Diane Seuss’s most recent collection, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, was released in 2018 by Graywolf Press. Four-Legged Girl, published in 2015 by Graywolf Press, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open won the Juniper Prize and was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2010. Seuss was raised in rural Michigan, which she continues to call home.
Here, she talks about how the best meals are whatever you eat when you’re really hungry, cucumber as ultimate late-night snack, and a “culinary fuck you” as final meal.
On her all-time favorite meal:
There are many simply good meals in my past, meaning meals that were simple and good, like watercress pulled fresh out of a slow stream and turned into a salad, with fresh lemonade. What “good” meant when I was growing up in the 60s: grilled Velveeta cheese and tomato soup from a can. Cheap pizza with mushrooms, eaten in college, stoned, paid for with change dug out of underwear drawers and scavenged in the coin laundry room. Rice-a-Roni cooked on a Coleman stove with my mom when the two of us took off for parts unknown the summer Nixon resigned and ended up tent camping on Long’s Peak in Colorado. The best meals are whatever you eat when you’re really hungry—when food isn’t guaranteed but you get it anyway, so what you taste is your good fortune seasoned with luck.
But the meal that first came to mind is one I had when I moved to New York after college. The restaurant was called Little Szechuan, a tiny jewelry box of a place, with mirrored walls and a few tables the waiters washed with hot tea. It was on Oliver St. off the Bowery. When I think of it now I remember it only in disembodied images. Whole fish with a cloudy eye on an oval plate, a man opening it up with chopsticks. I thought of it later when I first encountered Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish”: “the coarse white flesh packed in like feathers.” I was with my boyfriend, a tall, lean man from the city with licorice-colored curls. He had a complex disposition, charm married to menace. He could be tender, but he also liked to toy with me like a barn cat with a field mouse.
We ordered cold noodles with sesame paste and chicken with peanuts and hot dried chili peppers which were reanimated in the cooking. The food was like nothing I’d ever tasted back in Michigan. It was lovely, but that is almost beside the point. It matched the mood of the city at that time of my life, and it embodied the dichotomy in our relationship. It was cool but hot. Cheap but expensive. One bite did not equal one bite, as every bite was reflected fifty times over in the wall mirrors. We plopped lumps of sugar in our tea until it was oversweet, as we were oversweet on each other, the kind of sweetness that puts you in a coma. I was wearing chartreuse pants with a drawstring at the waist my boyfriend had bought from a man without legs in Afghanistan, who rolled around on a skateboard.
I didn’t know yet how to work chopsticks, so he picked up individual bites – a small wad of cold noodles, a rectangle of raw scallion, a peanut – and pressed them into my mouth. He was like a parent who liked to torment the baby by dangling morsels just outside of its reach. Toward the end of the meal, he held out one of the whole dark red chilis and pushed it toward my lips. I opened; that’s how I was back then. My mouth caught fire and he laughed, as he always did when he found a way to expose my naïveté. Soon, small blisters raised on my lips, and for days after I sucked on ice cubes to kill the heat. He wasn’t sorry. He was never sorry, especially when he was a full-on heroin addict and the drug instructed him to be cold. It was the drug that, in its coldness, killed him. I’d already left the city in order to save myself; I guess that’s what they call it. I’ll never forget the beauty and the sting of that time and place. The way it felt to kiss with wounded lips. Once the restaurant closed and they dismantled the place, like stagehands break down a theater set, I wonder what they did with all the mirrors.
On what the light looks like during her favorite meal of the day:
I’d say the sun has dropped but the sky isn’t all the way dark. It’s deep indigo, and the stars are just beginning to show themselves. They look like somebody took a hole puncher to the heavens and made a random spray of punctures so that whatever the light source is behind everything shines through.
On snacking while writing:
When I write I write. I don’t think I even drink, unless its early morning and the drink is coffee. I’d like to be a person who snacks on raw almonds and clementines with lavender honey while writing villanelles, but I am not that person.
On her go-to late-night snack:
I think the best late-night snack is a cucumber. An old family friend used to tell us kids cucumbers were poisonous. When I read in Minneapolis recently I saw a young woman eating a whole cucumber, skin-on, like an apple. So cucumber with a little salt, or green grapes off my stringy little vine out back, if the birds haven’t gotten to them yet. The kind with sour skin that gives way to a jellied sweetness, and then you hit the seeds.
On food quirks:
I am anti-food-quirks. My quirk is that I’m annoyed by people who have food quirks, who ask that their salads come “without anything from the nightshade family,” or that the bleu cheese be replaced by goat cheese, or who claim various intolerances, like a pine nut allergy. I have a pine nut allergy, but I don’t talk about it. Some things are better left unsaid.
On her final meal request:
I’ve always wondered what I’d choose for my last meal if I was about to be sent to the electric chair. It just doesn’t seem like the time for a banquet, you know? Who wants a plate of SpaghettiOs right before the big jolt? Which leaves me with something symbolic, a perfectly ripe pear, or Cheez Doodles and a Coke, like Margie Velma Barfield, who wore pink cotton pajamas to her own execution. A big culinary fuck you. If I was just regular ole dying and I still had an appetite, I guess I’d choose picnic food like the kind in cartoons—sandwich, hard boiled eggs, slice of watermelon, chocolate cake, thermos of coffee. I’d be sitting by Lake Superior with my son, my sister, and my mom, and none of us would be sad.