My time in that Seattle apartment, like lipstick and book hangovers and sugar and jouissance, was fleeting. The month before I lost the place, I moved the kitchen into the living room and made a movie. I called it Bliss.
The film tells two stories simultaneously. The first narrative is visual. A woman makes strawberry pie with an antique copy of Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss mixed into the filling and woven in the crust. In post-production, the editor saturated our colors so the red of the woman’s nails and the bruised blue of the book cover look electric, edible. He also heightened the sound quality of chopping strawberries, squeezing lemons, tearing paper. There’s a light high teeth-setting screech as her butcher knife saws through the bookspine, and a lovely plump whoosh as she dumps flour into a bowl. The loudest sounds are her heels striking the floor at the beginning and the sunny ding! of the timer at the end.
These verby sound bites punctuate the second story, an audio tale that runs concurrently with the action but does not explain it. The story is true. I spoke it from memory into a microphone while an explosion of flour clouded our set. It goes, briefly, like this:
When I was five years old, I wrote my first story. In order for it to end, the villain demanded that I eat the story. I tried. I tore the pages into bite-sized pieces and chewed until they were soft enough to swallow. I ate half the story this way. I started to feel sick to my stomach, so I asked my father to take the other half and burn it. This was the only way to save the protagonist. The next night he burned it. That was the end of the story.
As I speak that last line, our parting shot shows the woman carefully lifting a piece of paper-pie and plate it, then stand back. Her offering is a tongue-twister: you can read this pie and eat this book.
By “eating” I mean how we say “she devoured that book” when she loved it. Or “You are what you eat.” Eyes are “ravenous” when they’re full of lust or hunger. Food is fuel; food is poison. What’s edible isn’t necessarily food. “What feeds you” can be taken literally with a side of ketchup or metaphorically with a bookmark. What you put in your mouth (pie) and what you expel from it (words) are measurements of pleasure and need. One eighth of a pie, ten iambic syllables. Violence can be a sharp blade, a choice, just a tool. It creates shape and context, offers difficulty, invites precision.
By “reading” I mean the act of interpreting, acknowledging, and allowing food to be a literal and metaphorical substance. Something mundane and something magic; wine that stays wine while we bless it into blood and spirit. The viewer reads this paper-pie the way we “read” fashion and music and body language, which also means we can mis-read them (or be told we’re misreading them). Reading our food connects us to history and culture and demands we participate in the marketplace of each. It is the difference between eating and feeding. It makes us human.
During the first meeting with the man who would become my cookbook editor, I said “I’m not going to write another sweet little book about pie.”
I meant that though I am a published poet, a good teacher, a connected and respected small businesswoman, I worry that all I am is a pie lady. That role attracts the quickest and largest response from everyone, complete strangers to my favorite uncle. It has become my introduction, my summary, my nickname.
I meant I wasn’t going to write a book where the links between pie, Americana, and normative femininity go unremarked, or where the cult of domesticity that haunts and energizes contemporary food writing goes unexamined. I believe food and food writing are powerful conduits for both sexism and feminism. Recently I’d studied a stack of pie cookbooks whose clichés reinforced that belief. Topping the list of most abused words and phrases: home, comfort, grandma’s apron strings, America, the smell of pie baking in a kitchen, “made by hand with love” and “everything that is wholesome and good.”
Wholesome means “suggestive of good health and physical well-being, or promoting moral well-being.” Retro gender roles prefer women to be as wholesome as the food they serve their families. As one of many adjectives you might use to describe women or menu options, it’s fine. As the sole compass of food writing, home cooking, or personal identity, it’s unrealistic, sexist, and boring.
I grew up following “Well behaved women rarely make history” bumper stickers to the grocery store, confused by what might happen if I behaved badly, or worse–and what I preferred–if I continued to behave well. In my life I have been the peace, the harbor, the warmth, the cool girlfriend, the passive aggressive doormat that says “welcome” when she means “get the fuck out.” And lately, the pie lady.
In my experience, a pie lady is someone to go to for comfort–a provider, a mommy blogger, a wife, a grandma–and someone to ogle. She’s a Warrant girl, photoshopped fruit and boobs, kitchen kitsch, sugary spice and everything “nice.”
I do dress the part. I feel at home in the clothing of mid-century housewifery. Eyeliner, big hair and bright prints, matching heels. If clothes are the unspoken lines of every introduction, I try to make mine say I’m ultra-feminine but not girly, smart but approachable, self-aware yet obsessed with prettiness. I wear my makeup like a shield. When Bill Cunningham described fashion as the “armor to survive the reality of everyday life,” I felt the shock of recognition I usually only get from poetry.
My pie lady persona exaggerates the connotations of feminine clothing and makeup. It frames the way I display my body while offering dessert. She winks at sex while maintaining a maternal distance. She enjoys attention as long as she’s in control.
It’s lovely to be wanted, and then it isn’t. You start to wonder what they want you for–the audience, the men. If it’s even about you. If all I am, despite my many professional and artistic roles, is a woman who will make you pie. I was starting to understand how the act of channeling a powerful symbol comes with the risk of being annihilated.
Here, in this book, I would calculate my chosen symbol’s risk.
I meant that this book was going to be a feminist book.
I didn’t say feminist.
The man who would be my editor smiled and said, “Subversive. I like that.”
But I meant feminist.
Would he like that?
My friend and I waited for whiskey at a bar where a feminist literary organization was throwing their annual party. They’re famous for counting the number of women and men published in literary magazines and finding that men dominate page counts. They are criticized for their data collection. They are criticized for their interpretation of that data. Their count answers the classic criticism that shuts down conversations about men and women between them: Prove it.
My friend is a dear man. We’ve been through shit together. That includes cleaning up after a meth addict who broke into and shit in the middle of our office, a sexual harassment complaint (mine) against a boss he too was harassed by, and years and years of struggling to become what we wanted most to be–writers. The kind that command a capital W. The kind people take seriously.
I had an idea for a magazine. A lifestyle/literary mag that capitalized on the little-known mash-up of serious literature and fluffy domestic trivia Ladies’ Home Journal published during the 40s and 50s. The juxtaposition of one of Sylvia Plath’s first published poems within a saccharine shopping story, framed by Coffeemaker ads printed large and monochrome. The coffee urn was the size of the poem. When I saw that, I jumped out of my chair.
Plath’s work is now so much bigger than an urn, seems so out of place in the LHJ. But that’s the thing. It’s not out of place. Not at all. That’s what’s radical: at the so-called height of the cult of domesticity, Ladies’ Home Journal assumed their ladies wanted to bake the perfect pie and read good poems.
I was trying to explain the ethos of this project to my friend.
I said, “Wholesome is not the whole story.” Has a nice ring to it, right?
He said, “Then why don’t you show some tit?”
“No. That’s not what I mean,” I said, studying whiskey to avoid eye contact.
“Then show them some leg!” He got into the joke.
I could feel myself shrink like that woman in the goofy Alice-in-Wonderlandish sexual harassment PSA of the 1990s. Her boss says, “You know, you’re doing a great job, but you’re not using all your assets. With a body like that, you can go places.”
While he talks, she shrinks. Via voiceover we learn, “sexual harassment makes you feel like less of a person.” By now the woman is child-sized. She clutches a file folder to her breast and makes intense eye contact with her boss. Cut to a booklet with STOP stenciled in faux spray-paint above SEXUAL HARASSMENT. Cut back to scene, where the camera perches just behind the woman’s real-sized shoulder in time to catch the boss saying, “Be a little more sexy. We’re talking about your job here.” Then we get a clear angle on the woman’s stern brown eyes. “No,” she says, “we’re talking about sexual harassment here, and I don’t have to take it.” Her voice raises a little on “here” and “don’t,” not like a question, but to throw emphasis on a stiff delivery.
In 1994, “This is sexual harassment and I don’t have to take it!” was the best joke in the history of sixth grade. When a boy ran into you on the tetherball court, that was sexual harassment. When your BF slapped your ass in gym, that was sexual harassment. No one had to take it anymore. I still use it to tease friends, male or female, when the moment seems right for a cheap laugh.
Real workplace sexual harassment has a more sophisticated sense of humor. It mixes power-play with wit, compliments with conditional approval. In my experience, it was impossible to name until it became impossible to bear.
At a staff meeting, my boss told the room, “Kate’s working so hard, I’ve done everything but put her on a mattress on her back in the parking lot.”
I didn’t hear her say it. When everyone laughed, I laughed along, accidentally complicit in my metaphorical prostitution.
This man, the one I’m talking to at the bar, is the man who took me aside after the meeting and asked if I’d heard what our boss actually said. As he repeated the words, I felt them hit me right between my breasts, a tingling like what happens to your hands when you sit on them for too long. Nevermind what I was hearing or what I hadn’t heard. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing:
Myself, naked. Spread-eagle on a dirty mattress near the wheelchair ramp. Behind our office, in front of my colleagues, ready to fuck, scared to say no. If I did, I might lose my job.
“That shit’s not cool,” my friend said.
It wasn’t her first crass joke or veiled threat. It was the joke that finally pierced my armor.
I couldn’t work. I made a complaint. I went to therapy. I went back to work. I got a new boss, but I still had to work with my old one for almost a year following the complaint.
I could bear it. I had allies. My friend was the first. He’s been my ally ever since.
I want to say I love my friend, that we are uniquely aware of each other’s flaws and remain close. I laugh at his jokes. This joke had poor timing, poor context, poor subtext; all I could do was shrink.
What I could have said was, “Don’t talk to me like that” or just “don’t.”
What I could have said was, “I’m trying to talk to you about a feminist magazine at a feminist event. Can you let up on tits tonight?”
What I said was “no,” and changed the subject.
Did I miss my chance? Should I have articulated how that joke undermined my idea (and by extension, me) by reducing it to sex? Or how it proved my point–that sexism is real, insidious, casual, and crazy-making? Even allies can be its mouthpiece.
Is “no” enough?
My personal, artistic, and professional lives are tangled most stubbornly where the kitchen table meets the kitchen wall and window. From there I can walk 72 inches to the sink to wash a mug, 48 inches to the stove to heat the percolator. Swivel 180 degrees to retrieve milk from the fridge, go on tiptoe to reach the microwave that heats my milk. Then turn back around and walk 12 inches to the table, pour coffee into milk, tease a skin of scalded protein off the top with a fingernail, and walk 24 inches to my kitchen chair. There I will eat, drink, talk on the phone, look out the window, resist the urge to check Facebook–which requires a 72 inch walk into another room–and write and write.
I have made my life, quite literally and with onions, in this kitchen. If every time I walked the kitchen I left a trail of silk like a spider, I could fall asleep between the stove and the fridge in a homespun hammock.
My neighborhood has become the sort of place Sunset magazine writes articles about, a land where 50% rent hikes are mean, but not crazy. If my landlord and I have one thing in common it’s that we both need to make more money. That’s why in 30 days I must leave this kitchen.
After I lose my apartment, my friend says “THIS is what 30 looks like?” She just lost her job. She’s thinking about moving to New York.
When my mother was 30, she moved for the fifth time in five years to follow my father to another job. She was pregnant. I was two. That was the year my friend’s mother would move from Mexico City to Miami, where she would divorce her husband and raise two children alone.
“Apparently.” I make a comparison to help us feel better: “Except for husbands and children, our mothers’ lives looked like this too.”
I have planted a garden. I have harvested rhubarb, herbs and radishes. The rest of my seeds are start-sized, tender.
Here is where I stirred pots, moved pens, read poems, all without boyfriend or husband or children. I was lonely here, happy here, caught between cabin fever and deep peace. Here is where, as my neighbor once said, I was my own man.
lady (n.) c.1200, lafdi, lavede, from Old English hlæfdige “mistress of a household, wife of a lord,” literally “one who kneads bread,” from hlaf “bread” (see loaf) + -dige “maid,” related to dæge “maker of dough.”
— The Online Etymological Dictionary
(Sylvia) Plath’s early defender, A Alvarez, did not initially recognize the poet he had published because she looked “like a young woman in a cookery advertisement”; he felt that housewifery ‘effaced’ her true self.
— Marsha Bryant, “Ariel’s Kitchen: Plath, Ladies’ Home Journal, and the Domestic Surreal”
Sugar can cure everything, so Kindness says.
Sugar is a necessary fluid,
Its crystals a little poultice.
–Sylvia Plath, “Kindness”
I’m automatically on his side about Sylvia Plath. When I knew her, it was during her most writing-for-Mademoiselle-ish days, and she had bobby socks and totally artificial bright red lips and totally artificial bright blond hair, and I remember her as a made-up creature with no central reality to her at all, always uttering advice like a woman’s magazine advice column. She wrote beautiful words, but there wasn’t anybody inside there.
— A.S. Byatt
I must say that I am not very genteel and I feel that gentility has a stranglehold: the neatness, the wonderful tidiness, which is so evident everywhere in England is perhaps more dangerous than it would appear on the surface.
— Sylvia Plath, 1962 interview with Peter Orr
Sylvia Plath loved to cook. In the A&E biography, Kate Moses tells us, “She out-Martha’d Martha Stewart.” In “Lucent Figs and Suave Veal Chops: Sylvia Plath and Food,” Lynda K Bundtzen writes, “While on their Cape Cod honeymoon in August 1957, [Ted] Hughes writes to his brother that though Plath is ‘the princess of cooks,’ she has cloyed his appetite with her efforts: ‘I have made a pact with Sylvia that when I don’t want cream chiffon pies & all the other fairy palace dishes it’s not because she isn’t an exquisite cook but because she cooks for relaxation while I eat only by necessity.”
My favorite quotes from her journals and interviews are her synesthetic to-do lists: “with Ted. Books & Babies & Beef Stews” or “the hurt and wonder of loving; making in all its forms—children, loaves of bread, paintings, buildings.” The hope and control of making lists to build dreams, how she lets alliteration glue the cross-purposes of her nouns into a collage of roles that did not require a choice. She could be–and was–a mother, a baker, a poet.
To picture Plath as a domestic goddess is to depict an approachable Plath. The woman who can “eat men like air” also baked pies. The woman who groans “somebody’s done for” also checked roast beef for the correct temperature and subscribed to Ladies’ Home Journal like it was a prescription, a paperbound anti-depressant. Picture a Sylvia who loved the drama of the kitchen, the gauntlet of the dining room, the triumph of a well-risen cake.
At last year’s Halloween party, a Sylvia Plath costume won best in show. The woman was dressed in a 1950’s frock, plaid and housewife-y with proper nylon tights and heels, blonde hair curled like Veronica Lake’s. She’d painted the left side of her face with hashmarks so her cheek looked lightly toasted by an oven rack.
“When she’s faced by some tedious or unpleasant piece of work she escapes into cooking,” wrote Hughes.
In “Ariel’s Kitchen” Marsha Bryant argues that unlike many feminist poets of her day, Plath’s work didn’t transcend the kitchen. Rather, it supposed that “household objects–and housewives–can become marvelous through the quotidian tasks they perform.” She writes, “The surrealist aesthetic removes household objects from the feminized domicile and places them in the transcendent, male-curated gallery.” The task of Plath’s poems was to make “the domicile…an alternative site for aesthetic display.”
In “Morning Song,” a baby’s “bald cry/Took its place among the elements” and “Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue/In a drafty museum, your nakedness/Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.” The nakedness of a baby is like the nakedness of David, the new mother like Michelangelo, new motherhood the museum that shelters creation–which feels a bit churchy with its drafty anticipation of a son. The mood is hardly gushy. It’s detached. Unnerving. The baby’s cry isn’t the screech of a helpless thing, but a powerful music that transforms his parents into the institutional walls that frame him. He is revered, untouchable. As awesome as art.
In “Kindness,” Kindness glides through the room like a ghost or vacuum cleaner, flashy with jewels like a Disney sorceress. She’s impenetrably nice, autocratically kind. “The blood jet is poetry,” Plath writes at the end, in a line that feels melodramatic only if you insist on reading the poem through the lens of her biography. Without her suicide, a blood jet is vital, poetry the reddest thing in the room. “There is no stopping it.” Until: “You hand me two children, two roses.” The poem ends in stalemate: children and flowers crowd out blood and poems, but on the next page–another poem. A whole book of them, called Ariel.
Mother/wife/woman-hood vs. Poetry wasn’t a new “versus” when Plath wrote, and it isn’t one she put to rest. In her time, she engaged that conflict by using gloss to attack gloss, by becoming a Madmoiselle-ish beauty who won poetry contests, a housewife who taught at Smith, a mother who won Fulbrights and made fairy palace dishes–and by destroying an appearance of superwomanhood with her suicide. The Ariel poems are subversive because they didn’t leave the home and yet aren’t convenient, easily packaged, sellable, or comforting. Within their kitchen, Plath is priestess and hostess, goddess and mother, cook and child, wretch and witch.
I might call Plath a literary hero, but I don’t call her a role model. I would never wear a “WWSPD” bracelet. For me, a woman hungry for models, this makes the tragedy of her death a personal matter.
“Wintering” is the last poem in the version of Ariel Plath left on her desk before locking her sleeping children in their bedroom and gassing herself in the oven. In 1965, Hughes published a reordered manuscript that portentously ends with “Edge” (“The woman is perfected./Her dead//Body wears the smile of accomplishment”) and “Words” (“Words dry and riderless,/The indefatigable, hoof-taps./While/From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars/govern a life”). The morbid fate implied by this version’s final poems wasn’t the only reason many readers feasted on Plath’s biography at the expense of her artistry, but it didn’t help.
In 2005, the publication of Plath’s version of Ariel gave the poet her final words back:
Winter is for women–
The woman, still at her knitting,
At the cradle of Spanish walnut,
Her body a bulb in the cold and too dumb to think.
Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas
Succeed in banking their fires
To enter another year?
What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?
The bees are flying. They taste the spring.
For me, the real issues of our time are the issues of every time—the hurt and wonder of loving; making in all its forms—children, loaves of bread, paintings, buildings; and the conservation of life of all people in all places.
–Journals, Sylvia Plath
I’m on a bus from Portland to the almost empty Seattle apartment I need to mop, sweep, and lock up for good. A friend has shared his seat with me. We can’t even cross the Columbia River bridge before I tell him everything, my fears. We talk about this essay, my editor, my book. I know what I don’t want to write (that sweet little book). The delta between subversive and feminist is murky. I say I’m afraid of being “just” a pie lady, a woman whose value is set by what she brings to the party. He looks at me like he’s about to tell a secret.
“I hate to break it to you Kate, but when I see you, I see you.”
He wants to know what I mean by subversive.
“Besides not sweet?”
“Do you mean, like, dominatrix pie?” he asks.
“No. That’s been done.”
“‘Feminist’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘subversive,’” he says. Parts of mainstream culture, media, and the marketplace are now feminist. Retro fashions and hip irony make it hard to mistake me for a housewife when I wear a housewife’s dress. A good thing, we agree, that doesn’t help me define my project.
“Will it be a manifesto?”
“Parts of it, maybe,” I say. “In the end, regardless of whatever I write to frame the recipes, I need to make a cookbook. Something people can use.”
Sylvia Plath used her life and its domestic trappings to raise the stakes of a well-made poem. She used her stove as refuge and exit. My kitchen table was the steady surface that supported all my dinners, all my poems. Sitting day after day at my site of practice, I learned how to be an artist.
And yet. I still wonder about sweetness. Whether art that starts in the kitchen will be taken seriously.
Pie draws its power from domesticity, a realm whose cliches say the spheres of women are nice as, easy as, American as–even though we know it’s much more complicated than that, even though we know better.
When I said I didn’t want to write a sweet little book about pie, I meant that internalized sexism is a cruel editor. It self-censors in ways we can’t quantify. It allows allies to speak small words with impunity. It warps the desire to please into a muzzle and twists sweetness into weakness.
To make a cookbook is to make something people can use.
People can use something better than what they’ve been getting.
I’m going to give it to them.
Outside our window, bright puffs of scotch broom are blooming on both shoulders of the interstate. Spring was unusually sunny; I’ve never seen them this thick or this yellow.
Original photo art by Kate Lebo