Mary Jo Bang is the author of seven books of poems, including Louise in Love, The Last Two Seconds, and Elegy, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her translation of Dante’s Inferno, with illustrations by Henrik Drescher, was published by Graywolf Press in 2012. She’s been the recipient of a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, and a Berlin Prize Fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin. She teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.
Here, she talks about food as part of remembrance, about keeping your beverages away from the computer, and cherries and champagne at the very end.
On her all-time favorite meal:
Surely you don’t want to know about the favorite meal I have over and over and over, in spite or because of myself (meal as perpetual motion machine, meal as a minor case of addiction). Instead, I’ll tell you about a meal I once had and would have again, if only the past were a plate on which you could arrange things exactly as they once were. One time, a very long time ago now (I was seven or eight, maybe nine), it had snowed for days—in the aftermath, my older sister (by three years) and I went sledding on a private golf course far from our house. We walked there and stayed for hours, mainly because we were having fun, but I suspect it was also because—pushing up against the possibility of frostbite, mittens snow-crusted and soaked, melted snow in our rubber boots—we dreaded the long walk home. We kept putting it off as some crushing inevitability until the late-day sky matched the register of our cold and exhaustion. I should say that that as exhausted as we were, we were also exhilarated, and we stayed that way until we got home. The day had been more perfect than any day I’d ever lived through. Far from adults in a place that had always seemed exotic when we passed it in the car, all that perfected manicured green, the chain-link fence that said, This is not for you, and never will be. I seem to recall that the snow had pushed the fence over, or a tree had fallen on it, or something that allowed access to children from near and far. For that day alone, we owned that place. There were many children there who were my sister’s age, and many who were older, but no adults. The entire golf course, as unblemished as it had appeared before from a distance, was now Edenic close up and under the thick layer of snow. The steepest hill, pounded down by hour after hour of sleds and saucers, became like glass. Speeding down it took your breath away. I felt like my sister and I, and all the children racing down (and trudging up) that slope, were doing something remarkable just by being there.
When we finally did go home, my mother, compelled by some mysterious impulse, made us donuts from scratch. I can’t imagine how the idea came to her. She deep-fried them and we ate them warm. This was not like her. She had never made donuts before, and never would again. Cooking was a chore she did dutifully and by rote, without innovation. I realize this sounds like a page out of Little House on the Prairie: the snow, the sledding, the donuts. I too don’t trust memory. I set out to say I wanted an entire meal of those donuts but now I realize I don’t even need the donuts. I simply want that sense of an extraordinary day where food serves as the signifier of a form of perfection that you only find once in a lifetime, or never. And if never, you invent it by misremembering a day that was ordinary: snow, sledding, donuts.
On what the light looks like during her favorite meal of the day:
The light looks like it will be summer forever. It looks like it will never rain, or if it rains, it will rain with the sun shining. Whatever the temperature outside, the light makes it seem like it’s warm, or only mildly cool, but never cold. The light makes it seem like cruelty doesn’t exist. And that no one ever goes to bed hungry.
On snacking while writing:
Be very careful not to put any liquid near your keyboard. If I bring a beverage (usually tea) into my study, I never put the glass on my desk. I put it on a shelf next to my desk and when I want a drink, I get up and go over to where I put it. That solves the problem of sitting at the computer and never getting up (bad for you) and the problem of spilling liquid on your keyboard (bad for your computer). If I’m not working at my computer, I might make popcorn. I make it in a covered pan with grape seed oil. And I eat it with salt and no butter and while I eat it, I stand at the kitchen counter and read. Sometimes there is daylight in the kitchen window, sometimes there isn’t. When there is no daylight in the window, it’s night. Day or night, I’m always writing, even when I’m not.
On her go-to late-night snack:
Late night snack: see above. See a glass of red wine in the study, on a shelf, not next to the computer. See me getting up from the computer. See me taking the glass of wine into the kitchen and making popcorn. Then see me standing at the kitchen counter eating the popcorn and drinking the wine and reading a book. See me washing the pan I popped the corn in. See me washing the glass. See me looking out the window at the nighttime. It’s very dark.
On her food quirks:
Food quirks: I don’t like gnocchi. I think it’s like eating leftover 1960’s Wonderbread that was rolled between someone’s fingers. Ugh. I don’t like dry polenta, although creamy polenta is fine. I don’t like tofu unless it’s deep-fried or hidden in corn pudding. I don’t like to think about eating raw fish, or stewed dog, or raw or cooked horsemeat. I no longer eat rabbit. When I was growing up, my step-father used to go hunting and bring home squirrels, which my mother would dip in egg and flour and deep-fry as if she were frying chicken. Sometimes there would be lead shot pellets in the meat. I would never eat a squirrel now. If I see one now, I call it Mister Frisky and say I’m sorry for the past.
On her final meal request:
For my final meal, which I am having at home, I want a large (4.75 oz.) package of Marich™ milk chocolate cherries (“Perfectly ripe, sweet cherries celebrate their naturally delicious flavor under several layers of creamy milk chocolate”—online ad copy). And homemade vanilla ice cream. And a glass of Veuve Clicquot™. And cold water, no ice. I want my best friends there. They know who they are.