The first time I read “Eating Together” by Li-Young Lee, I was in my twenties in Houston. I’d found the poem in a Pushcart anthology. The second time I encountered the poem, I heard the poet read it from a podium at the University of Hawai’i in Manoa, maybe ten years later. The poem speaks truth to me every time I rediscover it. I feel like I’ve always understood there to be a connection between food and death.
When I think of loved ones I have lost, I often think of food we shared. My friend, Jack, died of prostate cancer. I associate him with gin martinis and beef stroganoff. My friend, John, died from his addictions. I remember the day he got out of rehab the first time. I took him to a Greek restaurant with Heather and their baby. He ordered three meals and ate them all himself. The rest of us didn’t each much of anything. I feel like I’ve always understood there to be a connection between death and food.
To say, of course, that one understands connections between food and death is only to say one understands how essential food is to life. What’s that mathematical property? If A is to B and B is to C, then A is to C? If food is a part of life and death is a part of life, then food is a part of death. I’m getting myself stuck in the obvious. When Li-Young Lee presents moments of food ritual in “Eating Together,” the obvious becomes epiphany. The sweet bite of fish-cheek becomes the snow-covered road. The man missing from the table becomes lonely for no one.
In the steamer is the trout
seasoned with slivers of ginger,
two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil.
I’m resisting the impulse to tell the story about the National Buffalo Museum and the fries at the Dairy Queen in North Dakota. I’m resisting the impulse to write about my father again. I’m resisting the impulse to center this consideration of Li-Young Lee’s poem around my own heritage and experience. To respect the poem, I respect that the poem and its food traditions come from culture and heritage I am not part of. I also respect that the poet’s specificity invites universality. Again, I mire myself in the obvious. Again, I turn back to the poem. The first three lines make my mouth water. The last three lines make my eyes water.
When I first read “Eating Together,” I was taking writing classes, and I probably encountered Lee’s creation as an act of perfect word construction. Awed by the deft transitions, I’m sure I studied the way the poet orchestrates tension and release as the lines break into (or is it against?) their sentences. When I heard the poem years later at the poet’s reading in Honolulu, I absorbed the work through all my senses. The poem makes me hungry, and the poem reminds me that hunger is not only focused on food. Today I read the poem in quarantine while the island of O’ahu endures its second official period of coronavirus lockdown. I live alone. I teach from home. I spend most of my time indoors, interacting with others through computer screens and a botchy internet connection. When I read “Eating Together” in the present moment, I think about time.
I am struck by the implication that a moment becomes an eternity. The first line of the poem anchors itself in the present tense: In the steamer is the trout. The gathering of the family is presented as part of the inevitable future: We shall eat… The patriarch’s leadership becomes something to remember at the table with the past tense: the way my father did… And then, miraculously, the past, present and future – the did, the is, and the shall -- come together as the traveler moves on, lonely for no one. By the poem’s end, time has not exactly ceased to be, but it has become a location, a place we might eventually leave. Time is both the where and the when – the place to go into and the way to pass through.
Li-Young Lee’s “Eating Together” is a remarkable poem to read and hear in any season. It is particularly resonant to me now as I confine myself to my apartment for months without apparent end. Every day lasts forever, and all of forever seems contained in a day. In this era of social distancing, I find ways to stay connected to those I love. Heather brings over bananas cut from the tree in her yard. We each wear masks as she hands me the stalk. Her son made me some pumpkin bread. I hand them a bag full of pizza dough made from my sourdough starter. We can embrace life by sharing food. We find ways to eat together even when we are forced apart.
The mastery inherent in Li-Young Lee’s craft renders a recipe in the first three lines. I obviously can’t improve on his menu, so I won’t try. I will say the poem leaves me hungry for simply prepared food that can be shared or enjoyed alone. The recipe that follows combines the satisfaction of family-table food with the healthy pleasures of eating fish, rice, and greens. It’s nice to find a recipe that reminds me to embrace every moment and savor every bite. It’s nice to make food that reminds me of “Eating Together.”
Cod and Bok Choy with Ginger Soy Glaze
(adapeted from a Kay Chun recipe)
1 ½ lbs. of boneless, skinless cod fillets
cut into 2-inch (approximately) pieces
(Another sturdy white fish may be substituted)
1 lb. of baby bok choy halved lengthwise
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 T minced fresh ginger
¼ c soy sauce
2 T Worcestershire Sauce
3 T of peanut oil (corn, canola or
neutral vegetable oil can substitute)
1 T unsalted butter
1 T lime juice
Salt and pepper, to taste
Prepared rice of choice for serving
(Cake noodle or soba noodles can substitute)
- In a large, non-stick pan, heat 2 T of oil over medium. Add garlic and ginger and cook until fragrant for one or two minutes, stirring occasionally. Add bok choy. Season with salt and pepper. (Salt is optional, as the soy sauce adds saltiness as well.) Cook until tender, stirring occasionally, about 5-7 minutes. Remove bok choy to a resting plate.
- Add soy sauce, Worcestershire Sauce, and remaining T of oil to skillet and bring to a simmer over medium. Season fish to taste with salt and pepper. (Again, salt is optional.) Add fish to skillet. Simmer gently over medium low for 5 minutes. Turn fish over in pan and spoon sauce over exposed side. Simmer for 5 more minutes or however long it takes for the fish to cook through. Stir in butter and lime juice. Simmer until sauce thickens, about 3 minutes. (Timing depends on thickness of fish and heat of pan. Keep your eye on it.)
- Serve fish with bok choy and prepared rice (or noodles if substituting). Spoon sauce over everything.
Timothy Dyke lives with parrots in Honolulu, Hawai'i. He teaches high school students and writes poems, essays and stories. In 2012 he earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona. His chapbook, Awkward Hugger, and his prose poem collection, ATOMS OF MUSES, as well as MAGA were published by Tinfish Press.
Poetry Potluck is curated by Leela Denver and Wren Awry.