three food poems by naomi shihab nye


“Poetry allows us to cherish what we’re given. Whether it be a heartbreak, a second chance, a soft morning mist, a moment or . . . an onion, poetry, with its impossible-seeming combination of soft lens and precision, brings to our awareness that which might otherwise go unseen, unrecognized, un-cherished. Poetry opens us to life, to surprise, to shadow, to beauty, to insight.”

~ Naomi Shihab Nye



Happy to join my Poetry Friday friends today in celebrating Naomi Shihab Nye, who was just named the 2019-2021 Young People’s Poet Laureate. An award winning poet, essayist, novelist, songwriter, educator, editor, and anthologist, Naomi calls herself “a wandering poet,” and is the first Arab American to earn this honor.

For the past 40+ years she’s traveled all over the country and the world leading workshops and inspiring students of all ages, using her own writing “to attest to our shared humanity.” She is currently Professor in Creative Writing-Poetry at Texas State University, and makes her home in San Antonio.

Naomi is a natural born poet; she wrote her first poem at age six. As Young People’s Poet Laureate, she will work to bring poetry to geographically underserved or rural communities. With her sensitivity, insight, cultural awareness, compassion and enormous heart, she is the seer and sage we need right now to show us how words can heal, unify, delight, and enlighten.



I first began reading Naomi’s work in earnest back in 2008, when I served as a Cybils final round poetry judge, and we selected Honeybee: Poems & Short Prose (Greenwillow Books, 2008) as the winner. I became a forever fan, and continue to marvel at her ability to lend “a fresh perspective to ordinary events, people, and objects.” She is both international and internal, specific and universal, profound but always accessible.

It was hard deciding which of her poems to share today, since I love so many, including the much quoted “Kindness,” “Famous,” and “The Art of Disappearing.”

But in the end, it all came down to food (are you surprised?). 🙂

Savor “Sifter,” with its masterful metaphor and exploration of adolescent identity; then ingest “The Traveling Onion,” a praise poem for “all small forgotten miracles,” and finally, top it off with a hot cup of “Arabic Coffee,” for a satisfying taste of family, heritage, egalitarian discourse, community, and affirmation.




via Cooking with Passion



When our English teacher gave
our first writing assignment of the year,
Become a kitchen implement
in 2 descriptive paragraphs, I did not think
butcher knife or frying pan.
I thought immediately
of soft flour showering through the little holes
of the sifter and the sifter’s pleasing circular
swishing sound, and wrote it down.
Rhoda became a teaspoon,
Roberto a funnel,
Jim a muffin tin
and Forrest a soup pot.
We read our paragraphs out loud.
Abby was a blender. Everyone laughed
and acted giddy but the more we thought about it,
we were all everything in the whole kitchen,
drawers and drainers,
singing teapot and grapefruit spoon
with serrated edges, we were all the
empty cup, the tray.
This, said our teacher, is the beauty of metaphor.
It opens doors.
What I could not know then
was how being a sifter
would help me all year long.
When bad days came
I would close my eyes and feel them passing
through the tiny holes.
When good days came
I would try to contain them gently
the way flour remains
in the sifter until you turn the handle.
Time, time. I was a sweet sifter in time
and no one ever knew.

~ from A Maze Me: Poems for Girls (HarperCollins, 2005)




“Chopping Onions” by Flemming Christoffersen



“It is believed that the onion originally came from India. In Egypt it was an object of worship — why I haven’t been able to find out. From Egypt the onion entered Greece and on to Italy, thence into all of Europe.” — Better Living Cookbook

When I think how far the onion has traveled
just to enter my stew today, I could kneel and praise
all small forgotten miracles,
crackly paper peeling on the drainboard,
pearly layers in smooth agreement,
the way the knife enters onion
and onion falls apart on the chopping block,
a history revealed.
And I would never scold the onion
for causing tears.
It is right that tears fall
for something small and forgotten.
How at meal, we sit to eat,
commenting on texture of meat or herbal aroma
but never on the translucence of onion,
now limp, now divided,
or its traditionally honorable career:
For the sake of others,

~ from Words Under the Words (The Eighth Mountain Press, 1994)




via Discover Discomfort



It was never too strong for us:
make it blacker, Papa,
thick in the bottom,
tell again how the years will gather
in small white cups,
how luck lives in a spot of grounds.

Leaning over the stove, he let it
boil to the top, and down again.
Two times. No sugar in his pot.
And the place where men and women
break off from one another
was not present in that room.
The hundred disappointments,
fire swallowing olive-wood beads
at the warehouse, and the dreams
tucked like pocket handkerchiefs
into each day, took their places
on the table, near the half-empty
dish of corn. And none was
more important than the others,
and all were guests. When
he carried the tray into the room,
high and balanced in his hands,
it was an offering to all of them,
stay, be seated, follow the talk
wherever it goes. The coffee was
the center of the flower.
Like clothes on a line saying
You will live long enough to wear me,
a motion of faith. There is this,
and there is more.

~ from 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East (Greenwillow Books, 1994)



We all know these things — sifter, onion, coffee — within the personal context of our lives. Yet, through Naomi’s revelatory lens, they blossom with fresh meaning, even take on cosmic significance.

I swoon whenever I read “Sifter.” I would choose to become one too (perhaps after the singing teapot). 🙂 Isn’t one of the biggest life lessons learning how to hold on when we need to, while letting other things go? Focus on the positive and believe in what is good.

Many poets have written about onions. Ancient, layered, versatile, essential, its circular shape represents eternity. We do take onions for granted — they aren’t flashy or demand attention. But what would we do without them? The onion’s purpose and flavor are not diminished in its smaller, divided form. I think of all the unsung heroes whose names we’ll never know, who made sacrifices on our behalf. No one is insignificant. We all count for something.

“Arabic Coffee” reminds me of the importance of open, vigorous dialog, where all voices are equal and no subject is off the table. I like that in the narrator’s home, “none was more important than the others, and all were guests.” Coffee facilitated conversation, communication, connection. The host is generous, welcoming, and hospitable. There is also the sense that those gathered find strength in their shared heritage. The dark Arabic coffee (no sugar needed) will never be too strong for those who have already endured so much.

What are your thoughts after reading these poems? What kitchen implement are you? 🙂

Enjoy this video of Naomi reading “Arabic Coffee”:





Gifted teacher, poet, and champion chocolate cake maker Mary Lee Hahn is hosting this week’s Naomi Shihab Nye celebration at A Year of Reading. Pop over to read more poems written or inspired by our new Young People’s Poet Laureate. Enjoy your weekend!




“It is really hard to be lonely very long in a world of words. Even if you don’t have friends somewhere, you still have language, and it will find you and wrap its little syllables around you and suddenly there will be a story to live in.” ~ NSN

Copyright © 2019 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

38 thoughts on “three food poems by naomi shihab nye

  1. Sigh – such lovely choices! I read one with my eighth graders called “Olive Jar,” and my Arab students are startled because they never thought about the olive jar they all have at home as being anything special. As for my kitchen implement, I’ll have to think about that one… Ruth,

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bravo! Bravo! Bravo! And, so creative in your very special way to focus on food. Sifter is such a celebration. What a wonderful post…..especially as we leave with a little dark coffee. It has fueled me for today, Jama.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Of COURSE you chose food poems! I am reaching out through the keyboard to hug this post and you.

    Each of the three poems you chose speaks directly to my heart. The memories that made tears spring to my eyes with the simple phrase “grapefruit spoon,” the onion, with its “traditionally honorable career,” and the Arabic coffee, which I have had the honor to drink in an Arabic home.

    Thank you!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had a similar reaction to these poems, too, Mary Lee — all the memories they conjured up. I have yet to drink Arabic coffee (I’m not a coffee drinker to begin with), but still loved the poem and all it brought to mind.


  4. I love your reading of these food poems, Jama… and I love that introductory quote! Sometimes I feel like a cutting board, brought out everyday to hold lovely colors, textures and scents, to help cut away the waste and make them manageable, and hopefully delicious. Or maybe that’s just today, after two months of an intense intense novel revision I will turn into the editor TOMORROW. 🙂 Thank you, Jama, as ever! xo

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting choice, Irene — a cutting board is indeed a special platform for the different foods we consume daily. I like the metaphor of cutting away waste and trimming things to make them more palatable — exactly what happens with revisions :).


  5. I love the ending of The Traveling Onion (I always want to put two “l”s in travelling — I must have first learned to spell it from British books). I think I might be a stock pot or a peeler. Thanks for sharing these nourishing poems, Jama.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I had the honor of drinking Arabic coffee in a parent’s home long ago, Jama, now wishing I could share this poem with that family. The poems you chose bring out our need for constancy, to savor what is right here in our homes, or what lies in our memories. I love reading your words of response! I think I would be the large mixing bowl, gathering all the flavors of family & friends together! Thanks for all. I did not know about the early importance of the onion!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with your assessment, Linda — yes to constancy and savoring our memories and expressing gratitude for what we already have. What a lovely experience it must have been to drink Arabic coffee too. And here’s to mixing bowls, the gathering together of different “ingredients”/people from different places for a common purpose.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Lovely! Thank you for sharing these, Jama! Speaking of onions, have you read the PB biography about Pablo Neruda, ODE TO AN ONION, by Alexandria Giardino with luminous illustrations by one of my favorite illustrators, Felicita Sala? If you you will love it. The endpapers are translucent, like onion skin–a brilliant touch.The book ends with the poem in English & Spanish–music for our ears ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you for this feast of poetry and reflection! I will have to think about what kitchen implement I would choose. Maybe that will become a poem later this week.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. There is so much I love about this post, Jama! Making everyday objects “blossom with fresh meaning” is Naomi Shihab Nye’s gift, isn’t it? “Sifter” is an old favorite, but the others are new to me. I especially love this: “dreams/tucked like pocket handkerchiefs/into each day.” I am tucking that into my heart and keeping it close today.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Your choices are lovely, Jama. I especially enjoyed Sifter and this stanza:
    When bad days came
    I would close my eyes and feel them passing
    through the tiny holes.
    When good days came
    I would try to contain them gently
    the way flour remains
    in the sifter until you turn the handle.

    Thanks for introducing me to this one! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. This is so lovely. Nye’s poems are among my favorites, I hadn’t read the Arabic Coffee before. Prior to my current roster of students, I wouldn’t have appreciated it so much!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. You may be a sifter, Jama (that’s something I would strive to be too), but I think you’re also the kitchen table, the way that you always invite us to sit down and stay a while—always make your readers feel welcome. I love the poems you chose today, and I also loved your commentary afterwards.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Michelle — a kitchen table is a good thing, a gathering place where so much is shared by those sitting around it. There’s always a chair with your name on it ready at my table. 🙂


    1. Sifter is rich with metaphors. I think creatives are natural sifters of ideas, words and other media, techniques, etc., always assessing the possibilities for a new work of art.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I’m so glad you chose food poems. 🙂 Sifter made me swoon, too. Oh, so lovely. It was hard for me *not* to pick her “KIndness” for my post, such a beloved poem.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I love being at your poetry table today, Jama.
    This three-course meal of Naomi Shihab Nye poems pulled from everyday food or kitchen moments is so reflective of your warm & welcoming gathering for nourishment via words. Your reading is deep & your sharing is huge. Appreciations for each selection.

    To answer your kitchen implement prompt – hmm.. I don’t know. I guess I am wow – just saw it – I am the rubber band that wraps around my pouch of organic cocoa, wraps around the paper that covers the half-onion, holds the lid down on the container of blueberries so it doesn’t POP open in the fridge. I didn’t know this…. I have to ponder this one… Rubber band, am I 🙂

    Finally, I am chewing on the delicious fact new to me that our dear Mary Lee Hahn is a champion chocolate cake baker!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, wonderful and interesting choice, Jan! A rubber band — something we all take for granted but so useful. Yes, it holds things together, but I also like its flexibility — able to stretch and conform to different sizes.


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