Eating and Drinking Poems: Philip Levine’s ‘The Simple Truth’

In this Eating and Drinking Poems post, Alexandra Barylski Stott suggests that our most tangible, nourishing love may arrive in the quiet form of carefully-prepared meals. As Philip Levine seems to suggest in his poem ‘The Simple Truth,’ Alexandra advocates a life of tasting love–the love that means plates overbrimming with too-large servings and extra pats of butter. Because, as Alexandra notes here, food is the love we live on.

“Can you taste / what I’m saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch / of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter.”

It’s the butter that always gets me — the culinary treasure taken for granted, like the everyday love of my family and friends; a simple truth which is often unspoken, but hiding out in food.

Philip Levine’s poem ‘The Simple Truth’ is not so much about food as it is the unsayable truths in life. In a poem, potatoes can become a metaphor for the unsayable, but in my own life, it is not the metaphor that matters, but the actual meal. My life’s “simple truth” is the love that there are no words for; the love that can only be communicated with the dependable, everyday language of food and the community that gathers because of a meal.

I learned this simple truth at an early age and put it into practice after upsetting my mother. I can’t remember what I did to make her upset, but I do remember attempting to bake cookies as an apology. The cookies turned out to be unrecognizable and inedible, but she tasted what I was saying, even if she didn’t taste the cookies. She hugged me and told me to clean up the kitchen mess, and I never did say Mom, I’m sorry. You know I love you. Those words never feel like enough anyway.

And when I walk into a friend’s home (or a friend walks into mine), it is the fragrance of onions in a pan, rice steaming on the stove, or aromatic tea steeping in a pot that says, far better than words, what each feels for the other. Language can feel like another burden, another excess. Its undependable airiness of syllables and breath vanish as soon as they are spoken. But the weight and texture of food sticks to your insides and keeps you warm with its love and nourishment long after parting for the night.

Yet it is in the everyday love of marriage where I most often taste the truth of this wordless love. Our first two years of marriage were spent with conflicting schedules–Allyn was in graduate school at night while I worked days–and these second two years look the same except our roles have been reversed. So Allyn and I crave time to speak with one another, which leads to us being short-tempered, feeling we lack the time we’d want to give to demonstrate our love, but the love-note we often leave one another is dinner kept warm on the stove. No need to tell me, darling. And we won’t. Each can taste what the other is saying, and we live on it.

I’ve turned into that Polish woman — my grandmother — out of my own New Jersey childhood who proclaimed her love for me by saying: “eat, eat, eat.”

The Simple Truth

I bought a dollar and a half’s worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields
on the edge of town. In middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. “Eat, eat” she said,
“Even if you don’t I’ll say you did.”
Some things
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste
what I’m saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.

—Philip Levine

Barylski Family Perogies
15 perogies
15 perogies
Barylski Family Perogies
15 perogies
15 perogies
Servings: perogies
  1. In a large bowl, stir together the flour and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together the butter, sour cream, eggs, egg yolk and oil. Stir the wet ingredients into the flour until well blended. Cover the bowl with a towel, and let stand for 15 to 20 minutes.
  2. Place potatoes into a pot, and fill with enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, and cook until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain, and mash with shredded cheese and cheese sauce while still hot. Season with onion salt, salt and pepper. Set aside to cool.
  3. Separate the perogie dough into two balls. Roll out one piece at a time on a lightly floured surface until it is thin enough to work with, but not too thin so that it tears. Cut into circles using a cookie cutter, perogie cutter, or a glass. Brush a little water around the edges of the circles, and spoon some filling into the center. Fold the circles over into half-circles, and press to seal the edges. Place perogies on a cookie sheet, and freeze. Once frozen, transfer to freezer storage bags or containers.
  4. To cook perogies: Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Drop perogies in one at a time. They are done when they float to the top. Do not boil too long, or they will be soggy! Remove with a slotted spoon.
  5. Caramelize onions and scallions in butter. You want the onions to have the golden brown color.
  6. Serve perogies with caramelized onions and sauerkraut on top.
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Photo by Kevin du Plessis, Creative Commons via Flickr. Post by Alexandra Barylski Stott.

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  1. says

    Eating and Drinking Poems is a wonderful series and this is a lovely addition. I have Levine’s collection by the same name on my shelf. The poem is so rich, such a lyrical narrative; its title alone could foster a discussion. I’m struck again how it moves between “I” and “you”, what it reveals and yet still hides.

  2. says

    Making and creating and simmering and serving food is my love language…

    because it wasn’t in my childhood house. My momma was too busy working and tending the chores to make something other than food for dinner.

    My most treasured words are those spoke to me in passing when folks have said, “Darlene, your house always smells so good. I love being here.”

    One time people gathered on our roof to fix a hole that poured summertime rain. As soon as the downpour ceased, thy skylight came off and the workers went at it. Two teenage boys, brothers, kept leaning over the whole, looking into the kitchen. I caught ’em peeking inside and one said, “It just smells so good in there. I hope we get to come in for lunch.”

    I climbed onto the counter and handed him a jar of lemonade, made with honey, to pass around to the men.

    Amazing how the sharing of Perogies brought this memory back! Thank you.


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