jane yolen: the exact crunch of carrots

#12 in the Poetry Potluck Series, celebrating National Poetry Month 2011.

If someone had told me 23 years ago that one day I’d be inviting Jane Yolen over to my cyber kitchen to share a poem and recipe, I’d think he or she had eaten way too many Alice B. Toklas brownies.

Well, right now my head’s buzzing and I’m floating on air because here she is, and I couldn’t be more astonished or pleased. All those years ago, I had the distinct pleasure of listening to Jane talk about picture books at a Mid Atlantic SCBWI Conference. I learned soooo much and was impressed by her enthusiasm, generosity, graciousness, candor, and overall brilliance.

It was the year Owl Moon won the Caldecott (I guess I was all of 14 ☺), and she mentioned sending John Schoenherr some roses to congratulate him. I nervously handed her a copy to sign; I don’t remember exactly what she said, only her kindness and encouragement to keep writing no matter what.

I just reread Owl Moon for the first time in over a decade. Still as pure and pristine and lyrically beautiful as ever. Each of us has our very own Jane Yolen favorites — the book or books that opened the door to our dreams and aspirations. Besides Owl Moon, I’m especially mad for her Baby Bear books, Piggins books, poetry collections, and a literary cookbook she co-wrote with her daughter Heidi E.Y. StempleFairy Tale Feasts.

Heidi did the recipes for the book and says in her introduction that she enjoys cooking with her children. Quite possibly this love of cooking grew out of similar experiences with Jane. There’s nothing like a warm hearth and the good smells of mama’s homecooking filling the kitchen. It’s what we all yearn for, right? Well, maybe not. Leave it to Jane to tell it true:

This poem was written in 2009 in response to a prompt, I think at Miss Rumphius Effect. As much as I adored my mother — her sensitive, responsive nature, her smartalecky humor, her brilliance — the truth is that she was a lousy cook. I learned to cook on my own in order to survive.

Jane with her mother, Isabel Berlin Yolen, and father, Will Hyatt Yolen.


by Jane Yolen

What can I say about my mother’s kitchen

that has not been said better

by a government inspector condemning

a dangerous piece of public equipment

or by an international chef using a variety

of words, like flocculent and forgettable?

There was never a bit of real food served

from that thin-souled place, nothing hot enough,

salted enough, herbed, or with garlic.

Though if something had grown in a can,

it would find its way to our plates.

The worst of Southern and Jewish cooking,

greens cooked gray, meat boiled into strings,

things gefilted that should never have left the sea.

It is a wonder I loved my mother as much as I did,

or that I could cook well enough

that my own children love to eat.

Nothing in that gray, flat, unflattering place

prophesied success or even—as I remember it—

a single decent meal.

© 2009 Jane Yolen. All rights reserved.

That Jane. Do you think she was exaggerating just one teensy bit? I’ve had my share of stringy meat and a gray vegetable or two, but not at my mother’s table. She’s always been an excellent cook, but I daresay, never inspired me to use the word, “flocculent,” in a piece of writing. We all get our nourishment where we can. Say it with me: flocculent, flocculent, flocculent. Such a great word.

Beautiful stained glass window in Jane’s Scotland kitchen (where she’s often made Carrot Soup).

Now, perhaps you’re wondering if Jane herself is a good cook. I would be very surprised if she has the time; there are many who wonder if she even sleeps. When you’ve published over 300 books and have 40 under contract at any given time, maybe you don’t even eat! But I’m here to tell you she does indeed cook and does it well, and if you promise to keep this just between us, I’ll share one of her favorite recipes with you. Likely it’s the secret to Jane’s incredible rate of productivity. It must be excellent brain food, keeps her wheels turning and her energy up. In one of her long poems, Jane defines poetry, among other things, as:

Emotion surprised.
Throwing a colored shadow.
A word that doubles back on itself, not once, but twice.
The exact crunch of carrots.
Precise joys.

Don’t you love it? That Jane.

Any cooking I do is from someone else’s recipe, though over the years, like my books, mightily revised. This is from a Scottish friend, Fiona, who is a bookseller and was one of my early Scottish friends though now, alas, she lives with her family in Australia and I miss her terribly. She is funny, smart, and a great cook.


1 bag of small, peeled baby carrots cut in 3’s
2-3 large potatoes, peeled and diced
2 small onions chopped
3 garlic cloves minced
2-3 cups vegetable stock, enough to cover the cooking vegetables
1 orange 
1 stick butter
fresh herbs — basil, thyme, parsley finely chopped
cream (just a dollop for each individual serving)

In large soup pot, melt butter.

Add all vegetable ingredients and herbs and stir until heated and covered entirely in the melted butter. Then let them sweat a few minutes.

Cover with vegetable stock and cook till they are soft, about 1/2 to 3/4 hour.

Zest the orange into the soup, squeeze the juice in, cook some more. Maybe ten minutes.

Put through a blender until fairly smooth. My family loves tiny bites of carrots, but you may want yours entirely, creamily smooth.

Serve hot, with a dollop of cream and, if you like, a single leaf of basil.

I confess I’d never eaten carrot soup before I made Jane’s recipe two weeks ago. Actually, neither had Len. But we’re both converts now. Simple to make, delicious and so satisfying. The orange juice adds a surprising zing of flavor — a refreshing note playing just above the surface of carrot and potato. Hooray for the exact crunch of carrots, the precise joy of poetry in a bowl!

Thank you for coming to the Potluck, Jane, and for everything you do for children’s literature. You inspire all of us to do better, to simply “take joy” in our writing: Butt in Chair, Heart on Page. ♥

Author, poet, anthologist and storyteller Jane Yolen has published over 300 books and received a million awards and honors for her poems, books and stories including: the Caldecott, two Christopher Medals, Golden Kite Award, World Fantasy Award, two Nebula Awards, Charlotte Award, and the Jewish Book Award. She writes across multiple genres (board book, picture book, chapter book, novels, young adult fiction, fantasy, science fiction, short stories, folk and fairy tales, poetry, song lyrics) and for all ages from toddler to adult. She’s received six honorary doctorates and several awards for her body of work from the Catholic Library Association, University of Minnesota, Keene State College, and the New England Science Fiction Association. The World Fantasy organization honored her with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Known as the Hans Christian Andersen of America and the Aesop of the twentieth century, Jane has been writing a poem every day this year. Switching on the Moon: A Very First Book of Bedtime Poems, which she edited with Andrew Fusek Peters, was a 2010 Cybils Poetry Finalist. Her most recent poetry book is Birds of a Feather (Wordsong, 2011), another collaboration with photographer son Jason Stemple. She also has a poem in the brand new e-anthology, PoetryTagTime, edited by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong.

Jane regularly participates in Monday Poetry Stretches at The Miss Rumphius Effect, and of course her official website is chock full of information about books, events, and resources for kids, teachers, and writers. Excellent, not-to-be-missed interviews: Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast (this one features Jane, and this one features Jane and Jason on A Mirror to Nature: Poems on Reflection),The Miss Rumphius Effect Poetry Maker Series from 2009 (source of Jane’s poetry excerpt in this post). 

Copyright © 2011 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.


2 thoughts on “jane yolen: the exact crunch of carrots

Comments are closed.