Playa del Rey food writer Nicole Gulotta creates recipes inspired by poetry and memory

By Bliss Bowen

Nicole Gulotta feeds mind, body and soul

For many of us, cooking is a form of creative self-expression — one that literally feeds the body while hopefully also sustaining the soul.

Since 2012 Nicole Gulotta has embraced that belief with her intriguing blog EatThisPoem.com, which thoughtfully pairs poems by various writers with her own recipes. Come Sunday afternoon at Diesel Bookstore, the Playa del Rey resident will be discussing her new book “Eat This Poem: A Literary Feast of Recipes Inspired by Poetry,”
a fresh collection of recipes and writings.

Gulotta’s byline has appeared in Life & Thyme magazine, and for almost four years she published another food blog, Cooking After Five (now archived at EatThisPoem.com). Yet she says she only discovered her passion for cooking when, as a college sophomore, necessity compelled her to learn how to cook.

“I could boil pasta, make a pretty terrible omelet, and I could make a sandwich,” she recalls with a laugh, “and that was about it. At that point I didn’t care so much about where the food came from or making it beautiful; I needed to eat. And I needed to figure out the easiest, most economical way to do that.”

Later, she “started paying more attention to where food comes from,” motivated in part by Robert Kenner’s hard-hitting 2008 documentary “Food, Inc.” Lifestyle changes followed, like shopping at farmers markets and cooking from scratch with organic ingredients. “I just discovered my love of cooking along the way,” she says, “and started finding my voice as a writer through that.”

In the book’s clean, calmly designed pages and Gulotta’s insightful prose, those choices are reflected in 75 recipes for breads, salads, soups, pizzas, Earl Grey shortbread cookies, seafood, radicchio panzanella, and numerous vegetable-and-grain dishes. Her lengthy process of recipe development (she thanks 65 “enthusiastic recipe testers” in the book’s acknowledgements) reflects how cooking has assumed an almost meditative quality in her life: “There’s something about being in the kitchen at the end of the day, just going through that period of talking and sautéing and stirring, that is very grounding.”

Gulotta mined recipe ideas from 25 poems by the likes of Wendell Berry, Billy Collins, Louise Glück, Philip Levine, Mary Oliver, Marge Piercy and Theodore Roethke, and cross-referenced them with a running list of recipe ideas that she keeps handy.

Perhaps the most moving poem is Mark Strand’s “Pot Roast,” which rhapsodizes about the redolent “meat of memory” served with gravy, celery, garlic, juices sopped up with bread, and a mother leaning over to fill and refill his boyhood dish. “These days when there is little/ to love or to praise/ one could do worse/ than yield/ to the power of food.”

Gulotta pairs “Pot Roast” with eloquent commentary on Strand’s poem and her prized family recipe for Italian Beef Stew, which she shares with a childhood memory measured out via savory ingredients (“gold broth glistening like ornaments on the tree, and pasta so small it sank to the bottom of each china bowl and collected like sand”).

Her Sweet Potato and Kale Minestrone recipe prompts another recollection from her childhood in Claremont — family dinners at Vince’s Spaghetti restaurant in Pomona — just as Peter Pereira’s poem “A Pot of Red Lentils” stirs mental images of a vacation cooking class in Thailand with her husband, and inspires a recipe for Red Lentil and Cauliflower Curry.

In the chapter “On Gathering,” Sharon Olds’ poem “First Thanksgiving” is followed by Gulotta recounting the first time she ate roasted chestnuts, on a London bridge, and her recipe for Wild Rice with Chestnuts and Leeks.

Such food memories form the heart of the book, and speak to the essential pleasures of preparing and sharing food.

“It doesn’t matter if your food memory isn’t beef stew with celery and garlic,” Gulotta says with a laugh. “We all have those memories that take us back to this moment in time, when we were younger and things were simpler. …

“There’s this idea that a lot of our food experiences are inherited from where we grow up or where our heritage is, or the family recipes that get passed down. That aspect is in some ways chosen for us, and we find so much comfort in that, as adults especially. I find it interesting that in some ways we have no say in what that comfort food is; it’s just part of who we are.”

The late M.F.K. Fisher similarly linked food, its flavors and tactile sensations with emotional memories in “The Gastronomical Me” and several other books. Gulotta is open to taking a similar path as a food essayist, but isn’t keen to limit herself to just one avenue of self-expression.

“I can certainly see doing more cookbooks, and doing more essay-style or memoir-style writing as well,” she says. “I want to remain open to the process of my curiosity and what comes next.”

Nicole Gulotta discusses “Eat This Poem” with food writer Stef Ferrari at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 26, at Diesel Bookstore in Brentwood Country Mart, 225 26th St., Ste. 33, Santa Monica. Free admission. Call (310) 576-9960 or visit eatthispoem.com.