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  • Writer's pictureJerri Lynn Sparks

Red-Eye Gravy And The Food That Built Me

Updated: Mar 27, 2021

It’s 4AM and I can’t sleep. Last night I resorted to comfort food to soothe my frustration: mac and cheese with a breadcrumb topping and mini chocolate cupcakes. I am not one to eat food for my emotions but yesterday I had just spent my last dime of caring and all I could think of was mac and cheese. Do you get that? Do you pull out your mom’s recipe and get to cookin’? My own recipe for mac and cheese was one I got from a Betty Crocker cookbook someone gave me back when I was married. It has sautéed red bell peppers and onions in it with a homemade white cheese sauce that is divine. I salivate just thinking about that recipe but I can never find it in any restaurant or in the frozen food aisle and I was too upset to spend time cooking. I needed comfort food right that instant. I was upset because of the elusiveness of “success.” I told myself that this year I would finally devote time to submitting my poems to publications esteemed in the industry. (Why I need the approval of people who spend their entire days judging which poems are “good” and which aren’t is beyond me and perhaps I don’t need it but caved to all the people who have implored me to publish them all this time, or perhaps I’m human and would like to have something of my work to last in eternity in a publication? Who knows?) I’ve dabbled here and there between diaper changes and work meetings, between preschool drop-offs and special needs advocacy meetings for my son with autism, between high school graduations and proms, between a marriage and a divorce, but the life of a single mom is jampacked. Yesterday, another modern poetry magazine had just told me that they enjoyed my work but that my writing is “not a good fit” for their publication. I respect that but feel that I cannot find a place for my type of poetry. I dare to write accessible poetry. I love W.H. Auden and Longfellow, I crave Neruda when my heart is broken. I love Mary Oliver but cheat on her with Emily Dickinson. I may even throw in the occasional, gasp, rhyme. The meaning of my poems doesn’t lead one on a wild journey to discover its message or to the dictionary for the definition of ‘lucubration.’ And while I don’t spoon-feed the meaning of my poems to the reader, I also don’t make them so inaccessible that they’re self-indulgent yet pretty words on the page. In essence, I don’t sound like that scene in “Annie Hall” where the guy asks Annie to put her bare foot on his chest so he can dream of dying by wild wolves tearing him apart. Instead, I write to connect. Yet it’s hard to connect if I can’t find where I fit in within the increasingly narrow confines of the official modern poetry world, or even if I fit in at all. For the first time in my life, I’m beginning to feel like an outsider. By the time I fell asleep I was filled with self-loathing and frustration after having rage-read the entire internet to justify my stance: modern poetry is not poetry, at least not what I grew up thinking of as poetry. It’s good and I like it but I would call modern poetry something else, perhaps prose, perhaps deep thoughts in loose structure. And I’m not the only one. There are entire reams of posts about how modern poetry is not poetry. I fell asleep feeling that I’m not alone in this sentiment after all. Yet my sense of loneliness remained… So I dreamed of comfort food. Dishes like red-eye gravy (truckers once told me it’s called ‘red-eye gravy’ because your eyes are red by the time you stop driving and find some food at a truck stop when you’re hungry and you’ve been traveling all day and night and you see those lights in the distance and you know food is there, hot and ready and waiting for you). Fat, butter, salt, and real sugar, not that imitation stuff in the pink packets. And meat! Home-grown potatoes and good tasting tomatoes, not those mealy things the big name grocery stores pass off as “tomatoes.” Your grandma’s chicken pot pie recipe. Coconut cake, pot roast, peas and dumplings…Food sang me to sleep. I was so lost over something that has meant so much to me since I was a little girl, my first poem having been scribbled under my bed covers with a flashlight to stop my parents from arguing in the next room. That instinct to use words, the power that they can have, my strongest instinct being then and now to write it out. But first I needed to eat dinner and no way was that salad I’d made earlier gonna cut it. Nope, I rushed to the store to buy comfort food instead, something that has never abandoned me or failed to connect to my senses. I am not ashamed of it either. “Mac and cheese gets me!” I harumphed to myself as I scanned the grocer’s freezer to find just the right one. A hard pass on the plain Stouffer’s mac and cheese. No, this was a perspective-changing anger I felt and it warranted a taste-bud satisfying selection. Tempting, but no, on Marie Callendar’s chicken and broccoli mac and cheese. This was no time for healthy stuff like *broccoli.* Ha! Where was the good stuff??? I was beginning to think even comfort food was eluding me. And then I saw it... It was love at first sight: Stouffer’s *old-fashioned* mac and cheese with a breadcrumb topping. Now that’s what my soul needed! And then I realized something more deep than mac and cheese preferences was going on with me: as much as I love to consume all things new – in movies, in books, in ideas, in music (just this week my daughter was shocked that I know who Lil Nas is), when it comes to food and poetry, I am old-fashioned. Gulp. I said it. I, Ms. Hip And Open-Minded, am old-fashioned. I like romance movies where the guy gets the girl in the end. I cry at the end of Breakfast At Tiffany’s despite its flaws. I weep like a baby while watching Steel Magnolias. I like it when I am pursued instead of the other way around. I love roses and chocolates and perfume. I love being courted. I love birds and cannot rip out the sparrow’s nest that takes over the bluebirds’ house that I intended. I am a soft-hearted old-fashioned girl. I need the comforting expectation of balance, of the right amount of salt and fat, the right amount of rhythm and rhyme. This is not to say that I can’t go wild and free verse in life and in love or in poetry, this doesn’t mean I can’t learn and enjoy some fancy dish from The Food Network. It’s just that when our hearts hurt we want what we know, what has always comforted us. I’m sorry, but complicated food and complicated poetry just doesn’t do it for me. Right now, the world of everyday people craves accessible poetry and accessible food, words and dishes that resonate with their child-hearts, words that aren’t lofty for the sake of being lofty, pies that their grandmothers made them, words and food that mean something to them instead of just to academics, pastry chefs and the professional writer. Like a good, comforting casserole, to me, poetry is sustenance, filling your hungry mind with good comfort to stop your pangs and your pains. Mashed potatoes and gravy, ham and biscuits, mac and cheese and chocolate cream pie…these are the culinary equivalent of the poetry I love and grew up on, and of the kind I try to write. There will be no truffles or pink Himalayan sea salt, no star anise grated gingerly across the cookies, and there will be no incomprehensible meaning behind obscure references and artfully placed dashes and hyphens. No… Instead, I will write what I know. I will write like butter. I will space like salt, just enough to make it taste good. #FoodNostalgia

Photo Credit: Jerri Lynn Sparks

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