Edible Lit, The Inside Story

By Maralyn Lois Polak 

Here's how I happen to eat my own words -- but ecstatically -- and live to tell the tale! Only now can the true story behind this mouth-watering literary adventure finally be told.

The first thing you should know about me is I'm a true Joisey Tamata -- grew up near Asbury Park at the Shore, began writing poetry in high school, worked part-time as a supermarket checker. Maybe because of that early contact with the public, I've always believed the arts should be accessible. Whether subway car-cards, or the sides of milk cartons, I welcome ways of bringing poetry to the people.

Several years ago, after realizing food had become the new sex, I wrote a book of poetry entitled The Bologna Sandwich and Other Poems of LOVE and Indigestion, and was fortunate enough to have it published as a chapbook by the innovative Meridian Writers Collective, right in time for Valentines Day.

My ambition was to take those poems to the furthest reaches of literary endeavor -- meaning, a place poetry had never gone before-- the dinner table.

And so, in Philadelphia, where I live, there was, at the time, an amazing annual restaurant celebration called THE BOOK AND THE COOK, pairing chefs and authors with local dining establishments and their trend-crazed audiences of enthusiastic foodies. I aspired, then actually became, the first poet ever whose book was made into a menu by the Book and the Cook, and served up as a scrumptious and romantic meal at the Rose Tattoo Cafe, where for $45, diners reserved tables for the poetically inspired meal which culminated in me reading my verse.

The poetry book itself was set up like a menu, divided into several sections: SUSTENANCE, CRAVINGS, TEMPTATIONS, and SAVORIES. From my introduction: "Savor this succulent, saucy, spicy smorgasbord of food, love, and agita. Nourishing yet sometimes naughty. Relish delightful delicacies, exquisite ruminations, choice carminatives, plus the inevitable heartburn, occasional flatulence, unavoidable dyspepsia, and rare regurgitations, but know what awaits you are some deliciously just desserts. Enjoy"

Response to my poetry book was enthusiastic: from "deliciously sexy," to "a prandial delight." A Borders Books and Music poster   (remember them?)  for a poetry reading I gave back then raved, "From her witty essays in the former Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine, to her ironic poems of lust and hunger, Maralyn Lois Polak's feisty brand of sensitivity has proved her to be a Dorothy Parker for the [New Millennium]"!!!

Heady praise. Or overpraise, I think now in a more modest era of my life.

So, especially for the Book and the Cook festival, chefs created real recipes using my poetry as inspiration, a dozen dishes based on various poems from my book: "SHRIMP FROM HELL,, "tracy loves david chocolate cake," "Sinpot" and so forth.  I will never forget how a pastry chef actually created a cookie in the shape of a hand, for dessert, based on some imagery in a poem of mine.

For intrepid diners and equally venturesome readers wanting more than ephemeral appetizers, entrees, and desserts, my poetry book was stocked by area bookstores, as well as several food boutiques and gift shops, including the Belgian Chocolate House.

Getting publicity for this unique gastronomic experience, one of 100 city-wide festival events, was, well, if not easy as pie, then definitely a piece of cake.

A month in advance, the Philadelphia Daily News did a two-page spread on the poems and the recipes they inspired, headlined "Cupid's Menu: His Recipes Help You Eat Her Words." Their creativity soared with photo captions like "Something Ode, Something New."

"Love inspires poets," Aliza Green wrote in the Daily News. "Poetry inspires lovers. There's nothing new about that. But next month, in Philadelphia, a dozen of a local writer's poems will be the inspiration for a restaurant menu. As part of "The Book & The Cook" celebration, the Rose Tattoo Cafe will serve 12 dishes based on poems in Maralyn Lois Polak's new book, 'TheBologna Sandwich and Other Poems of LOVE and Indigestion.' We have to warn you: Polak's poem is no Hallmark card, and Schofield's shrimp is not for the timid. But don't your teeth already hurt from the milk chocolate sweetness of the holiday?"

Quite unexpectedly, the festival organizers give us a free booth for the Book and the Cook Fair, at the snazzy Philadelphia Convention Center, as a bonus. To capitalize on this promotional bonanza, two of the five wonderful women from the publishers' collective -- somehow get let themselves get roped into agreeing to make nearly 1,000 (!!) bologna sandwiches at the Philadelphia Convention Center to promote this book of poems about sex/love/food/love/sex.

What a zoo!!!! First, the two women must drive 50 miles to pick up the free Stroehmann Bread, Dietz and Watson cold-cuts and mustard they snagged gratis. Ironically, to make things even more interesting, during this period I was, yes, a strict vegetarian. Indeed, this event is a vegetarian's nightmare, with all sorts of real and imagined culinary sins wafting about.

Meanwhile I'm trapped there, in Booth 135, teeming with the stampeding hordes of  doughy smorgasbord devotees-grabbing at the teetering precarious stack of sandwiches that, moment by moment, resembles more and more the Leaning Tower of Pisa, threatening to topple over into my lap, symbolically deflower me anew, and obliterate any pretense at bookselling.

Oh, baloney, as my dear dead dad might say.

Why the outlandish popularity of these crudely made sandwiches?  Simple. The other food  lines are much too loooong. Lots of waiting for the real stuff-- raspberry beer, sauteed artichokes with capers and parmesan, fantasy wedding cake, white chocolate liqueur, tangerine juice, candy-coated espresso coffee beans, peppermint patties,  barbecued smoked salmon, roasted red peppers marinated with garlic in olive oil on French bread rounds...

THOSE LINES snake around the block.

While the bologna table-- which is really my book table-- is relatively clear. But there's one consolation: At least giving away free meat is not quite as bad as, say, sleeping with the wrong person, is it?

Hard to say, given some of the bizarre queries we had to field.

"What percent fat?" one fella asks.

"Is this Kosher?" another wants to know.

"Mayonnaise, or mustard?" the weight-conscious women demand.

"Can I have a whole one?" says a lanky guard.

"Any special orders?" the wiseacres crack.

"How 'bout a sestina, or a villanelle," I offer helpfully, thinking about the soldier who told his girlfriend to bury his three missing fingers under a tree and see what grew there...probably asparagus.

No one bothers to ask, but our conclusion's inescapable: clearly the people who like bologna sandwiches hate poetry, and the people who like poetry can't stand bologna sandwiches!

I try my best not to be peeved the public prefers pig offal to Petrarchian sonnets. There are, however, several festival highlights. Ruth, a Belgian cookbook author now living in Chile with her boyfriend, invites me to visit for a month to sample the countryside and her cooking. The feisty, politically correct public TV station, Channel 35,  films my book cover, and my face.

And Nicky, a young, stocky cousin to a famously handsome and now incarcerated local mobster, buys one of my poetry books, unbidden, and invites me to his South Philly luncheonette called Babe's.

 "Are you related?" I brazen. Nicky nods assent. "I want Joey to see my book."

"Done!" Nicky replies. "He will, I promise you. Now come, let me make you dinner!"

Uh, if that was an offer I couldn't refuse, I still have.

                   THE END


My poem, "Hell," and the dish created by Rose Tattoo chef George Schofield to honor it, "Shrimp from Hell."


By Maralyn Lois Polak

The boyfriend from hell
having just told you to go to hell
orders shrimp from hell
in a language from hell
that you do not understand
while he flirts with the waitress from hell
who has a body from hell
and is younger than hell
and perhaps, if he is lucky,
also dumber than hell.
Whoever said
Hell is other people
was definitely onto something.

Copyright © 2004, Maralyn Lois Polak

Entree Recipe:

SHRIMP FROM HELL by Rose Tattoo Chef George Schofield

3 Scotch bonnet peppers, seeded and chopped

1 cup peanut oil

2 tablespoons sambal* (an Oriental chile paste)

1 teaspoon Thai curry paste*

3 tablespoons sriracha* (a Thai chile sauce)

2 pounds medium shrimp (16 to 20 shrimp per pound), peeled and deveined

1/2 cup diced onion

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

1 mango, peeled, pitted and coarsely chopped

4 tablespoons mirin* (a sweet Japanese wine)

4 tablespoons macadamia nuts, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

* Most Asian grocery stores carry these specialty ingredients.

One day in advance, make a marinade for the shrimp. Start by sauteing the Scotch bonnet peppers in a couple of teaspoons of peanut oil. Transfer to a blender or food processor, add the remaining peanut oil, and puree. Place in a bowl and add sambal, curry paste and sriracha sauce. Mix well. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

On the day you plan to serve the dish, place the shrimp in the marinade for 1 hour.

While the shrimp are marinating, prepare a mango coulis (a soothing sauce that you will want to serve alongside the fiery shrimp). Saute the diced onion in the vegetable oil until soft but not browned. Place in blender with mango flesh and mirin. Puree until smooth. Set aside.

After the shrimp have marinated, remove them from the marinade and place on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with macadamia nuts, and season with salt and pepper.

Bake at 350 degrees until shrimp are cooked (they will no longer look transparent), about 10 minutes. Then crisp the shrimp briefly under the broiler.

Schofield threads his shrimp into a crown before baking and serves them atop a bed of trio fries, made with julienned potatoes, yams and leeks. At home, serve them with some French fries on the side, and with the mango coulis close at hand for putting out the fire on people's tongues. This recipe serves 4.