By Christine Swanberg
Author and Poet
As the summer season gives way to the harvest season, the tomatoes, peppers and herbs have finally come to fruition. My family is famous for Italian salad. For those of us who grew up in Italian families, succulent salads were a way of life. Recipes weren’t needed.
Conjuring up a great salad was an act of improvisation. My brother-in-law, unaccustomed to the caprice of salads, was so taken by a salad I made up on the spur of the moment that he coined the phrase that began this salad poem. I have often wondered if he meant “organic,” but it’s funnier his way. Here’s a poem to celebrate harvest and food.
Aunt Christine’s Orgasmic Salad
Begin with anticipation, curiosity,
And a herb garden. Be sure to first honor
The birds with your attention, always
Giving thanks for the day’s abundanza.
Then snip the tender sprigs of chives,
Lemon-sage, plum basil, Greek oregano—
Anything whose scent sends you back to Sienna,
Samos, or your grandmother’s kitchen.
Place the herbs in your trusty collander
In the sink beneath the window, where you
Can feel the sun, hear the rain, remembering
Always their contrapuntal necessities.
Spray the sprigs with ice-cold water,
Inhaling the deep green of fresh things.
Add whatever lettuce is in season—
Even iceberg if it’s crisp and pale yellow
For no matter what they say, you need
Not be a snob regarding lettuce.
Tomatoes are another matter. Only fresh
And sweet will do. Do not be hothouse tempted.
Remember how we love the sweet crescents
Of purple onion for there is something
In their pungence that makes us feel more alive.
Eschew not the crisp, sparkling peppers
With their Frido Khalo flambouyance.
Dare to complicate with a good avocado,
A wedge of gorgonzola, a dash of fresh romano.
Consider chopped artichokes, hearts of palm—
Those succulent gypsies dancing in a circle.
Build to a crunch climax: a splash of cashews,
Almonds, sesame seeds. For flare, slivered dates.
The secret is to be spontaneous
And be sure to use a large, open bowl,
Salad tongs with a history,
Olive oil and balsamic vinegar (3 to 1).
Go lightly on the tender spears and leaves
For a salad’s not made for puckering.
There’s enough that’s sour in the world
To go around. Toss—and toss with gusto
Until every leaf shines and shouts Eat me!
Go easy on the salt
For salt is like a well-meaning friend
Who sometimes spins off into dominant,
Entitled, and overbearing. Instead,
Let the potpourri of vegetables and herbs
Construct their own new identity,
Like none before—a poem that gathers steam
Rushing toward its marvelous epiphany.
Be sure to include zest, whatever
Big-hearted gesture draws you always
Toward the zen of cooking, joy of flavorful
Munching. The ultimate relaxation.
From the September 2-8, 2009 issue