music’s sun-drenched showroom is located there too.  At least, it always seems sun-drenched when I am there. They make beautiful books! Check out Leanne Dunic’s dreamy prose poem novel To Love the Coming End and Zack Davisson’s Kaiybō: The Supernatural Cats of Japan and Kate Lebo’s A Commonplace Book of Pieall books I have thoroughly enjoyed.

If you’re in Seattle you can be among the first to get a copy at Short Run. Then, Chin Music will be at the Portland Book Festival next Saturday, November 10. You can also get a copy from me at one of my upcoming events or at the Chin Music showroom in the market.

Link for online purchases to come! In the meantime, here it is on Goodreads. And, while you’re on Goodreads, if you’re so inclined, would you vote for Daughters of the Air as your favorite debut of the past year? That is, if that is how you feel! Log into your account (or create one!), scroll down to the bottom of this page and type in the title. Write-in voting ends November 4. Thanks, always, for the love.

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