ODE ON BRAISES (AND ODES)
by Gregory Emilio
For we, which now behold these present days,
Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.
—Shakespeare, “Sonnet 106,” lines 13-14
“Rhyme,” according to the poet and classicist A.E. Stallings, “is an irrational, sensual link between two words. It is chemical. It is alchemical” (Stallings 2009). It is fascinating to think of how words are connected by sound—that similar sounding words may be drawn to each other like magnets. Praise and days: some subterranean, implicit contract, light giving unto light, phoneme of the first letter, the sound of dawn. And to think that consonants and vowels are all we have to work with to create the kindred spirits of rhymes. Vowels expand, billow up with breath, while consonants crack open and/or shear off the edges. In the word “praise,” the vowel sound “a” gets buoyed up by the plosive “p,” sustained for half a breath, held aloft, before “s,” and the whole sonic enterprise, goes tiptoeing away. A word as graceful (and powerful) as a ballet dancer’s leap. Sounds matter, and when they get together, gather into meaning.
The vowel I find most appealing is perhaps the easiest to pronounce. Rhyming across almost all the parts of speech—go, slow, so, though—oh is an aural and visual (and visceral) representation of the open mouth: a puff of breath, by turns a gasp of pleasure or a sigh of despair. Oh, that’s delicious. Oh, how terrible. O, on the other hand, is a bit different, distinct from oh, its homonym cousin. O, that most useful of interjections in the odes of the Romantics, floats up like a balloon, drifting toward the poets’ objects of praise.
Keats: “O, Attic shape!”
Shelley: “O, wild West Wind”
Me: “O, braised duck legs!”
I had a revelation around the middle of my life: I began to understand the importance of slow cooking. The kind of cooking you plan ahead for, the kind that deepens the whole house with its smells over the course of an afternoon. As a young home cook, all I did was rush: eggs barely over easy, seared steaks after final exams, impromptu carbonara after last call. But around my thirties, something clicked and I slowed down. Was mortality whispering in my ear? Had the carrot-snapping thwack of my ACL tearing on the soccer pitch set off a ripple effect warning me of the dangers of sprinting? Or had I simply exhausted the limits of cooking things a la minute? Of course, all are true. But I’d like to think it also had something to do with my evolving attitude toward poetry. Just as I used to throw a meal together at the last minute, I wrote most of my poetry on the fly, whenever the intensity of a feeling or an image reached its boiling point. I took Frank O’Hara’s advice in “Personism: A Manifesto” as a personal mantra: “You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, ‘Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep’” (1995: 498).
Simply defined, to braise is to cook something slowly in liquid. It’s a technique that turns tough cuts—shanks, short ribs, cubes of beef chuck, root vegetables—into fork-tender morsels. The liquid is most often wine—as in coq au vin or boeuf bourguignon—or stock. And it’s the latter that’s perhaps most rewarding for the enterprise of slow home cooking. When you start to make your own stock, you begin to control your culinary destiny. Fennel fronds, onion ends, rinds of parm, mushroom stems, chicken discards—all can conspire over the course of an afternoon to give you the basic currency of a good braise. When the liquid is reduced and concentrated, when the bones give like twigs and the vegetables are mush to the touch, when the stock is strained, divvied into quart containers, dated and labeled and stored in the freezer for the uncertain future, you will feel a sense of self-reliance and accomplishment tantamount to getting out the first draft of a good poem or story. Fortunes may rise or fall, but you will rest with the certitude of your stock, more tangible than money in the bank. Risotto, chicken soup, wildly delicious sauces, and, of course, a panoply of braises are now within your reach.
I’ve come to an age where I premeditate as much as possible, tasks edible or otherwise. I used to make almost daily trips to the grocery store, but when the pandemic hit and getting groceries became a perilous, postapocalyptic excursion, I had to plot out at least a week’s worth of meals. I’d read recipes, forecast weather, moods, temperaments, and then I’d make a list. This act of slowing down coincided, as I said before, with a slower approach to poetry. I went back and dug into form, rhyme, classics, trying to expand my repertoire. Composing a first draft now took days—and only after the subject or conceit was conceived. Before diving in, I’d ask questions, and I’d make decisions. Free verse or closed form? Sonnet or sapphics? To rhyme or not to rhyme? Like any dutiful cook, I’d break down the bones into stock. I’d read and I’d plot. I’d sharpen my knives. This isn’t to say the poems are any better or that this is the way to do it. I’m just becoming more attuned to my own tastes and preferences. And when I take my time, when I cook a poem, as it were, low and slow, I become more present and more predisposed to praise.
There’s an irresistible, meditative quality to braises. Given over to the slow, deliberate task of chopping vegetables, thawing your stock, reading the recipe, rereading the recipe, seasoning your meat, searing, developing flavors at the bottom of the pot, adding aromatic mirepoix, deglazing the sedimentary fond, then putting it all together in the oven with time, you will find the calm, condensed center of the universe. You will free yourself up to think, to pause, to go for a jog, to read, or watch a movie, or daydream, or clean, all while getting dinner (damn good dinner) done.
It might seem a far-fetched comparison, but Keats also went on his nerve. It can’t be a coincidence that his best work—the great odes—are written less than two years before his death, in full tubercular awareness. Nor should it be surprising that in his despair he turned to poems of praise. “When old age shall this generation waste,” he addresses the urn, “Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe / Than ours, a friend to man” (lines 55-57). This doomed young man had his eyes on the clock, but he didn’t rush, and he didn’t pity himself, knowing that there were greater woes than his own. I like to think that the formal features of the Horatian Ode—stanzaic order, meter, and rhyme—were like a recipe to him: a set of suggestions, malleable guidelines, never dogma. Nightingale, funeral urn, autumn: these were some of the subjects of his praise—artifacts, seasons, sensations treated to his hyper-articulate ooh’s, aah’s, and, of course, O’s. To study Keats is to see that with enough time and attention, anything is worthy of poetry. I have to imagine he liked slowly cooked foods—deep stews, hearty shepherd’s pies. I wish I could have cooked for him.
“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off,” quips Emily Dickinson, “I know that is poetry” (1891). This is how I feel about the best meals, the most singular bites. Case in point, the braised duck legs I cooked last night, per Mark Bittman’s minimalist recipe at NYT Cooking. A simple one-pan dish of mirepoix, duck legs, and stock. Like so many good recipes, it all comes down to technique, patience, and order of operations. The legs go in first, skin-down, in a ripping hot skillet. This is your chance, your one chance, to get them golden, burnished, crackly-crisp, and to render out the rich fat that duck’s famous for. Remove the legs. Then sweat and caramelize the veggies in said fat. Then return the duck to the aromatic vegetables. Then add enough chicken stock (homemade, I cannot stress this enough) to immerse, but not submerge, the legs, and into the oven for a couple hours at 325 degrees. What emerges on the other side of this passage of time almost smells of dark chocolate, earthy and deep. The hash of infused vegetables glowing with flavor, soft as candlelight. And the duck’s skin crisp as the glassy surface of Crème Brule, and almost as sweet—a stark contrast to the tender, tenebrous flesh.
The top of your head taken off: a Zen Koan-like shock to the tastebuds; a lightning strike to the brain.
“Rhymes may be so far apart, you cannot hear them,” says Stallings, “but they can hear each other, as if whispering on a toy telephone made of two paper cups and a length of string” (2009). I’ve tried to hold them far apart, but I assume you saw them right from the start. Praise and braise, hiding in plain sight. All this has been an attempt to say that there’s a reason for this rhyme—that it means something. Like the martyrs for truth and beauty buried in Dickinson’s adjoining rooms, they are kith and kin, whispering back and forth all night, until the glacial moss of eternity renders them one and the same. Let us now praise famous braises is what I’ve been trying to say.
But to eat and be done is never enough. We must reflect, give back to the things we eat for our thoughts. We must sing for our next supper because we might not get one. To end with the far-flung repetition of a prayer seems fitting. We might not catch the echo of the rhymes, as distant as they are, but as Stallings says, they can hear each other. In the plague-haunted days of the 17th century, Shakespeare was prescient enough to declare that we “have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.” The declaration is somewhat ironic, coming from one so well-versed in the predilections of praise. Over four hundred years later, at the beginning of the new millennium, the Ukrainian-born poet Ilya Kaminsky echoes Shakespeare succinctly in his “Author’s Prayer.” Directly addressing God, the speaker gives us this:
I will praise your madness, and
in a language not mine, speak
of music that wakes us, music
in which we move. For whatever I say
is a kind of petition, and the darkest
days must I praise.
(2004: lines 14-18)
Twenty years later, hunkered down in our own plague-ridden epoch, when we are so often told that we live in an evil, uncertain time (indeed we do), we would do well to remember this prayer. Praise, like a good braise, is best served on the darkest, the coldest of days.
Bittman, Mark. “Crisp-Braised Duck Legs with Aromatic Vegetables.” NYT Cooking, The New York Times, https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1017472-crisp-braised-duck-legs-with-aromatic-vegetables. Accessed 15 November 2021.
Dickinson, Emily. “Emily Dickinson’s Letters.” The Atlantic, 1891, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1891/10/emily-dickinsons-letters/306524/. Accessed 14 November 2021.
Kaminsky, Ilya. “Author’s Prayer.” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/53850/authors-prayer. Accessed 20 November 2021.
Keats, John. “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44477/ode-on-a-grecian-urn. Accessed 20 November 2021.
O’Hara, Frank. “Personism: A Manifesto.” In The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, edited by Donald Allen, 498-499. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 106: When in the chronicle of wasted time.” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45102/sonnet-106-when-in-the-chronicle-of-wasted-time. Accessed 21 November 2021.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Ode to the West Wind.” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45134/ode-to-the-west-wind. Accessed 21 November 2021.
Stallings, A.E. “Presto Manifesto.” Poetry Foundation, 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/69202/presto-manifesto-.
Gregory Emilio is a poet, cook, and critic living in Atlanta. His poems and essays appear in Best New Poets, Gastronomica, North American Review, [PANK], Tupelo Quarterly, and Southern Humanities Review. Kitchen Apocrypha, his debut collection of poetry, will be published by Able Muse Press in 2022.