The late poet Lucille Clifton wrote: “The greens roll black under the knife,/ and the kitchen twists dark on its spine/ and I taste in my natural appetite/ the bond of live things everywhere.”
Cutting greens, or, moreover, preparing food to eat and share, is a devotional and creative process for Gabrielle Calvocoressi, a UNC professor and poet, as well. But like any craft, economics often barricade how, when, and what one can cook.
After Calvocoressi and her partner found themselves tight on money last fall, the poet posted an open call on Facebook for nourishing and budget-conscious recipes. Writers, students, and home cooks all over the country responded with enthusiasm. That energy culminated in The New Economy Chapbook Vol. 1: Inexpensive, Healthy, Hopeful Feasts for 2017, a self-published, free e-cookbook and part poetry chapbook. A collaboration between working artists, the book has been featured on websites like The Southern Foodways Alliance, Epicurious, and Lifehacker.
“Everybody wants to be fed. Nobody wants to be starving. Starving can mean all kinds of different things,” Calvocoressi says. “Right now, many people feel like they are starving. And [we] are really trying to find a way to be healthy and safe and help others to be healthy and safe.”
The themes of the book come at a poignant time in American history. The book began circulating the same week that the Congressional Budget Office released its estimate that 24 million people could lose health insurance in the revision of the Affordable Care Act.
Calvocoressi ponders “that specific fear of not being able to pay for your groceries.” She says, “It is a mental and physical health issue in this country. The cookbook comes out of the knowledge of how wonderful it is feed a crowd and cook all day for someone and what it is like to stand in line at the grocery store, praying that the card goes through.”
Coordinated by Calvocoressi with organizational support from fellow poet Melissa Studdard, the cookbook, styled like a zine, features around fifty recipes meant to stretch budgets and fill bellies. A casual mood of everydayness and a collective emphasis on comfort and survival tie the meals together; they appear in no particular order and cross geographies, cuisines, and seasons. Michelle Bitting’s “Pozole Rojo,” for example is followed by Yu-Han Chao’s “Fresh Apple Cookies.” They are accompanied by hand-drawn illustrations.
Unlike the ultra-polished, forever-unachievable items found in many cookbooks, the meals in The New Economy Chapbook come from actual kitchens. Utterly unassuming, Amy MacLennan’s “Auntie Ol’s Quiche Casserole” takes a mere three steps (and resembles a dish I used to make and eat for both breakfast and supper all week long in college).
One pizza recipe compares sauce to Medusa’s hair, one of many reminders this is also a creative writing project. The line between recipe and poem is blurry.
“I grew up in a rural place. The idea of food and the relationship to land, the people around you, the economythere is no way that doesn’t go into my poems,” says Calvocoressi. “My relationship to food is the most intimate thing in my life in terms of another artistic practice that is close to writing for me. The kind of pleasure that is like a poem.”
Instead of being a collection of instructive orders, the recipes hum with human narratives. Personal stories from the writer-cooks offer reflections of hunger, of immigration, of divorce, of trauma. They feed more than the stomach. Recipes turn into intimate snapshots of working artists and people: they talk.
The New Economy Chapbook opposes profit. Its introduction encourages mass, free circulation of the text and an ethos of disentanglement from capitalist enterprise guides the project. Anyone may print or share it. Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, of The Operating System publishers in New York City, designed the book, which is downloadable as a free PDF.
Calvocoressi, whose third book of poetry, Rocket Fantastic, will be released this fall, began using the title phrase “New Economies” to describe her practice of exchanging editorial work for charitable donations.
She asked herself, “How can I divest this thing that I do artistically from the constant need to make money and my own real terror of not being able to afford whatever?” The practice aims to show that there are other kinds of economies that you can build as an artist that live outside of the pressures of capitalism.
There were no guiding cost parameters in choosing what went into the book (everyone who responded to the open call was included). Calvocoressi estimates the price range of the meals to be as low as a few dollars and the maximum to be about ten dollars.
However, cost depends on what kind of kitchen or grocery store is readily accessible. The cookbook does not explicitly account for those on food stamps or EBT. “I can see all the ways this project is amazing and all the ways it’s insufficient,” says Calvocoressi. “That is a good mirror of this country. There is a lot to think about here.”
There are plans for future versions to include estimates for grocery costs and to release the book in smaller sections to allow for easy, cheap printing and distribution. An open call for the summer edition will appear on social media soon; follow Calvocoressi on Twitter at @rocketfantastic.
To download the book, visit http://bit.ly/NewEconomyFood.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Eating Their Words.”