Commentary, Line Cook

A Special Pre-AWP Edition of Line Cook: Camille Dungy and Cherry-Ricotta Cake

by Keetje Kuipers | Senior Editor

Line Cook is a regular feature that pairs an episode of a poetry podcast with a delicious recipe.

When I was nine years old, my family moved from Minnesota to California. The state was a revelation. I had never seen trees so big. There were swimming pools everywhere—they were old and cracked and flaking chunks of tile, but still so much more pool-like than those aboveground bathtubs perched on humid lawns across the Midwest. No one in my new state had a basement, the strange oak trees never lost their leaves, and the food—well, the food was incredible.

My mother had always been a passionate cook, our dinners a mixture of hearty casseroles from the housewife archives of the small Michigan town where she’d grown up interspersed with recipes for stews and braises she’d acquired while hippy-hitchhiking through Europe in her twenties. But I’m not sure she or my father had ever eaten an avocado or calamari. They’d certainly never had sushi or Korean barbecue or fragrant Afghani skewers. Everywhere we’d lived, they’d kept a garden full of carrots and peas, but in California a kumquat tree grew in the backyard of the house we rented, and out by the driveway the neighbor’s plums dropped over the fence in a pungent mess of rotted excess I longed to lick from the asphalt. We had moved to Eden, and we planned to eat like it.


This year’s AWP conference is being held in a food lover’s paradise, one emblematic of culinary trends that have been sweeping across the country for the past decade. Local, fresh, sustainable, and organic foods are being combined in ways that make the most of the wide variety of ingredients and global cuisines that are now available to many American diners and home cooks. After all, I can buy sushi, organic hummus, and local blueberries at the grocery store in the small Michigan town where my parents used to pick up a loaf of Wonder Bread. But although it’s no longer necessary to move to the West Coast in order to experience the kind of food nirvana my family encountered for the first time in the 1980’s, it’s still worth the trip, especially if your final destination is Chef Sarah Schneider’s table at the Nightwood in Portland, Oregon.

Schneider, too, grew up in California, where she has memories of eating abalone and Dungeness crabs caught by her neighbors. “We went to farmer’s markets, we ate tomatoes, we grew tomatoes. We lived off of fresh produce all the time, and I didn’t know that wasn’t a normal thing until later in life.” Her grandfather still lives on six acres of avocado trees in Santa Barbara, and she can recall driving down the coast from San Francisco with her family to fill black garbage bags with the oblong fruit. “I lived off of them in college instead of ramen.”

Now Schneider is the chef—or ‘Kitchen Queen,’ as her compatriots call her—at the Nightwood Society, an all-female identified collective of food lovers and makers. Their collaborative event space, named after the famous novel by Djuna Barnes, is located in the Sullivan’s Gulch neighborhood just a stone’s throw from the Oregon Convention Center. Though she was a vegetarian for years, Schneider’s kitchen pedigree includes not only stints cooking in some of the top restaurants in the country, but also expertise as a whole-animal butcher, which she learned while apprenticing at Marlow & Daughters in Williamsburg, Brooklyn—a fitting calling for a woman whose Jewish nana taught her how to make schmaltz. After culinary school, Schneider says, “I began to really appreciate farmers, and the importance of not just sustainability, but forming that kind of community. It became part of my being to work locally, and I chose to become a butcher. I got to go to all the farms and see how the animals were treated and learn about the agriculture. And then I can be honest about the food I’m making.”

Schneider plans to bring this honesty to the kitchen for the 60th anniversary bash Poetry Northwest will be holding at the Nightwood on the evening of Friday, March 29th. Our once-little magazine, founded in 1959 by four co-editors, including Richard Hugo and Carolyn Kizer—who remains our magazine’s spiritual compass in perpetuity—has grown into one of the oldest and most venerable poetry-only publications in the country. To celebrate that Northwest legacy, Chef Sarah Schneider will be serving cured steelhead, house made sausage, roasted radishes, and leg of lamb—all thoughtfully sourced and prepared with those happy food vibes that Portland is known for.


But Schneider and I won’t be the only California-raised women lifting a glass to poetry and sustainable dinner fare that night. Camille Dungy, who grew up in Irvine, California, has just joined our line-up of readers, and she brings a love of the West Coast, the natural world, and sustainability with her (not to mention a throaty laugh I cherish and hope to hear many times over the course of the evening). This year not only marks sixty years of Poetry Northwest, but is also the tenth anniversary of the publication of the groundbreaking anthology Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, which Dungy edited. As she notes in a recent essay in The Georgia Review, the anthology came as a surprise to many readers and writers. “In the general public perception of black writers, the idea that we can write out of a deep connection to the environment—and have done so for at least four centuries—came, and I think still comes, as a shock.”

As anyone who’s read the anthology can tell you, the breadth of the poems is astonishing in what it reveals about the diverse history and vibrant present of ecopoetics. As Dungy remarks in another essay in The Volta, “Like the newly photographed deep-sea chimaera that evolved independently of sharks over 400 millions years ago, these [African American nature poets] have been around all along, but we’re only just figuring out how to see them.” Indeed, some of the contemporary poets Dungy chose to include in the anthology were taken aback when she first approached them for work, as no one had ever before invited them to consider their poems—which often did not follow what Dungy calls the “placid and pastoral tradition”—to be nature poems. As she notes, “Given a history of race-related violence, geographic displacement, and dehumanization, is it any wonder Black poets’ treatments of the natural world are often colored by skepticism and anxiety? In so much of our work there is no place for a peaceful walk through the woods… [But as] we advance our view of what it means to interact with the natural world… there will be more room for nature poetry that might be viewed as politically-charged, historically-based, culturally-engaged, and potentially antagonistic.”

Dungy herself is a formidable poet of the natural world, blending the concerns of motherhood, climate change, the body, and race with an attention to the plants and animals that surround her. And I was reminded of how skillfully she negotiates these intertwining elements while listening to her in conversation over at the Generation Anthropocene podcast. Turning the same astute editorial eye that curated Black Nature onto her own work, she remarks, “I wasn’t particularly interested in poems that separated human involvement, because never have I understood my ability to move through an environment as something that could be entirely pristine and could be entirely separate from history, culture, my position in society.” One of these “de-pristined” poems, as she calls them, that I most admire is “On the rocks,” which appeared in an issue of Cave Wall, another one of my favorite poetry-only publications. Since then, Dungy has published two more collections of poems (bringing the grand total to four), including, most recently, Trophic Cascade, which shows Dungy at the top of her form as a poet, as well as the devastating collection of essays, Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History.

Food, like the earth it comes from, is a story to which we all belong

What does all this have to do with food? Everything. In an essay for Emergence Magazine, Dungy describes preparing to plant Cherokee pole beans descended from a line of seeds carried on the Trail of Tears. “There is power to be generated from cultivating whatever might sustain me, in whatever way I wish.” Food, like the earth it comes from, is a story to which we all belong, and its rich and varied traditions cannot be claimed by only one subset of the American population. Whether simmering black-eyed peas in Alabama, shucking geoducks in the Puget Sound, or preparing kuy teav Phnom Penh in Pennsylvania, the pride of tradition and the joy of discovery we experience while cooking and eating together is a kind of belonging we each deserve regardless of race, immigration status, (dis)ability, or gender identity. Just as any poet might find a way to write about a tree—whether as an ode or an exploration of historical terror, or perhaps, at its most complicated, the place where the two meet—we should all be welcome at the table where a well-loved and cherished meal awaits us.

One of my fondest memories of Camille (and here, out of affection, I must refer to her by her first name) is eating lunch at her house with her husband and small daughter. We spoke of food that day in her sunlit kitchen, and we spoke of it again a few years later when I was pregnant with my daughter and suffering the effects of morning sickness. “Stone fruit,” Camille prescribed without hesitation. Which is only part of the reason that her poem “Against Nostalgia,” from her collection Trophic Cascade, is one that I return to whenever I feel most uprooted and untethered from those landscapes and foods that usually make me feel safe, even loved.


A couple of weeks ago the Seattle area was hit with a series of severe snow days, which, depending on your age, either came as a welcome respite from the monotony of spelling tests or as a sure sign of climate change and the end times. Stuck at home and unnerved by the unusual weather, I pulled a bag of pie cherries, picked six months ago from the two small trees in my parents’ front yard in Montana, out of the freezer to bake them into the firm batter of a ricotta cake. Because seasons. Because memory. Because home. Because of what it means to grow a thing and cook it and make its body your own. This recipe calls for raspberries, but you can really use any sliced stone fruit or whole berries, fresh or frozen, that might remind you of your own childhood summers. Just be sure you’re listening to Camille Dungy’s insightful words (and to that beautiful laugh I’d recognize anywhere) while you’re whipping it up.

And, most importantly, don’t forget your tickets to the big night at Nightwood. On Friday, March 29th, our AWP offsite event will celebrate 60 years of Poetry Northwest. In addition to incredible food from Chef Sarah Schneider, your ticket includes wine or beer, music performed by poet Ed Skoog’s bluegrass band, brief poetic interludes from the likes of Camille Dungy, and a limited edition set of commemorative mini-broadsides from Expedition Press. Our friends from BOA Editions and the University of British Columbia’s MFA Program will be there to help us celebrate—and we’d love to see you there, too. Buy your ticket and put a note on your calendar to come spend an evening celebrating literary and culinary bounty with us.


In the meantime, if you need to consume more of Camille’s thoughtful essays and interviews on the intersection of ecopoetics, social justice, race, and regionalism while the sweet smell of baking fruit fills your home—and I’d dare to ask, who among us doesn’t?—start here:

Poetic Justice,” an interview in The Sun

Also a Kind of Love,” an interview in 32poems

Letter to America,” an essay in

Snow Beyond Winter,” an essay in Still Harbor