Feeding the Muse: Elizabeth Bishop

Feeding the Muse: Elizabeth Bishop

“May the Future’s Happy Hours Bring you Beans & Rice & Flowers.” 1955 watercolor by Elizabeth Bishop.

Excitement is building in Key West for THE HUNGRY MUSE, our 29th annual Seminar, coming up January 6 – 16, 2011. As we wait for today’s top food writers to arrive, we’ve been devouring the letters of the great writers of Key West’s past to learn what they ate in the island city and create a selection of historically plausible menus. Up this week: Elizabeth Bishop.

Elizabeth Bishop first arrived in Key West at 25 years of age, in early 1937, and made it her seasonal home for the next decade. In her letters from the time, especially those to her friend and mentor Marianne Moore, she writes in great detail about the local trees, flowers, people, and customs; about the fish she caught; and, to a unique degree, about all the new things there were to eat and drink.

Bishop became an avid gardener and fisherman in Key West. She tended fruit trees and vegetable and herb gardens, and she brought home offshore pelagics including wahoo and dolphin, as well as reef fish like red snapper. She shipped Moore many packages of her favorite local foods: mangoes, sugar apples, guava, sapodilla, and Spanish lime; Brazo Fuerte brand Cuban coffee; and odd packaged “cuban products” including “garlicky olives” and papaya concentrate. Bishop’s initiation into Key West cooking came with the hire of her housekeeper, Mrs. Almyda, or “Mrs. A.,” as Bishop called her. The poet adored Almyda’s local specialties, which included fresh green turtle consommé and conch chowder.

With Bishop fond of so much to eat and drink Key West, this will be an expansive menu. Fit for a large group, it will be suitable for the party welcoming a dear friend, who has finally come flying over the Brooklyn and Bahia Honda bridges to visit.

“I hate to think that the human race can’t get proper nourishment from all the beautiful things– meat, fish, fowl, and fruits– that there are to eat in the world.”

DRINKS: First, a selection of “cool-drinks,” including tamarind water, papaya soda, and Mrs. Almyda’s dream limeade. Second, Daiquiris from fresh-picked lime juice and Cuban rum. Have also on hand: sherry, Coca-Cola, Scotch.

STARTER: Flatbread with homemade sea grape jelly and fresh avocado salad.

SOUP: Green turtle* soup

SALAD: Composed of garden-fresh lettuce, radishes, carrots, mint, parsley, tomatoes, zucchini, endive, and herbs

FISH: Fresh-caught whole Red Snapper; grilled Wahoo and Dolphin.

FRUIT: Tree-ripened banana, mango, sour-sop, oranges, sugar-apples, guava, sapodilla, and Spanish lime.
In her first package of mangos, Bishop wrote Moore with instructions for how to eat one: “In Cuba or Mexico they have special two-pronged forks for mangoes, but you can use a kitchen fork. You stick it in the stem end and if you do it right the fork will go into the soft end of the seed and hold the mango firm. Then you peel it down from the top and eat it off the fork like a lollipop, being very careful not to get the juice on your clothes because it stains badly.”

COFFEE, TEA: Brazo Fuerte Cuban coffee; Mr. Morgan’s Private Brand tea.

MORNING AFTER: Abbott’s Elixir, a vitamin medicine; salt pills. Bishop believed in the restorative qualities of each.

*Note: This recipe will be exceedingly difficult to replicate. At one time a staple in Key West, green turtle is now protected under the Endangered Species Act, rendering it a federal offense to capture or kill an individual turtle.

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