When Food is Poetry

Restaurant Hospitality

In a new column, Bellamy: Bean There, Ate That, Restaurant Hospitality executive food editor Gail Bellamy shares a personal take on food and the restaurant industry.

In my other life as a poet, I’ve discovered that food serves as a great metaphor. It’s a shortcut to learning about people. Name an ingredient, and chances are it will stir memories and stories in the minds of your customers. Ask people about their favorite food, and you’re likely to learn a little more about them. That’s because food and drink connect us to our childhood, our family and our ethnic heritage.

Stories about food have gained an important place on today’s menu—who produced the food, where it’s from, and how it’s prepared. The language of food on menus ranges from evocative descriptions—selling the sizzle—to whimsical flights of fancy. The French chef Auguste Escoffier (“the king of chefs and the chef of kings”) made the connection with the importance of menu descriptions, too. In his autobiographical volume, Auguste Escoffier: Memories of My Life, he discusses his interest in menu-writing. “I started looking for words that sounded gentle and pleasing to the ear while expressing a connection with the food being proposed.” He goes on to say that menus marking special occasions should reflect the event, “as a sort of poem recalling the happy hours spent.”

My favorite Escoffier menu story is the one about renaming one of his signature dishes, frog legs, to be served at a banquet at the Savoy Hotel in London. He labeled themnymphes a l’aurore (nymphs at dawn) and gave his reason for doing so. “For my frog legs to have the success they merited, it was necessary to rebaptize them!” Consumers today would look for an explanatory note, of course—one that would no doubt tell them exactly what they were eating. We expect to know the pedigree of our dinner, but that doesn’t rule out poetic language.

I don’t write menus; I write about food. Sometimes outside of work, though, I’ve been inspired to write poetry about some of my favorite ingredients, including arugula.

Here’s an example:

When I encounter arugula dressed in the company of tender leaves on a white salad plate in a restaurant, it always reminds me of those street-tough spiky greens that grow up along the railroad tracks or between pavement cracks on urban basketball courts, prickly, resilient greens that lurk behind condemned buildings or jab their way up through gravel, refusing to be held back by chain link fences, smoked out or otherwise suffocated. By the time arugula arrives at the restaurant it isn’t just a punk in a dinner jacket escorting the debutante: arugula owns the place. If you prefer menus to metaphors, though, check out these two recipes from Restaurant Hospitality, featuring none other than arugula.

• American lamb arugula salad with blackberry vinaigrette
 Shaved portobello and arugula salad in Parmesan tuile

Gail Bellamy is the executive food & beverage editor of Restaurant Hospitality. She is the author of five books and is an accomplished poet who often writes about her love of food.



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