Jack Stephens, who I happened to be married to at the time, used to talk about spending a lifetime writing volumes, all toward crafting a single poem worth remembering, that just might stick for future generations. Today, my daughter-in-law Mollie sends a photo of son John—Jack’s son—sitting at their backyard table in California, wolfing down what appears to be a baked potato on my small cell phone screen. With thumb and pointer, I pinch the image larger, until I can see the expression of gusto on my son’s face, and a few inches away from his plate, to my surprised delight, a bottle of Kikkoman’s soy sauce. This is my culinary single poem, Folks, right here in River City. If I could zoom the image off the screen, I’d no doubt find more evidence on the potato itself, an unnecessary maneuver, as I can already see that his expression is just for me, though Mollie is about to blast the texted image all over Face Book. John already knows the secret which you are about to learn; he learned it well as a little boy : once you try it, you’ll never eat a baked potato any other way.
Here’s the poem from Take This Spoon—and the recipe!, if you dig between the lines—that goes with my musings and the photo, instilled with a slightly gloomier tone.
Letting the Cat Out
Fork the length of the piping hot potato
as you might prepare hard spring soil.
Make the sign of the cross
by tilling the other way.
Squeeze both ends, being careful not to burn your fingers.
One or two butter pats, salt and pepper over that.
Soy sauce goes on the table, as accompaniment—
you’ll never again eat a baked potato
any other way. Salt the cantaloupe,
serve salad with—not before
nor after dinner. Cocktails first,
and a dressing drink before that.
Count to ten while blanching
tomatoes in boiling water, as she once taught you,
standing stove-side, in her sheer black apron,
a Diane von Furstenberg under that,
third vodka in the other hand.
Learn to hold liquor like secrets
you swore never to tell.
Later, when you think of calling her
after the abortion or divorce,
let the phone rest silent on its cradle.
Or tell her he wronged you first
though it was the other way around.
Offer always to do the dishes,
eating as much as you can
from the abandoned plates of those privileged enough
to leave some food behind—then, close the bathroom door.
When she asks where all the leftovers went,
stare blankly, or lie. Some things she oughtn’t know.
Don’t answer the phone, text her in heaven;
it’s what’s left of your family.
That, and these foods, this bread,
soy sauce on a baked potato.
All secrets come out eventually. Try it. You just might like it.