It’s best made in dry-fish camp on a beach by a
fish stream on sticks over an open fire, or during
fishing, or during cannery season.
In this case, we’ll make it in the city baked in
an electric oven on a black fry pan. […]
— Nora Dauenhauer, “How to Make Good Baked Salmon from the River“
When I started making my chicken and spinach soup a year ago, believe me, I wasn’t waxing poetic. I was just trying to adapt a cook page recipe to sheltering in place during the pandemic. One by one, the ingredients changed. We didn’t have any of this on hand, and the delivery service hadn’t brought any of that — we’d have to wait another week if we wanted it. So I did without, or substituted something else. And it turned out, it was pretty good.
The improvising started as soon as the pandemic hit in mid-March. And by the fall of 2020, when we were getting well on into soup season, my soup was nothing like the original recipe.
In the meantime, we had dietary restrictions to think about. Debi can’t have sugar and sodium, and I shouldn’t. So, again, I adapted when it was my turn to cook. This was pretty well mandated since the original recipe called for chorizo or Italian sausage in addition to the chicken and spinach.
And very much to my surprise, I discovered I liked it just as well without the extra seasoning and animal fat.
I also discovered I lost 25 pounds just by eating at home (and not pigging out at buffets).
So I’m happy. My doctors are happy. Everybody is happy. And we like the soup. Debi, who collects healthy-eating recipes for her blog, asked me for the chix-and-spinach soup recipe. So I promised to send her an email telling how I made it.
And that’s when I remembered Simon Ortiz and Nora Dauenhauer.
How to read a pretty good poem, Indian style
When I was teaching an interdisciplinary humanities course at Benedictine on Native American cultures, I really liked what I read of their poetry. In general, I find Native poets easier to follow than, oh, say poetry in the New Yorker. I think they write more for their communities than for the critics and the professors at the Iowa Writers’ School. And they reach me in ways the more academic poets don’t even try.
Both Ortiz and Dauenhauer have written recipe poems. So as I was writing up my recipe to email Debi, I thought of them.
Simon Ortiz, a member of the Acoma Pueblo tribe in New Mexico, has a prose poem called “How to make a good chili stew — this one on July 16, a Saturday, Indian 1971.” It’s in Woven Stone, the 1992 edition of his collected poetry, and I came across it in the Google Books preview. But if you like poetry, you should order the book from the University of Arizona Press. Even if you don’t like poetry, you should consider it. His poetry is conversational, true to life and thoughtful in ways that most poetry isn’t. At least check him out online. You may change your mind about poetry. At least Ortiz’ poetry.
“How to make a good chili stew” is part recipe, and part a meditation on cooking, Native culture, and life in general. So Chef Boy Art (which has got to be a pen name) has an article headlined “Recipes Without Roadmaps” on the San Antonio Current website that’s part cook-page column and part poetry review. He even tried the recipe:
Like most recipes, the poem begins with a list of ingredients. But you quickly realize that this is no ordinary list. The poet in Ortiz demands a more in-depth exploration.
For example, the ingredient “beef” is more than just beef. It’s “Beef (in this case, beef which someone who works at a restaurant in Durango brought this morning, leftovers, trim fat off and give some to the dog because he’s a good guy. His name is Rex.)”
The directions likewise read less like a recipe and more like a poem: “And then put it on to barely boiling, cover and smell it once in a while with good thoughts in your mind, and don’t worry too much about it except, of course, keep water in it so it doesn’t burn, okay.”
But, more than a recipe, “How to make good chili stew” is a meditation.
“Smelling and watching [the cooking meat] are important,” says Ortiz in another passage, “and you really shouldn’t worry too much about it — I don’t care what Julia Child says — but you should pay the utmost attention to everything, and that means the earth, clouds, sounds, the wind. All these go into the cooking.”
Pay utmost attention. The days are getting longer now. Oley the cat is curled up on the throw rug next to the sink, supervising me while I cook. The TV news is on in the background. And the soup’s coming along nicely — the chicken’s about cooked through, time to add the spinach.
You don’t have to be an enrolled member of the Acoma Pueblo tribe to pay attention. You just have to do it, I guess, wherever you are.
Nora Dauenhauer was a cultural tradition bearer of the Tlingit people in southeastern Alaska, a linguist (she wrote an introductory grammar of the Tlingit language) and an accomplished poet. A selection of her poetry is available online, as are video clips in her 2017 obituary on KTOO public television in Juneau. (She also crafted a beautiful priest’s vestment in the traditional Tlingit button style that I once saw at a Russian Orthodox museum in Anchorage.) She really ought to be better known in the lower 48.
Dauenhauer’s “How to Make Good Baked Salmon from the River,” like Simon Ortiz’ chili poem, is part recipe, part nostalgia for Tlingit tradition and part meditation on a life well lived. Several times she contrasts the old way of doing things with contemporary life, “in this case,” in Juneau, Fairbanks or Anchorage. In this passage, she remembers cooking a fresh-caught salmon in a traditional fish camp:
Then go out by the cool stream and get some skunk
cabbage, because it’s biodegradable, to serve the
salmon from. Before you take back the skunk cabbage
you can make a cup out of one to drink from the
In this case, plastic forks paper plates and cups will do, and
drink cool water from the faucet.
Again, after the meal is done:
Have some cool water from the stream with the salmon.
In this case, water from the faucet will do.
Enjoy how the water tastes sweeter with salmon.
When done, toss the bones to the ravens and
seagulls and mosquitoes, but don’t throw them in
the salmon stream because the salmon have spirits
and don’t like to see the remains of their kin
among them in the stream.
In this case, put bones in plastic bag to put
Now settle back to a story telling session, while
someone feeds the fire.
In this case, small talk and jokes with friends
will do while you drink beer. If you shouldn’t
drink beer, tea or coffee will do nicely.
Dauenhauer, according to Wikipedia, was a member of the Raven moiety of the Tlingit nation, of the Yakutat Lukaax̱.ádi (Sockeye Salmon) clan, and of the Shaka Hít or Canoe Prow House, from Alsek River. But, in this case, we all can learn from her reverence for the food she eats and her awareness of our place in the interconnected web of life.
How improvise some pretty good soup
So when Debi said she’d like to post a recipe for my chicken-and-spinach soup to her blog, I couldn’t help but think of the poems about chili and pan-fried fresh salmon.
Content advisory: If you’re interested in making the soup, the recipe Debi posted is the one you should follow. She worked out the right measurements and added nutrition information — calories, carbs, fat, protein, cholesterol, sugar, vitamins C and A, potassium, calcium, iron and so on. It’s on her blog Seriously Seeking Answers. Debi writes about spiritual matters and the “culture wars,” and she posts awesome pictures of sunsets, sunrises, ice storms, fall leaves, birds, squirrels and an occasional irate bluejay. She’s posting excerpts from a work in progress about civility in a time of acrimony and polarization. Working title: We Need to Talk.
While you’re there, take a look around!
What follows is my email to Debi, pretty much as I wrote it but with light editing to clean up the grammar and added comments on what I do, “in this case”:
I call this soup “Gonzo Verde” because it started out in 2014 as a Caldo Verde recipe I found on the cook page in Illinois Times. but it changed so much over the years, it’s turned into something quite different. Why “Gonzo?” [Caldo verde is the Portugese for “green soup.”] Since we stopped getting fresh produce due to the pandemic, I use garbanzos for a filler (the original called for potatoes). And the “Verde” is for the spinach, which I substitute for the kale in the original. So it’s basically a chicken, spinach and tomato soup. Tomatoes aren’t in the original, either, but they add a tart flavor I like.
[Omitted here because Debi has the precise measurements on her blog. The pinch-of-this, dollop-of-that approach in my email isn’t terribly helpful.]
When I’ve got the patience for it, it takes an hour to an hour and a half to cook down. It probably should take longer, though. I cook it on the stovetop now, but I used an old crockpot before it wore out. Stovetop works just as well and takes less time.
I’ll start by pouring the chicken stock in a large saucepan and adding the bay leaves while it’s coming to a boil. As soon as it does, I’ll plop the frozen chicken breasts in right out of the freezer. (When we shopped at the store, I’d pick up a package of boneless chicken thighs. Either works just as well, but it takes longer for frozen to cook.) After a minute or two, I’ll add the spinach. Frozen, right out of the freezer.
When the block of frozen spinach has thawed, I open the cans of garbanzos and tomatoes and throw them in the pot. Pour in some olive oil. Turn on MSNBC and watch the rest of Ari Melber’s show, switch to the PBS News Hour at 6 (this is how I time the recipe). Cook, stir the vegetables around, wonder if the chicken will ever cook all the way through. Whenever it seems thawed enough, I take the chicken out of the pot, pull it apart with a fork and a butter knife, put the pulled chicken strips back in the pot, cover and go back to watching the news. After switching channels to Anderson Cooper at 7, I’ll let the soup simmer for another 10 minutes or so, then decide it’s as ready as it’s ever going to get.
Since Debi and I both have to watch the sodium and we react differently to spices,] I add salt and pepper at the table. I like Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning and Aleppo peppers, but I’m not dogmatic about it.
I’m not dogmatic about any of this, in fact, and the soup turns out a little differently every time I make it. The original recipe (which is delicious, by the way) called for chorizo. For a long time, I substituted Odum’s Tennessee Pride hot sausage, which I browned in the microwave and added after it was mostly cooked through. It was delicious, too. But after eating at home so much during the pandemic, I wanted to cut back on the calories. So it’s now more of a chicken-and-vegetable soup.
As I dropped the sausage out of the rotation, I added tomatoes for flavor and found other recipes online that called for chicken, spinach, garbanzos and tomatoes. Added the cumin and cilantro for more flavor. The original already called for 2 teaspoons of paprika.
Here’s a link to the IT cook page. I think they deserve a shoutout since it’s their recipe I’m desecrating. In fact, here’s a whole Works Cited list with links. Do check out Ortiz’ and Dauenhauer’s poetry. You won’t be disappointed.
Chef Boy Art, “Recipes Without Roadmaps,” San Antonio Current, Dec. 12, 2006 https://www.sacurrent.com/sanantonio/recipes-without-roadmaps/Content?oid=2278620.
Scott Burton, “Tlingit poet and scholar Nora Marks Dauenhauer, 90, was culture bearer,” KTOO, Sept. 25, 2017 https://www.ktoo.org/2017/09/25/tlingit-poet-scholar-and-culture-bearer-nora-marks-dauenhauer-passes-at-age-90/.
Nora Dauenhauer, “How to Make Good Baked Salmon from the River,” Robert Ronnow: Poetry https://www.ronnowpoetry.com/contents/dauenhauer/HowtoMake.html.
Jullianne Glatz “Hearty, Not Heavy” Illinois Times, Jan. 2, 2014 https://www.illinoistimes.com/springfield/hearty-not-heavy/Content?oid=11450502.
Simon Ortiz, “How to make a good chili stew — this one on July 16, a Saturday, Indian 1971,” Woven Stone, (Tuscon: University of Arizona Press, 1992), 174ff.
[Published March 22, 2021]