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What Is Food Poetry?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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Food poetry is a style of poem dominated by food. This can entail food in general or one particular type of food, from pomegranate to potato or from oranges to oatmeal. These poems can be of the emotions, as Aristotle believed they should, or more prosaic. Some may even be a recipe in poetic form. While many may be about the food itself, others are about related ideas, memories, or may have metaphors caught within.

There are no structural prerequisites for food poetry because food is a thematic element rather than a governing stricture. This means they can take the form of a haiku or Shakespearean sonnets depending on the whim of the poet. The structure can either be chosen first, with the food poetry squeezed into its frame, or the subject is chosen first and the frame built around it.

Creating food poetry begins with a choosing the subject. Once a subject has been chosen the poet brain storms all possible ideas concerning that type of food and what message he or she wants to convey with it. It can help, of course, if the poet has the food to hand. This allows the poet to describe the taste, texture, smell, and look of the food. With informal ideas jostling and cajoling around, fragments of verse often form and reveal the nature of the poem.

The prosaic poem describes just the food or the preparation of it. In this, it seeks not to attach symbolic images to the food. A good example of such a poem is blueberries by Robert Frost. Another one is Persimmons by Li Young Lee, which simply describes the fruit being cut and the narrator's response:

"it wasn't ripe or sweet, I didn't eat
but watched the other faces."

Other versions of food poetry can be filled with sensual appeal. The idea is to conjure images of fresh food to whet a person's appetite or to bring back nostalgic memories. Such poems are typically rich in imagery and emotion. The poem may be just about the food or may include the poet's own memories and associations, some of which may hit home, while others may not.

Food can also be a metaphor — the direct substitution of one surface form for another, but with the same deeper meaning. Sometimes this can put the two ideas side by side, as with A.A. Milne's use of the dessert to show the problem with Mary Jane in Rice Pudding. It can also mean the use of food images to add depth to the meaning of the poem, as with Shakespeare's use of food-verbs in Sonnet 75.

There are a number of connotations related to food. It is quite often used as a substitute for love, which makes sense if the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. Food is also used as a metaphor for the human body, particularly with peaches and melons; a man may also have a cucumber nose and cauliflower ears. Such metaphors rely on the reader/listener being able to understand the subtext of verse.

The paraphernalia of food, whether Shakespeare's food and eating-related verbs or the instruments needed to make food, also form the content and themes of poems. In Guzman Lopez's Taco Shop Canto the history of San Diego is equated to the history of a barrio, commenting on how the former war town "Has become crossroads for taco shop culture."

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Discussion Comments
By lluviaporos — On Jun 20, 2014

@Fa5t3r - With that in mind, I would caution poets not to get lazy about food. An apple, for example, would be a very difficult image to add to a poem and be at all original. As a symbol, it is almost a cliche and I would expect a fair amount of description to bring it out of the ordinary.

Just putting the word apple into a poem is going to bring up wildly different images for different people. Is it an under-ripe apple? Is it green or red or russet? Is it small, sweet, large, sour, bitter?

It's a very non-specific image, which can be used to great effect, but only in the midst of more specific imagery.

Otherwise your poem has so much potential meaning, that it turns into something with no meaning at all.

By Fa5t3r — On Jun 19, 2014

@bythewell - Food is also very evocative, even apart from the symbolic meaning. If you put an apple into a poem, you've got an object where the reader is almost certainly going to be familiar with the taste, the feel, the smell and the sight (even the sound, if you count crunching the apple). So food can pull quite a lot of weight in a poem where there isn't much room for expansive description.

By bythewell — On Jun 18, 2014

The first food poem that jumps to my mind is the one by William Carlos Williams where he apologizes for eating plums from the icebox.

But I imagine most poetry is going to have food in it somewhere. I did a short course on fairy tales a couple of years ago and one of the things they were always saying was that food is extremely symbolic and one of the few things that crosses cultural barriers (although it might mean different things to different cultures).

It almost always represents home and family and nurturing, which are topics that many poets will want to explore.

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