National Poetry Month, day 4: Christine Turner Curtis

An odd road to this one: my last two years of college, I lived in a rented house with a roommate, and thus I was off the campus meal plan as well. This meant cooking. As a college student with little income (OK, let’s be honest, outside of what my parents were graciously willing to send me despite my frankly not-especially-good habits of showing gratitude for it, no income), “cooking” generally meant things like Kraft Mac-and-Cheese, Ramen noodles, PB&J or bologna sandwiches, and the like. But I did start learning to do more actual cooking during those years, with a big way of learning my way about a kitchen coming from Jeff Smith, the “Frugal Gourmet”, who at the time was still a big name. I bought a number of his cookbooks and I enjoyed watching his shows, which just happened for one year to run in the afternoons in Iowa during a period when I had no classes.

(I know, I know, all about what happened to Smith’s career, and I’m not relitigating any of that in this space. It’s not the point.)

My favorite of Smith’s cookbooks, which in addition to having a lot of great information in the recipes were just good food writing in general, is The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American, in which Smith focused heavily on foods native to America, or reflective of American history. He believed that food and memory–i.e., history in the personal sense as well as the larger, collective sense–were intertwined, and that foods that were enjoyed by our ancestors should still be enjoyed, even if our associations with them weren’t always positive. Hence a story he told about his father one day cooking cornmeal mush in the kitchen, and young Jeff’s confusion at this when his father had told him once that he’d had many mornings as a poor kid when all they’d had to eat was cornmeal mush.

“If all you had to eat was cornmeal mush, and you got sick of it, why are you cooking it now?” Jeff asked.

“Because I have to taste it again,” said Jeff’s father.

But anyway, onto poetry. There’s a section in The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American about New England’s food heritage, going all the way back to the first Pilgrim colonists. (Again, this was written in the 1980s. Smith was a lot more acknowledging of what European colonists had done to the native populations than most, but he was still very much “of his time”.) At the end of a brief introductory essay, Smith closes with this bit of verse:

All the fine old frugal ways
Of the early Pilgrim years
Have the power to wake in me
A deep and sober ecstasy
Close akin to tears.

I’ve always rather liked that little bit. Problem is, Smith doesn’t credit it! I have never been able to figure out where it came from, and I wondered if Jeff Smith wrote it himself.

He did not.

I’ve searched that verse online every once in a while over the years, and never found a source for it…until just the other day.

The author is one Christine Turner Curtis, a writer about whom almost no information exists online, as far as I can find. All I know is that Curtis was born in 1891, she was a New England poet and writer, and her most notable work is apparently a novel called Amarilis. I also found, in a collection of verse written by poets connected to Wellesley College over fifty years, from 1875 to 1925. The book is digitized into Google Books, and as the book was probably out of print more than fifty years before Jeff Smith ever started researching his American cookbook, I’d be interested to know exactly how he came across this terrifically obscure bit of verse.

Anyway, here is the entire poem.

“The Strain”, by Christine Turner Curtis

The Old New England soul of me
Loves all sleek and hearty things;
Wide-roofed barns and stuffed haymows,
Fat white goslings, leaf-brown cows,
Autumns and harvestings,

And the bulging orange cheeks
Of ripe pumpkins in the sun;
Seed-corn hanging by the door,
Melons on the woodshed floor,
Clapp’s Favorites, one by one,

Dropping from the loaded trees,
And the copper Seckel pear,–
Loves the crowded apple bin
And the red fruit rumbling in;
Grandfather’s spindle chair

Standing by the kitchen blaze,
The deep chimney and the clock
And the blackened old firedogs
Under the huge twisted logs,
New butter in a crock

And great foaming jars of milk,
Yellow loaves of citron cake,
Currant jellies, clear and red,
And the brown domes of the bread,
Fresh from the morning bake.

All the fine old frugal ways
Of those gallant Pilgrim years
Have the power to wake in me
That deep sober ecstasy,
Close akin to tears.

A great poem? Enh, maybe not. But maybe not deserving of complete obscurity outside of a brief quote, with the wording changed, and the author uncredited in a nearly forty-year-old cookbook, either.


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One Response to National Poetry Month, day 4: Christine Turner Curtis

  1. Roger says:

    I really understand how you feel about Jeff Smith, something I felt about Cosby. Mssively sigtnificant in a large part of my life.

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