Raena Shirali is the author of GILT (YesYes Books, 2017), which won the 2018 Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a 2019 PEN America Writer’s Emergency Fund Grant, a 2018 VIDA scholarship, a 2017 Philip Roth Residency at Bucknell University, and a “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize in 2013. Her poems have also received prizes from Cosmonauts Avenue in 2016 and Gulf Coast in 2014. Shirali’s poems & reviews have appeared widely in American Poetry Review, Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A Day, Blackbird, Diode, The Nation, Ninth Letter, Tupelo Quarterly, West Branch, & elsewhere. She lives & teaches in Philadelphia, where she recently co-organized We (Too) Are Philly, a summer poetry festival highlighting voices of color. She also serves as Director of Pedagogy & Community Relations for Blue Stoop, a local literary hub, and is a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine.
Here, she talks about writing before eating, drenching food in hot sauce, and cooking as ritual.
On her all-time favorite meal:
My favorite meal is also my favorite cooking memory and cooking ritual. I can’t say how old I was the first time my grandmother, Ma, enlisted me to help her make aloo parathas, but I remember kneading dough as a child, sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor, and watching Ma roll the dough into balls, her fingers spinning the shapes gracefully, with the ease that comes from a lifetime of cooking. She’s the oldest of her ten siblings, so I imagine she’s hand-made hundreds of thousands of chapatis and parathas in her life.
The basic recipe for aloo parathas is: you hand-roll little balls of spiced potatoes (onions, green chilis, coriander, garam masala, etc.), place those inside of a flattened portion of dough, and fold the dough up around the potato portion to make a kind of dumpling shape. Then you carefully roll out the dough, adding flour as necessary and making sure not to split the dough open, so it makes a potato pancake. Then you cook them over the stove. It takes a gentle touch, practice, and patience to get this rhythm down, to make sure the contents are preserved in the paratha, to get the “right shape” (a circle, obviously) when rolling.
Of course, being part of the cooking process was precious to me as a child—and remains precious now, since I am admittedly not a particularly memorable cook—but the other joy of making parathas is eating them as you go. The first parathas to be roasted on the stove are then taste-tested by the hands that made them. You eat together while you cook together. I ate parathas with Ma and my mom while we worked on a little assembly line of sorts, saving the “best shaped” parathas for the rest of the family, improving the practice as the day wore on. And aloo parathas are amazing because they go with such an array of toppings. They can be served with raita, or with maple syrup (my favorite as a kid), or with chutney or pickle. They’re enhanced by both sweet and savory toppings. They’re this mutable food. Sometimes sustenance, sometimes dessert.
On what the light looks like during her favorite meal of the day:
Dusk light. Peachy light. Light that comes in big bright beams to visit a series of city windows & fades as quickly as it arrived. The first bite of a home-cooked meal after a day of whatever. It’s a grounding moment, a moment before the shift to nighttime, when lesser known & more deeply felt hungers creep in.
On snacking while writing:
I tend to stay away from food while writing. There’s always a seltzer water of some sort next to me—La Croix if I’m feeling fancy, store brand if not. I might sip on some coffee if it’s before noon, chai if it’s between noon and five, and wine or bourbon if the writing has interrupted me during another kind of evening. I’m more of a morning writer; I find that food grounds me in my day, but the generative portion of poetry-writing is best served by an unhinged & loose mind. One that wanders & collects. So I try to write something down before I eat anything, on days when I have at least three hours in the morning set aside for writing time.
On her go-to late-night snack:
I’m a big fan of store-brand ice cream sandwiches. The no-fuss, chocolate exterior / vanilla interior variety. I find that I don’t really have a sweet tooth, but there are some non-fancy desserts that hit the spot RIGHT before full-sweetness. Another favorite when it’s the right season are the Girl Scout “Caramel DeLites.” Gotta love a coconut/caramel combo. In any other season I’ve been known to eat a slice of cheese to quell the hunger. Pepperjack never tires, y’all.
On her food quirks:
I have a large cache of food quirks—the reasoning behind which is a not-fun fact that I had, and continue to live with, an eating disorder that for a long time dictated my food habits in the direction of deprivation and subsequent binging. After years of therapy I’ve learned to cultivate constant-snacking habits (like eating half an avocado with Cholula on it at around 3:30pm, midway between lunch and dinner, to ensure neither meal is a binge). Actually, come to think of it, even THAT habit is contingent upon hot sauce. Okay, I take it back. My most prominent food habit is that I soak literally every dish in hot sauce—but the hot sauce can’t be too hot. I like a spice that’s flavorful, but I really despise having my taste buds singed by pure, flavorless heat.
On her final meal request:
Wow, I have never considered this question before. I guess if it’s my last meal, I’m going for the least healthy option. I’m eating unlimited Taco Bell bean burritos with unlimited Taco Bell Hot Sauce (no Fire & no Mild, please & thank you), sitting on a beach somewhere tropical (the beaches of my hometown, Charleston, SC, would do just fine), while my dog runs around digging up sand and not getting yelled at by any humans for doing so. I think I’m just alone with my dog in this situation, and I imagine this is his last hurrah, too, before we both pass. I’ve recently had to come to terms with the fact that I am simply a beach girl, even if admitting that makes me feel a little basic. But there’s something about the slowness of our pace on beaches—we reserve it as a physical space for contemplation (others reserve it for play or for sport, sure), a space where literally laying in the sun for hours is an acceptable activity. The right beach, with no people or other human concerns infiltrating, can feel like a respite from capitalism. Though I guess the Taco Bell kind of undermines that idyllic interpretation of this dream. But as I like to say, more and more often these days : At the end of the day, I still live here.