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Poetry in the Kitchen

  • Posted by: Luisa Cywinski
  • Posted Date: April 17, 2016
  • Filed Under: Library News

In poetry or prose, the word “marrow” can be used as a literary device to signify one’s existence, life or energy. For example, Henry David Thoreau uses marrow in his book, Walden, to convey his pursuit of the simple and essential truth of life.

“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

In the case of our recipe today, marrow is the soft, fatty substance found inside the round bones of veal shanks that adds a richness to the recipe for Osso Buco, or veal stew. I used Julia Child’s recipe, which is a Provençal version that can be found in the first edition (1970) of her cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Some years ago, Falvey’s copy was being withdrawn from the collection after years of heavy use by library patrons. I was more than happy to take it home, even in its damaged condition. It wasn’t only the recipes that interested me, but Child’s practical advice on selecting high-quality ingredients and kitchen tools.

Many of the recipes and the way Child describes her methods remind me of the days I spent as a child watching my Belgian grandparents cook for us at home. As children, we were also sometimes allowed to sit quietly in the kitchens of their wealthy employers while they prepared meals and desserts.

It’s easy for me to romanticize those days, running around without a care in the world, gathering fallen apples in the grass, watching my grandmother in the vegetable garden, playing on the cool, slate patio with pots and pans, or spinning around outside with a wire mesh basket of freshly washed lettuce. When I look back, there is poetry in those memories. Maybe that is what inspires me to cook.

As I searched for poets who found similar inspiration in food or in memories of family meals, I remembered a favorite poem, “Osso Buco,” by Billy Collins. I was lucky to have seen him in person years ago at the Agnes Irwin school near Villanova University. An excerpt of Collins’ poem follows the recipe and photos of my foray into the realm of Julia Child.

I’m going to attempt to simplify what Child wrote in her book, which can seem confusing as she directs you to follow steps 1 & 2 of a “Master Recipe” on earlier pages before having you continue with Osso Buco.

You may want to order the veal shanks a few days or a week in advance as butchers and grocery stores don’t always have them in ready supply.

Osso Buco

Two veal hind shanks 1 ½ inches thick, tied with butcher string

Salt & pepper (for seasoning veal)

½ cup flour (for dredging veal) on a dinner plate

1 cup sliced yellow onion

3-4 tbsp. olive oil for cooking

½ cup dry white wine

½ cup chicken stock or broth

½ tsp. oregano

1 bay leaf

2 cloves garlic, smashed

2-3 small Roma tomatoes, seeded, peeled, and roughly chopped

1 orange

1 lemon

Recipe serves two and can easily be doubled.

Preheat oven to 325°

Season veal shanks with salt & pepper and then dredge in flour. Shake off excess. Heat 1-2 tbsp. olive oil in large heavy frying pan on moderate to high heat on stove. Once oil is hot, but not smoking, place veal in pan and brown on both sides, then set veal aside.

Heat 1-2 tbsp. olive oil in heavy oven-proof dutch oven on moderate heat on stove. Add onions and cook until soft, then raise heat and brown lightly. Add veal to onions in dutch oven.

Discard oil from frying pan and add white wine to deglaze the pan. Scrape up any bits while deglazing and pour the contents of frying pan into the dutch oven with veal and onions.

Stir in chicken stock, herbs, garlic, and tomatoes. Bring to a slow simmer.

Using a vegetable peeler, carefully cut only the zests from half or 2/3 of the orange and half or 2/3 of the lemon. Be careful to cut only the zest, the outer orange or yellow peel, and not the white, bitter pith underneath. Cut the pieces of zest into julienne (very thin) strips.

Add the zest strips to the veal and vegetable mixture in the dutch oven. Cover and place in preheated oven for 1 to 1 ¼ hour. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.

Serve with risotto or pasta.



The following excerpt is from Billy Collins’ poem, “Osso Buco.” The full poem can be found in his book, Sailing Alone Around the Room, or in the journal Poetry, which is available online through JSTOR (Villanova University credentials required).

Osso Buco

I love the sound of the bone against the plate
and the fortress-like look of it
lying before me in a moat of risotto,
the meat soft as the leg of an angel
who has lived a purely airborne existence.
And best of all, the secret marrow,
the invaded privacy of the animal
prised out with a knife and swallowed down
with cold, exhilarating wine.
I am swaying now in the hour after dinner,
a citizen tilted back on his chair,
a creature with a full stomach —

More Food-infused Poems:

Stew Meat Blues” (unknown author, Columbia Granger’s World of Poetry online)

American Cooking” (from the book Natural Trouble by Scott Hightower)

Once Upon a Time” (A Broadside in the Villanova Digital Library)

Food for Poets” (full text in Eighteenth Century Collections Online)

Poetry Collections Featuring Food:

Appetite: Food as Metaphor.

The Milk of Almonds: Italian American Women Writers on Food and Culture.

Roman Food Poems.


Food blog by Luisa Cywinski, writer on the Communication & Service Promotion team and head of the Access Services team.

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Last Modified: April 17, 2016

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