Honestly, until faced with a plate of half cooked—and yet somehow charred—Jerusalem artichokes, I had only a passing, I believe literary, awareness of them. But if you’ve been down South in summer, you’ve seen them growing by the roads, bunched in brilliant masses around fence posts and old out buildings. They are sunflower pretenders, six foot daisies that grow like hydras, dozen headed, impossible to kill, proliferating after a ruthless trim to bloom in ever greater facet. Once they start, they yellow the countryside until the weather turns damp and dreary in September, and then they fall, fainting limply away from brilliance.
My Pacific Northwest MFA program seems a safe distance from sunchoke lands. Goddard holds its residencies on Puget Sound in a Civil War era fort. The Strait of Juan de la Fuca laps at our haunted doors. The Fort Worden ghosts are their own story, though they were shy this time, perhaps hiding from a delegate of Evangelical Catholics with whom we shared our housing and dining. The religious delegates made a great crowd of elderly nuns in heavy habits who would nightly trail around behind priests in long cassocks who headed processionals holding gold crucifixes and oversized portraits of saints and martyrs aloft, while the company chanted and sang and wound around the complex of old, dark-eyed houses in the incessant drizzle. This is part of the beloved and creepy fabric of residency.
After the first three days at school, the Catholics left. The quality of the food instantly sank from behind a churchly façade. Without the holy people, we writers got no courteous pretense from the kitchen.
Jerusalem artichokes. What starving band of mothers tore into the ground looking for grubs and squirrel caches first found these awful little knobs and thought of them as potential for food?
Looking at the jumpy green stalks, fairy wing leaves, the yellow crowns in familial bouquets, it is hard to connect their spritely air with the knotted yam that anchors them down. The roots of the Jerusalem artichoke form fists that lace together in a hairy web of feelers and aerators. They don’t drink much, but chew, it would seem, through a thin but leathery hide of no color; they inhere the local flavor of earth.
And thus they fit the general foul theme that ruled the residency cafeteria. Cold and tired, coiled in stress, empty as the first page of an unwritten story, the fifty or so of us who couldn’t come up with doctors’ excuses to opt out of the campus food plan would limp into the commissary dining hall three times a day to risk death by the bite. The food was so bad, it became its own dark comedy.
I should talk less about the food, whine less, and shine on instead about the workshops wherein all bets were off. Wherein there was no hold on what could be said, crafted or rough, providing it was attempted in truth. There is no judgment in workshop and childish ideas rooted in talk-show paradigms and convenient reactionaryism faint in their own thin stew to leave an empty space between blank eyes where something stronger and plainer can grow.
The sharing of creativity is an intimate action and there is no superfluous energy available to give stagnant ideas about tender issues. Where writers write and share, taboos are taboo: women are not huddled under the shroud of nurturing, men are not stunted by the demands of courage, for here is finally in this life a place where we are not women and men but wholly conduit to idea and experience, ageless, sexless, but of age and rounded by soul and sex and the knowledge of the body and the perfection of the conscious exercise of will and mind.
But that’s so hard to capture, so I return to the food. It was spectacular and wretched and easy to say.
To start, everything appeared yellow and red curried, the chicken was dry, the chickpeas swam in unseasoned tomato puree, coconut covered everything remotely sweet. The soup was always a puree of the previous day’s side dish, even when the side dish was a salad. There were olives and that was good. The tofu was served with fresh spinach, which saved breakfasts.
By midweek, by all appearances, the kitchen began to cut back on refrigeration. The tofu slowly turned grey. It began to taste faintly of ammonia and dish soap.
The olives began to dry out.
Bugs crawled into the salad, into the salt shakers. A chef came bursting into the dining room one day to announce that the bug parts in the salt shakers were really peppercorns, and he knew this for certain because he had eaten some of the bits of things that, granted, looked like bug parts, but they tasted like pepper to him and he was a real chef and would certainly know pepper from a bug. There were no peppercorns in the dining room or on the food. We doubted his sincerity and, frankly, his judgment, his palate, his discernment on whatever life path had brought him to that moment, standing over a sink, licking dirty salt out of his hand, bragging about it.
Hidden-hair checks became the first thing we did when we sat down with our plates, bowls, and suspiciously fibrous greens.
The eggs were punctuated with bits of tiny plastic triangles, which were easy to find in a mouthful of egg, though some of us accidentally swallowed on the realization instead of spitting.
The spinach started to taste like candle wax.
Portions got very small. No one complained, though anything palatable was the object of open begging, “Please, just one more carrot?”
Brussels sprouts bent fork tines.
Chicken was either leather or blood. Always rubbed in something like yellow flea powder.
The macaroni and cheese was inexplicably seasoned with vinegar.
The chocolate cake had no taste of chocolate. Could not be cut without wiggling the fork back and forth, like a saw or a serrated lever. It was cake that required machinery.
The ribs were tough, gamey, striped with livered yellow sinew. I suspected downed meat.
The bacon appeared to be flavored with an orange spray that looked like a fake tan and induced gagging.
Potatoes began to jump around, inhabited like tourist shop beans. We stopped looking at them, ate with our eyes closed. Maybe that’s why no one recognized the Jerusalem artichokes when they appeared the last night, masquerading as roasted potatoes. Here’s what I learned about them: they are loaded with inulin, a polysaccharide agent of stomach cramps, nausea, flatulence, and sudden writer’s block. And there we all were, crowded into radiator warmed rooms, gassy and emotive, full of inulin, sunchoked.
And that’s where I retreat from this parade of gastric hell to stay with the readings, where my fellows and my advisors floored me or lifted me and that was absolutely satisfying. I like to think about the workshops where we carried around metaphors in big gold frames and chanted and sang. Workshops grew their own sense of place.
On Monday, Kafka was a rock star.
On Tuesday, we had fables and channeling.
On Wednesday, we wrote about violence, enduring it, committing it.
On Friday we spent three hours to attempt to depict sexual experience through spatial metaphor. There was a lot of wallpapered bathroom masturbation but also the eggshell white and chipped paint of molestation, of nonconsensual hallways, and suddenly shadowed mudrooms. We shuddered and nodded and built awkward stages.
Someone still learning to let go of the rails became confused—was it Thursday?—at the thought of a woman who would not love a child. And then the child stood up off the page and stabbed her defender while we clapped and called for an encore reading.
There was a play and all the boys wore wigs and sheets and proved they loved each other with their fool faces.
There was a lot of wine.
Truthfully, originally, I was going to write about the Jerusalem artichoke as a kind of anti-metaphor for my MFA program, but I think I have decided that this nasty root is an inadequate metaphor. They are daisies that look like sunflowers. They taste bad. They are virtually unchewable, but why would you want to chew one?
Unwinding that, it would imply that writing that looks pretty and casts everyone in a holy light of morality can also be a source of emotional bloating and substantive starvation. That much is true, but here is where the flower fails—part of our process is learning to endure truth, even when it shakes the floors and tastes like gunpowder. Grandmothers and punk girls, academics and activists come to grad school residency for a fortnight of familyhood and absolute, unashamed truth and love. Though food is often scarce and metaphors are almost never entirely perfect—for there is no truth nor love that would induce me to eat another Jerusalem artichoke, ever.