Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Big Night Menu: Geoffrey Gatza Talks Food & Poetry

In September 2009, the literary center Just Buffalo inaugurated the Big Night series which features “poetry, food, music, visual art, film, video & whatever else we can think of.” Mike Kelleher & Aaron Lowinger curate the monthly series, & Geoffrey Gatza prepares the food.

I got a chance to ask Gatza some questions about the culinary side of things following last week’s event.

Kaplan Harris: Whose idea was it to feature a buffet of fine food for Just Buffalo's Big Night series?

Geoffrey Gatza: Michael Kelleher, the artistic director for Just Buffalo, approached me with the idea. He wanted to expand the idea for a literary reading into a multi-art event. Big Night happens in the WNY Book Arts gallery hosting two literary readings and a film or music performance. The addition of food makes it into a wonderful gathering for everyone.

I am a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and have worked with food for 25 years. In the past two years I have been working solely at BlazeVOX [books] and this left a real void in my life. I missed restaurant work and there is no real reason to cook for 100 people if one doesn’t have to. So Mike gave me a budget of one hundred dollars that must feed about 75 people. Which may sound impossible, but that is part of the challenge. I do not get paid for my work on this and we have the indefatigable help of Donna White and Lori Desormeaux.

This is the most wonderful form of food art I could do. In every other event or circumstance a professional cook has very little to do with the absolute creativity of the menu. For the most part, I have full control of the menu and it is normally not fully set until a few hours before the event. We buy what we can and make what seems best to fit those ingredients. And it is wonderful because the Big Night audience is very open to trying new dishes. I am very lucky we are able to do this with all this kind support.

KH: Do you know of any other reading series to feature a regular dinner menu? Any precedents?

GG: Honestly I do not know first hand of any such thing, but David Meltzer was kind enough to tell me of similar events happening in San Francisco / Berkley areas over the years. It is certainly effective in getting people to come out to an event, and when there have a good time. I think this happens because poetry readings can be dreadful, if not outright deadly. And the addition of food makes the it less of lecture and more into a performance where the audience feels they can get up, move around and mingle.

In my past I have done similar settings for book launch parties in Buffalo. The success of that gave Mike the confidence that this could be a regular event. But I also work with food as a medium to connect people and poets together. One way is the annual Thanksgiving menu poem. Each year I make up a conceptual poem menu for Thanksgiving, as if I could invite as many poets as I could to honor one poet. I make a menu and have poems in the place for the courses. And in 2008 I had Anne Waldman as the guest of honor using actual recipes I created for her at this breakfast. It was great fun all around. This year is for C. D. Wright and the following year, David Shapiro.

Here is a link to the Thanksgiving menu page.

KH: For Linh Dinh's reading, (which also
featured media performance by Al Larsen & fiction by Ken Sparling), you prepared a cheese dip in homage to his latest book, Some Kind of Cheese Orgy. How do you decide to match a menu to the poet or poets? What did you serve for prior Big Night readers?

GG: Luckily I have been very familiar with the work of the poets we have hosted for the Big Night event. I always try to find a way to make a blend of the food to the writers work. The cheese orgy yuck was presentation piece and the food was a bit subtler in technique. Linn Dinh’s is a working class poet who is decried as decadent in his homeland of Vietnam, and I took that to its culinary extreme. I tried to infuse Asian cuisine with western but using basic ingredients. One dish was root vegetables and apples in basil syrup, golden beet and lychee salad, barbequed pork with corn bread, and a creamy rice pudding.

Most readings, Mike provides a word or two as theme to work around. For CA Conrad’s reading, I was going to make a peanut butter, honey and banana sandwich called the Elvis, to recall his new book. But I changed my mind at the last minute, as I was afraid of people getting sticky. I did use as many bright colored vegetables I could find though. And for Simon Pettit I knew he is fond of gooseberries, or goose-gobs as he calls them, and I made a Gooseberry & D’anjou Pear Bread Pudding for him.

Here are some of the items that have appeared on the Big Night table:
Alphabet Pasta Salad With Broccoli Rabe And Shrimp
Yellow Tomatoes, Black Bean And Bacon Salad
Purple Carrots, Fennel And Dried Cranberries
Potatoes, Corn And Leek With Parsley Vinaigrette
Roast Ginger Vegetables
Golden Beets, Caramelized Fennel And Onions
Indian Spiced Chicken On A Bed Of Delicious Apples
Ginger Tapioca Pudding
Big Night Fruit Cake
Gooseberry & D’anjou Pear Bread Pudding
Cortland Apples Crumble
White Eggplants and Chickpea salad
General Geoff’s Chicken
Chicken Sausages with salt potatoes and sugar snap peas
Potato Samosas
with Mint Chutney & Madras Tomato Chutney
Baby Bok Choy & Ginger Rice
Lychee, Shitake, Apple Salad
Big Night Cornbread
Belgian Cocoa Brownies
Pear Eve’s Pudding
Yellow Tomato, Lychee, Shitake, Apple Salad
Roast Chicken Long Bean Salad with Mustard Vinaigrette
Gold And Purple Carrots and Green Beans
Roast Autumnal Vegetables in Ginger Syrup
Crimson Beets, Apple, Mushrooms and Balsamic Onions
Cinnamon Pork with Lingonberry BBQ on Field Green
Roast Chestnuts, Cranberries, Chipolini Onions and Peppers
Gooseberry and Fig Bread Pudding
Apple and Orange Blossom Honey Crisp
Roast Autumnal Vegetables With Rosemary And Thyme
Curried Potato Salad
Golden Beets, Caramelized Fennel And Leeks
Pear Tomatoes, Yellow Peppers And Orzo, Lemon Garlic Vinaigrette
Carrots, Parsnips And Chipolini Onions With Pickled Ginger
Asian Pears And Cranberries California Tart
New York State Macoun Apple And Bosc Pear Crisp
Watermelon Squares And Pomegranate In Spice Syrup

KH: Where do you shop for food in the dead of winter in Buffalo?

GG: I shop at these stores for the Big Night food. Guercio is a wonderful old style food market that is a hidden gem in our town. They supply restaurants so they always have a great selection of produce and hard to find items. Best of all, the prices are very nice. Super Bazaar and Ni Hoowa are the real deal when it comes to getting authentic Indian and Asian food. And, Budway markets are a nice alternative to large supermarkets. They have the best butchery around. The prices are great and the quality is very good. They also make wonderful sausages, which is a hard to find anymore.

Guercio & Sons Inc
250 Grant Street
Buffalo, NY 14213-1421
(716) 882-7935

Super Bazaar (Indian Food Market)
3218 Sheridan Drive
Amherst, NY 14226-1907
(716) 835-4770

Ni Hoowa Supermarket (Asian Food Market)
3175 Sheridan Drive
Amherst, NY 14226-1909
(716) 834-4315

Budwey's Kenmore Supermarket
416 Kenmore Avenue
Buffalo, NY 14223

KH: Can you tell me about your current writing project that involves food?

GG: I am currently working on a book-length children’s prose poem entitled Desserts Around the World. Once I realized that everyone in the world eats dessert, I began researching desserts and recipes and it was true, everywhere people live, they enjoy some form of dessert. The theme for the whole work is that people are the same all over, only very different. I am using the capitals of the world, a traditional dessert and a person with whom I am sharing the dessert as touchstones. It seems a wonderful vehicle to talk about the world’s people and countries using something everyone can agree on, sweets.

(Pictured above: Linh Dinh, Aaron Lowinger, & Geoffrey Gatza)


Kaplan Harris is guest blogging on Tuesdays in January & February. His work appears in American Literature, Artvoice, Contemporary Literature, the EPC, Jacket, and The Poetry Project Newsletter. He is also editing, with Peter Baker & Rod Smith, The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley for the University of California Press. He lives in Buffalo.


Lemon Hound said...

Um, how can I get an invite? I think that's what most people are thinking...

Nick said...

Yeah, great looking spread. And a fun post. I just finished reading Linh Dinh's Blood & Soap the other week and loved it. Appreciate the head's up on his new book as well.

Russell said...

I really don't want to screw up your new book, but I thought I had to tell you anyway that I don't eat dessert Geoffrey

-kaplan said...

Sina, maybe a care package? Or you could always come to Buffalo. (My vote for the latter.)

Thanks, Nick. I love that book & his others too. Last year I even taught a seminar "Borderless Bodies" (based on his book title) & thus made the last 100 years of writing culminate with Linh Dinh.

Well, Russell. Not sure what to say. I mean, lots of essentialist definitions of the "human" are really ways of excluding one group or another. So I guess there are worse ways of excluding someone from humanity than based on an aversion to dessert. :-)

nikki reimer said...

Wow. All kinds of delicious. Thanks for this post....now I'm hungry.

Kent Johnson said...

This is great to see. Geoffrey Gatza is a living American poetry treasure.

I also think he may be the sweetest person, in person, of any poet I've met. He's also astonishingly generous, a quality not necessarily in surfeit within the field: His work, most of it, is devoted to others, without request or expectation of recompense.

He has two cats, many culinary utensils, and a smoking addiction.

When you are with him, he talks and talks and smokes and smokes, and it's never obnoxious, it's just pleasant.