From Gumbo to Haggis and Creating New Poetic Traditions

San Francisco-born performance poet Raven has fond memories of Thanksgivings and Christmases with his family — well before he married, moved to Dublin, Ireland and started making new memories.

“At any family gathering in the Bay Area there was always ‘the spoken word,’ food and libations. My folks weren’t religious but my grandparents on both sides were Baptist. My grandmother was the church organist. I cannot separate my family gatherings from people testifying; food, drink and words of some kind, be their speeches or songs, are all part of the Black American ceremonial way.

“My grandmother was really eloquent with her words. She didn’t stick to established prayers. When I did hip-hop, I was into free-styling and my grandmother sort of did it that way. She was an eloquent speaker and would ‘rip’ off the top of her head before meals, then lead the singing afterward.

“I found something similar when I moved to Ireland. My wife’s family is Scottish and Irish and Catholic. She has a big boisterous extended family, like mine. I’ve felt very comfortable with the way they do things. I wouldn’t say I’ve taken them any of my traditions. They had their own and I’ve embraced theirs.”

“The typical celebratory meal of Raven’s youth and pre-Ireland adulthood was gumbo. “My family’s roots were in South Texas and New Orleans where a lot of gumbo was eaten. Gumbo is a wonderful celebratory food because of all it brings together. My wife is vegetarian — and no, as I told her, vegetarian gumbo would not work!”

“Ultimately with gumbo there are the people around the table sharing it, but even in the making of it, there’s a sharing. A bit of this and a bit of that. You use whatever you can lay your hands on. Shrimp, crab, sausage, the veggies, rice, grains. If someone has something they can bring to throw into it, that’s great. People can contribute. This is part of what makes it special.”

The Poetry of Gumbo

“And you can’t rush gumbo. It takes time and attention. It’s the same simmering process as making a soup — or writing a poem.”

And, he says, “Writing a poem is like creating a recipe and cooking. I probably write about three poems a year that I would consider worthy of presenting to the public.

“And I’m a really slow cook too!”

“My wife (a psychologist) improvises and cooks quickly. She throws things together and what she comes up with is good.

“I’m pretty good at improvising, but it takes me a long time. It’s like my writing process.

“She doesn’t taste when she’s cooking. I taste.

“And I let things cook for a good long time. Like a soup. Soup is one of those things that’s better if you let it cook for a good long time. With my poetry, I will let ideas and concepts and snippets sit. I keep the ingredients — these snippets, phrases, ideas, concept, on my phone.

“Then at some point, when I set about writing the poem, I go through them all, looking at the word clips, the couplets and all the rest. It’s like going through a larder. I start pulling out words and ideas and phrases I’ve compiled and putting them on the page. Then I start shifting them around; adding; taking away. A little bit of this, a little bit of that. Looking for what’s needed for the full flavor.”

When I meet him, Raven is — ravenous. He has traveled from Ireland to present at the 2013 Poetry Africa festival in Durban, South Africa. He and other poets I crossed paths with at their beachfront hotel headquarters are recovering from what I am told have been a series of late-night alcohol-fueled formal and informal debates, discussions and partying. A huge breakfast is the remedy.

Raven likes his food; talking about it, cooking it, relishing it. “I have a voracious appetite,” he says, his plate piled high. “I eat off other people’s dinner plates and I eat other people’s leftovers. I lick plates in restaurants. I really do! My wife was shocked at first but I have no pride. If I paid for it and I’m enjoying it, why am I going to leave it?”

Talking about Raven

His name, he says, is one he assumed. “It came to me.” He shares the “short version” of the story.

“I had a period in my life when things were extremely chaotic; deaths in the family, a relative sent to prison for murder, my daughter being born. During this time I had a series of dreams, of ravens coming to me, talking to me. At the same time in San Francisco, the population of ravens was growing. So there were ravens in my dreams and in my life.

“My given surname, I didn’t relate to. It related to some family who had owned my family during slavery. The names were handed down by slave masters for the most part. My first name I didn’t feel belonged to me but to my grandfather. The birds were talking to me. I felt an affinity mythologically and with what I heard. So Raven became my name.” He had it legally changed almost a quarter of a century ago and doesn’t have a surname.

“People have a thing, that your ‘real’ name is something someone gives you. Be it the slave owners or parents, I dismiss the idea.”

But he values the cadence, language and lyricism of the spoken word. “You can hear the lyricality when you listen to a Baptist teacher or a good rapper.”

He notes that there is musicality in the spoken word. “Living in Dublin, when I’m walking down the streets, I hear poetry and lyricality in the voices of people speaking Polish and Lithuanian and African languages.”

And on one level, it’s all connected. The people and the poetry. The inside and the outside. The eating and the speaking.

The Poetics of Food

“There’s a lot of poetry about food,” he says. “Shel Silverstein wrote a lot of whimsical poetry, including a very funny poem about Italian food. Some people think his poetry is for children but it’s for adults as well.”

“I have a poem called Pomegranate. See Raven share Pomegranate on You Tube. I am fascinated with what seems like a single fruit but then you open it up to its core and you have complexity, the spilling of the seeds. The poem is based on the idea the pomegranate was the fruit on the tree of knowledge, not an apple.”

For black people in the U.S., he adds, “There’s a lot of pride and identity wrapped up in both how we use language and the foods we eat. A lot of the traditional foods have their roots in what we could afford; what we were given. Chitlins, for example. And pigs trotters and oxtail soup. These were all made out of odds and ends that sharecroppers would have got. Part of Black Power  was getting back to eating soul food.

And back to language, his medium as poet: “How we speak can be considered ‘not black enough.’ I faced a degree of this because of how I was educated and my dialect and the words I use change dramatically depending on who I’m talking to.”

Food and words. Words and celebrations. Celebrations and traditions.

“We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in Ireland. Apparently there is a group of ex-pats in Dublin who do. I’ve been meaning to connect with them. I have political issues with the reason Thanksgiving is celebrated. But I did celebrate it, as it was a change to get together with family and eat good food. Thanksgiving and Christmas — they were always good. Thanksgiving was always also a nice dry run for Christmas but you didn’t have go buy anyone anything.

Address to a Haggis

Raven hasn’t done Thanksgiving in Ireland, but “My wife and I have made a tradition of doing a Burns supper every year. Robbie Burns’ (1787 poem) Address to a Haggis  must be one of the most famous food poems. He was an extremely funny poet. We have the whole haggis ceremony. We invite a bunch of friends over and recite the poem when we bring out the haggis.

“None of this would have happened had I not married an Irish woman. Or the hangover the next morning when I’m having leftover haggis, eggs and a shot of whisky,” he chuckles.

“My wife wrote an ‘Ode to a vegetarian haggis’ using Burns’ language and his style. Now you’re making me want to write ‘Ode to gumbo’!”

Making Gumbo and Haggis

See Saveur magazine’s Mr. B’s Gumbo Ya-Ya recipe and see the BBC’s authentic Haggis recipe.

Photo credit: Wanda Hennig

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Long-time Cuisine Noir contributor Wanda Hennig is an award-winning food and travel writer, an author, a blogger and a life coach. A native South African, she believes we are what (and how) we eat (and drink). Thus, she says (only a little tongue-in-cheek), the best way to truly understand a country, a city, a culture—and a people—is via your taste buds and your stomach.