Nicky Beer is the author of The Octopus Game and The Diminishing House, both winners of the Colorado Book Award for Poetry. She is an associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver, where she serves as a poetry editor for the literary journal Copper Nickel.
Here she talks about a very special splurge meal during her time in grad school, the siren song of homemade ice cream, an affinity for offal, and her final meal with Elizabeth Bishop.
On her all-time favorite meal:
There are so many ways to consider this question—favorite home-cooked meal, favorite fine-dining meal, favorite junk food meal, favorite childhood meal, etc.—but I find myself thinking of when my husband and I were in grad school in Houston, in the first years of our relationship. We never had much money to spare, and our dinners usually consisted of rice and beans, boxed mac-and-cheese, cheap takeout, etc. But once in a while we could scrape together enough for a treat, and Goode Company Seafood, part of the local barbecue empire, was one of the places we’d go. The air around the building was redolent with mesquite smoke, which always kicked my hunger up ferociously while still in the parking lot.
I’d start scarfing down the oyster crackers in their cellophane bags as soon as we were seated. We’d order a dozen Gulf oysters and two large bowls of seafood gumbo, all which we could get for some scandalously low price—I think the gumbo was less than ten bucks back then. I loved how ceremonious the presentation of the oysters was, coming in a deep tray that’s grown to the size of a hubcap in my memory, spiked with two fastidious-looking little forks flanked with cups of horseradish and cocktail sauce. While the oysters didn’t have the dainty subtlety of the northern varieties that I would encounter later in life, they were cheerfully meaty, greeting you with big, fat, pearlescent faces. The gumbo was a comforting puddle of brown from which the curved, pink backs of crawfish would peek, and came with two generous hunks of garlic bread, handy for mopping out the bottom of the broad bowl. It was rich, spicy, and filling, and we’d be groaning with happy discomfort at the meal’s end. And so we’d stagger out, gently belching up shellfish, satiated and sappily in love.
On what the light looks like during her favorite meal of the day:
It depends on the season, so I’ll go with dinner in the summertime. Let’s say that my husband and I are out in our backyard, under our pergola, where the clematis we’ve planted has gained a good six vertical feet since last season. The sun has nearly set, but there’s till enough illumination coming in to backlight the silhouettes of the neighborhood trees. He’s just taken the trout off of the grill, which he’s smoked with applewood chips. There’s either grilled veg on the side drizzled with balsamic, or I’ve tossed Tuscan kale in a Caesar dressing. The two wedges of lemon on each plate are part of the light, too, as is their smell. The glasses of sauvignon blanc or rosé catch the dusklight, and I like that even the most modestly-priced wine (anything too nice is wasted on us) in the cheapest glasses (the only kind we’ll ever get) can look luxurious under these conditions. And the oiliness of the fish and the brightness of the acids mix in our mouths and become another part of that light, and then the dog, sleek and black and pure laziness, sighs and rolls over on his side in the grass, and that becomes part of the light as well.
On snacking while writing:
I don’t, mostly because when I’m really into something I’m working on, it’s like my head is submerged, and I don’t notice that I’m hungry until I pull out of it. Then I might grab a handful of the nut mix I get in bulk from Whole Foods (“Cape Cod,” because it’s got dried cranberries) and keep in a Tupperware in the snack cupboard, where it resides in its wholesome virtuousness alongside the salt and vinegar potato chips and little boxes of Meiji Apollo Strawberry Chocolate, which taste exactly like chocolate-covered strawberries and represent the latest expansion of my sweet tooth.
On her go-to late-night snack:
I never really thought about this before, but I really don’t do a lot of late night snacking. And I’m certainly not abstemious when it comes to snacking—it’s just that late night isn’t really prime snacking time for me. However, I will say that when I’ve got homemade ice cream in the freezer, I’ll usually dip into it before I go to bed, regardless of how much I’ve already eaten of it that day. I cannot resist its siren song!
On her food quirks:
I’m mad for offal. Cheeks, tongue, liver, tripe, brains—if it’s available on the menu, chances are good that I’m eating it. Probably the most fun I’ve had eating offal was in Los Angeles at Broken Spanish, with my husband and a couple of dear friends. There was lamb’s head on the menu (it was actually half a head), and we decided to go for it. They brought the beautiful thing out on a large platter, swimming in a wonderfully unctuous tomato sauce. The eyeball reminded me of hard-boiled egg. And the best part was that waiter didn’t bat an eyelash when I asked if I could keep the half-skull—apparently they’re used to such requests. It’s now on display in my house, sporting a few indelible tomato stains.
On her final meal request:
I am going to be incredibly sneaky and pretend that the question was “What dead writer are you eating your last meal with, and where?” With this in mind, I’d like to eat my last meal with Elizabeth Bishop, in the house in Petrópolis, Brazil where she lived with her partner, Lota de Macedo Soares. She and I would make the seafood risotto served at Da Romano on the island of Burano, near Venice, partially because tastes like the souls of angels that live in the ocean and partially because the whole process would take a great deal of time. I’d crack dirty jokes to see if I could make her blush and feed the fish scraps to her toucan, Uncle Sam. Lota would be there, too, and I’d hope that she’d sass Bishop in that irreverent, intimate way that only our loved ones can. In this fantasy Bishop wouldn’t have a drinking problem, and we’d sip lemony gin cocktails flavored with rosemary and thyme on the terrace as the flavors of the broth were concentrating. While the three of us took turns stirring the risotto, we’d snack on Idiazabal cheese and fig compote. We’d start the meal proper with a big pile of Miyagi oysters, and then some sliced summer heirloom tomatoes, sprinkled lightly with coarse sea salt. Then we’d move on to the risotto, which we’d consume in absolute and reverent silence, while Billie Holiday played on a record in another room and the sounds of a brief catfight drifted in from the garden. We’d finish with caramels covered in dark chocolate (three or four each) and espresso served in egg cups, because Elizabeth would forget where the demitasses were.