Kiki Petrosino is the author of four books of poetry: White Blood: a Lyric of Virginia (2020), Witch Wife (2017), Hymn for the Black Terrific (2013) and Fort Red Border (2009), all from Sarabande Books. She holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Her poems and essays have appeared in Poetry, Best American Poetry, The Nation, The New York Times, FENCE, Gulf Coast, Jubilat, Tin House and on-line at Ploughshares. She teaches at the University of Virginia as a Professor of Poetry. Petrosino is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Fellowship in Creative Writing from the National Endowment for the Arts, and an Al Smith Fellowship Award from the Kentucky Arts Council.
Here, she talks about deconstructing layer cakes, extravagantly seasoned potato chips, and the thrill of food smells while eating outside.
On her all-time favorite meal:
When my husband and I first began dating, we would spend a lot of our time in his Iowa City apartment, which took up the entire second floor of a house on the redundantly, but awesomely, named Iowa Avenue. He had a wonderful kitchen full of luxuriant house plants and old-fashioned wooden spice racks, and this strange little oven about a third the size of a standard one. In that oven, there was just enough room to bake a pizza composed of tortillas, tomato sauce, and cheese, all sourced from the local Co Op grocery store. We would layer two tortillas with shredded mozzarella to make a double crust, then add sauce and more cheese to the top. Sometimes we’d have a few sliced red onions on hand, a couple of fresh spinach leaves, or some salty black kalamata olives, but most of the time it was just cheese. We would watch episodes of Hell’s Kitchen on TV (I mean the new episode from that week—this was before you could really stream entire seasons of things). Sometimes we would borrow DVDs from the public library to watch over dinner. I saw Stop Making Sense for the first time in that apartment, and The Salt Men of Tibet. We would borrow the same DVDs multiple times and just watch things over and over. It felt like living in a tree house, with the kitchen window overlooking the lower roofline of the house and these tiny, piping hot pizzas emerging from the oven, just for us.
On what the light looks like during her favorite meal of the day:
The sun is just starting to set. It’s definitely dinner; ideally, a dinner that’s continuing from happy hour. We’re all seated outside on a summer evening in a piazza or on an interesting street somewhere in the world. There are cocktails and fresh oysters on beds of ice; or there are big baskets of tortilla chips and fresh salsa on the table. We can smell the meal to come—there’s a window open to the kitchen, and someone has just started toasting spices in a hot pan, or there’s a smoker outside roasting something. Food smells are so thrilling when you’re outside. Growing up, my parents didn’t like to eat alfresco, and honestly, I agree most of the time (bugs, humidity, rain, etc.), but there are some evenings, just at the start of summer, when you’re on vacation and celebrating, when the restaurant patio is strung with twinkling lights and you can have all sorts of different colored olives in tiny bowls. It’s perfect, then.
On snacking while writing:
I like having Kirkland Signature Peanut Butter Pretzel Nuggets on hand while writing. They’re just as amazing as they sound: salted pretzel shells filled with a thumbful of smooth peanut butter. I buy them in these massive, rattling plastic barrels from Costco and eat them twelve little pieces at a time. Many years ago, when I lived in Switzerland, I bought a set of four ceramic wine cups of the type families use for casual meals there. The cups are stemless, small, painted white, and decorated with twin red and blue stripes (the colors of Ticino, where I lived). For a while in graduate school, fancying myself a continental hostess, I served my friends wine in these little cups, trying to capture what I missed about that previous life. But in the U.S., people expect glasses at a dinner party, even a grad school party requires a Solo cup, a mason jar or a mug. It’s weird to insist people drink out of these thick little bowls, and eventually I stopped pressing the point. Later, I broke one of the cups, so now I only have three—not enough for a dinner party anyway. With time, they’ve turned into snack bowls, and this is how I enjoy my pretzel nuggets. I count twelve pretzels into one of my special wine cups from another world, place the cup on a coaster, and open my laptop to write.
On her go-to late-night snack:
Utz Barbeque Potato Chips are my ur-snack, and probably my doom. I can’t keep them in the house, and it’s been this way since childhood. My years in Europe and the American Midwest kept me well out of the Utz distribution radius, but now I’m back on the east coast and there are Utz potato chips in every grocery store. I love the “Barbeque” variety because the seasoning is so extravagant: salty, sharp from horseradish and tomato powder, sweet from sugar and smoke flavoring. I just looked up the ingredients and they don’t sound appetizing at all, but for some reason these chips are magical. I remember my parents serving these chips for family dinners; they would line a basket with paper napkins and by the end, the napkins were orange but every last chip would be gone. Even now, when I reach into the bag, each chip emerges dredged with seasoning, and so deeply, surreally red, gold, orange, like a coin from a dream that should be able to buy you something you want very much. In my case, what I want very much are more Utz Barbeque potato chips.
On her food quirks:
I love to eat a slice of layer cake, cake-first. I always leave the frosting for last, and I always eat the frosting. This deconstructed technique is, of course, completely inappropriate and cannot be done in front of company or in public. As a kid, I was once “grounded” from cake for eating it this way. This was a hardship. We nearly always had frosted cake in the house because my mother had a small side-business baking for restaurants and weddings. I emerged from my punishment still dedicated to my cake eating method, but it’s just for home. Eating the frosting separately allows me to appreciate it all the more. I’ve noticed many people eat around it, or they just nibble the sides, leaving the whole back ridge of frosting on the plate. It occurs to me that frosting is, maybe, too sweet for most people, that no one wants a whole mouthful, that cakes are frosted mostly for visual appeal, that you’re not really meant to finish all the frosting on a given slice. But: I love frosting. I’m not leaving it behind.
On her final meal request:
In this summer of division, violence, and death around the world, I’m afraid I just don’t want to think about final meals. Instead, I’ll imagine the first meal back with my family and friends. We’re outside, but miraculously, there are no bugs to nip at us. There’s a vegetarian taco bar for my nieces and nephew. There’s wood-fired pizza for my husband. My mother and I are dressing a huge Greek salad in a blue glass bowl. My sister and my brother-in-law have brought a cake (with frosting) & somehow the cake stays cool even though it’s on the picnic table outside. We’re planning visits to Historic Williamsburg, Hershey Park, the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire. It’s going to be a massive road trip. As we talk, friends stop by from all the places my husband and I have lived: Italy, England, Switzerland, India, Topeka, Chicago, Baltimore, Iowa, Kentucky. We tell stories about past meals, and I remember the outdoor seafood place my teacher friends and I found on the other side of Lake Lugano after we rented a boat for the day with just our American driver’s licenses. Back then, we didn’t want to know where we were going. We just climbed into the boat, fired up the motor and pointed ourselves towards any distant glint of shore that looked like gold.