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Judith Ortiz Cofer Reads...
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Beans: An Apologia for Not Loving to Cook
            --for Tanya
First Steps A Shared Path Different Audiences Different Purposes
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"I would like to read a poem that I wrote called, 'Beans, An Apologia for Not Loving to Cook' for my daughter, and the reason I wrote it was because she says that the reason I don't cook is because I'm an old '70s feminist and I'm making a statement, and actually I just don't like to cook, but I thought I had real philosophical reasons for not wanting to cook and that they were about oppression of women at the stove in Puerto Rico and watching the women in my family getting up early in the morning to cook for others."

For me memory turns on the cloying smell of boiling beans
in a house of women waiting, waiting for wars, affairs, periods
of grieving, the rains, el mal tiempo, to end, the phrase
used both for inclement weather and to abbreviate the aftermath
of personal tragedies. And they waited for beans to boil.
My grandmother would put a pot on the slow fire
at dawn, and all day long, the stones she had dropped in, hard
and dry as a betrayed woman's eyes, slowly softened, scenting
the house with the essence of waiting. Beans.
I grew to hate them.
Red kidney beans whose name echoes of blood, and are shaped
like inner organs, I hated them in their jaw breaking rawness
and I hated them as they yielded to the fire.

The women waited in turns by the stove
rapt by the alchemy of unmaking. The mothers turned hard
at the stove, resisting our calls with the ultimate threat
of burned beans. The vigil made them statues, rivulets
of sweat coursing down their faces, pooling at their collarbones.
They turned hard away from our demands for attention and love,
their eyes and hands making sure beans would not burn
and rice would not stick, unaware of our longing
for our mothers' spirits to return back to the soft sac
that once held us, safely tucked among their inner organs,
smelling the beans they cooked for others,
through their pores.

The beans took half a child's lifetime to cook
And when they were ready
to bring to table in soup bowls, the women called the men first
in high voices like whistles pitched above our range,
food offered like sacred, steaming sacrifice to los hombres.
El hambre entered the room with them, hunger
as a spectral presence, called forth from whatever other realm
the women visited when they cooked, their bodies
remaining on earth to watch the beans
while they flew away from us for hours.

As others fed, I watched the dog
at the screen door, legs trembling, who whimpered
and waited for the scrap. I hated the growling of pleasure when at last
it got its gory bone. I resisted the lessons of the kitchen then, fearing
the Faustian exchanges of adults, the shape-shifting nature
of women by the fire.

Now it is my daughter, who keeps a voluntary vigil by the stove,
She loves the idea of cooking as chemistry, and the Tao
of making food. Her waiting for the beans to boil is a meditation
on the transformative properties of matter; a gift of memory food
from my island. And I come out of my poem to partake, to share
her delight in the art of feeding, like a recently freed captive
of a long ago war, capable at last of a peaceful surrender
to my old nemesis, el hambre.

From a forthcoming manuscript A Love Story Beginning in Spanish: Poems by Judith Ortiz Cofer. Used with permission of the author.

"Of course, that poem took me an entire semester to write, but it was a lie. I had told . . . I had allowed my daughter to believe that my not cooking was a political statement and the poem showed me that it was basically -- the women were doing what they wanted to do, so was my daughter."

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