At the end of their own names,
girls try out boys’.
Sitting under the playground pines, the girls in my class
scribbled in our notebooks. Mrs. plus the surnames
of whoever was kicking the cloud of dust obscuring
the ball that was the object of their game.
Mary Maddison was a girl in the 1600s, known now
because she practiced her name over and over
in a historic manuscript. Considered historic now.
Many times, introducing Mary,
she first set in writing, I am.
I remember not liking my married names much.
But we had gotten the idea
—had we given it to ourselves?—
that we should want to be wanted.
The end result of which would be wiping out
how we had been known, the names
we’d labored over on chalkboards.
The kitchen is where girls in the 1600s learned.
From listening to talking women, watching
the math of measuring, and copying
Mary’s manuscript was the margins
of a cookbook—the available paper.
After a time, my school’s pines
were cut down because of the danger
they could fall. Too much wildness.
Then too little shade. Girls began
to pass lunchtimes inside, doing homework.
This was good practice for skipping meals entirely,
which some among us would come to do.
Strawberries, raspberries, script scrolls large
above centuries-old recipes, repeating.
Though scrolling, though script, is not quite
what the bent letters are.
This is the writing of a beginner.
To continue, she had to
believe there was better ahead.
A girl is told to look forward to growing up.
Given a play grocery cart, wooden eggs to load it.
Also, dress-up dresses with sashes, satin to be
tied tightly around the waist.
A recipe is a proposition that what will follow,
if you follow the steps, will be as promised
in the title from the beginning.
A girl wishes to be a woman, then a woman wishes to look
like a girl, while the body slips into a shape none desire.
After a time, Mary—penmanship improved—reproduced
a poem about birds flying away. An instructional poem
for women, for when your beauties end.
Was she baking cakes by then?
She had become feminine.
Cursive isn’t taught in schools anymore. I hardly remember
myself—turned out such a scrawler.
A signature that seems barely composed of letters:
A sign of one who does not need to prove her right
to possess it?
Or a new way to be less visible?
To cook for others is also to be
a student of the imperatives in recipes:
Pound, peel, slice,
scald, stir, skewer.
Is a cook not given examples
of how to speak commands,
many an opportunity?
The items in an ingredient list are assumed to have some relation
to each other by dint of their adjacency in procedure,
a linguist posits.
Sugar follows butter because they become creamed together.
I stood by women of my family as they cooked the yields
of whole orchards down into canning jars.
From the many possible messages
in the aforementioned, some will take
the one of strength, some the one of serving
jam to others. Some make sweets
but do not eat them.
It was a point of pride, once, to be able
to write out precise recipes, to hand one another
Perhaps I should have taken pride
in my wild childhood Ys and Ts,
letters that shot out extra branches,
So often, recipes end with a phrase such as serves four
or salt to taste—a coda.
Which says the writing is finished now,
and moves the cook towards her own table.
Do my friends fill their plates now,
will they let themselves finish their meals tonight?
What have we taught one another?
(This poems is deeply indebted to Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks They Wrote by Janet Theopano and “Claiming a Piece of the Pie: How the Language of Recipes Defines Community” by Colleen Cotter for the information and quotations it contains.)