Sumita Chakraborty is poetry editor for AGNI, art editor for At Length, and a doctoral candidate in English at Emory University, where she is currently a fellow at the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry. Her poems have appeared in POETRY, Boston Review, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere; her essays and scholarship have appeared or are forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Cultural Critique, and elsewhere. She is a 2017 recipient of the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship.
Here, she talks midnight pasta, small plates versus full meals, and the final perfect bite.
On her all-time favorite meal:
My partner Taylor lives in Minneapolis and I live in Atlanta. The first time I visited him there, the first dinner he made was a “midnight pasta”: mounds of angel-hair; tender, rich anchovies; minced cloves of garlic, sautéed; enough lemon to make the plate feel like a citrus tree could grow from it; parsley; toasted bread crumbs. (Side note: I enjoy cooking well enough and especially enjoy baking, but I don’t do either of them often; it blows my mind that something with this many steps and burners involved is considered a midnight anything. You have to boil stuff and sauté stuff? As my friend Emily would say, take it down a notch!)
Taylor and I had already known each other for a few years, in grad school; I started in 2012 and he in 2009, and so he graduated—and moved from Atlanta to Minneapolis, where he’s now teaching—in 2015. We fell for each other, which is the decorous way of putting it, days before his move. So, of course I didn’t think much of it, beyond that it was a short and swift, and beautiful, fling. When we decided we weren’t quite ready for it to end, we batted around the idea of trading visits. I continued to not think much of it: I’d gotten it in me to plan a trip to the Badlands, and although I’d intended to fly to South Dakota for that, I figured that I love long drives anyway, so why not go to Minneapolis first instead and build in a drive to the Badlands.
It wouldn’t be long before we ended up thinking rather more about it. But before that, there was angel-hair curled around chunks of fish, warm garlic studding every bite. I think he forgot the bread crumbs that time, actually, because I remember he wistfully described what they’d add, the crunch and the light char, and I made fun of him for taking bread crumbs too seriously. Are you sure you have enough? he’d pressed, looking skeptically at a portion that was as tall as a cliff crag.
There are many food memories I feel fondly about, and I don’t think there’s a single genre of food I dislike; I’m constitutionally incapable of selecting a single favorite anything; I’m honored to share the company of many beautiful people. I love more or less every kind of dining experience, from inventive new restaurants to eating a fast food breakfast sandwich with one hand while driving. (I really love super cheap breakfast sandwiches.) And for a while I thought about describing a different meal—the best tartare I’ve ever eaten, or that time I got to experience an outrageous omakase, or this one turnip custard, or my favorite lobster roll, or an otherworldly salt cod dip, or Chinese food, or escargot with new friends, or even the horrible chicken fingers I ate at a neighborhood dive bar that same week in the Badlands, listening to the men and women in there messing with each other and making fun of their friends’ juke box selections, like you can imagine they’d done every night for years, decades. Reflecting on this question has reminded me about a number of beautiful memories, and I love whatever came with those memories, including the food, whatever it was.
But no. I think my all-time favorite meal was one specific iteration of midnight pasta, with enough lemon to make the plate feel like a citrus tree—no, an orchard of citrus trees—could grow from it, sans the bread crumbs that would have given it a bit of crunch, which was the first thing made for me by my partner, with whom I thought at the time I was having a strange and beautiful fling.
On what the light looks like during her favorite meal of the day:
The best meal is breakfast, and although I’ll eat it for any meal, I do prefer it in the morning, ideally when the day to come is still muted, the clouds a little bit fuzzy or the sunlight a little pale, the smell of stovetop espresso curling into the small circular wooden table at which I sit in the mornings while watching the weather be an infant version of whatever it’ll grow into over a matter of hours.
On snacking while writing:
On a day-to-day basis, especially when I’m living alone, I’m more of a consistent small-plates-eater rather than a meal-eater. Carrots and hummus, crackers and cheese, avocado toast, roasted veggies. At some point I’ll switch from the stovetop espresso to the French press and hit full-on guzzling. I’m a night workout person for the most part, so I get back from the gym at around 10 or so, and after that point, for late-night work the snack preferences change, to yogurt and granola, or chocolate, or:
On her go-to late-night snack:
There is something problematically satisfying about a piece of peanut butter toast after midnight with a peaty scotch, an oaky bourbon, or a deep porter.
On her food habits:
I photograph everything. Not just food—my camera roll is off-the-hook packed—but yes, also food; the last food photo on there as we speak is Monday morning’s bagel with lox, scallion and caper cream cheese, tomatoes, onions, capers, a dusting of black pepper. There’ll be dozens more between that bagel and whenever you run this. I’ve shared the pictures a couple of times, on rare occasions—but for the most part I just take them. I don’t even really look at them again; I just like to make sure I’ve eaten with my eyes.
And no matter what the food is, I like for the last bite to be perfect, with a bit of everything that’s on the plate. This is as true of elaborate restaurant meals as it is with a really simple taco or late-night peanut butter toast. I’m creepily deliberate about it; I’ll sequester a piece of garnish so I can re-add it to the last forkful, or I’ll eat around the perfect bite until the very end if I need to. I like to stick the landing.
On her final meal request:
Has anyone replied to this question by saying Please, don’t make me pick? Please, don’t make me pick! I’d like to spend some time on my final day on some mountain, where I don’t think I’d eat anything, although I think I’d bring with me a thermos of hot, strong coffee and sit there alone for a while. When I come down, I’d like a beautiful room with giant ceilings and exposed brick, and I’d like it to be late, late at night—midnight, later—and for the light to mostly come from warm lamps, and from the moon and stars outside—and I’d like that room to be full of loved ones. I want them to be happy, and so I want the room full of their favorite foods. Picking food for an event doesn’t really make sense to me; as I mentioned, the food is always a part of the moment that it helps compose, and so even if it’s lackluster or even terrible, odds are very good—I mean, 100% good—that I sentimentally love it anyway. I want my loved ones to take satisfying, giant bites of whatever they most want to take satisfying, giant bites of. I’ll take bites of everything and it’ll all be satisfying. (Oh, but there should be desserts, plural, ideally all ones I’ve never had before or familiar ones in flavors that are new to me.) My camera roll will fill. We’ll toast with whatever beverage everyone most wants. Mine will be a whiskey sour. We’ll dance and sing until later than late, to Outkast and Salt-n-Pepa and Destiny’s Child. With any luck, we’ll catch a glimpse of morning, and I’ll go out watching the weather be an infant version of whatever it’ll grow into after I’m gone.