Few things have better mouthfeel than a well-crafted poem. Chew it slowly and you can taste each word, savoring each juicy syllable. It can be a succulent stew of vowel sounds spiked with consonants, the aftertaste buttery or bitter. And a truly great poem is a banquet of images, feelings, meaning.
That said, a new series of dinners inspired by the work of Kentucky poets at Midway’s acclaimed Holly Hill Inn, in celebration of its 40th anniversary, might be even tastier.
The brainchild of chef Ouita Michel, a reader and writer of poetry herself, the Poetry Dinner Series features multicourse prix-fixe ($50) menus that reflect the stories, the moods and, yes, the taste of poems by six writers with ties to the state.
The series begins Wednesday with a menu inspired by former Kentucky Poet Laureate George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From” (through July 13), followed by meals that take cues from Maurice Manning (July 17-27), Crystal Wilkinson (July 31-Aug. 10), Silas House (Aug. 14-24), Nickole Brown (Aug. 28-Sept. 7), Pam Sexton (Sept. 11-21) and Ada Limón (Sept. 25-Oct. 5).
Michel, who described the series as “a gift to myself,” said she has long drawn connections between cooking and poetry, both of which she views as evocative art forms with similar functions.
“I have long been inspired by poetry, reading it and writing it,” she said. “I see poetry as an extension of Kentucky as memory, place, and emotion, and I often see and experience my cooking in the same way. I’m always trying to evoke a feeling of place, a taste memory, an emotional connection.”
The poets — whose works were curated by Rebecca Gayle Howell, poetry editor of “The Oxford American” and the James Still Writer-in-Residence at the Hindman Settlement School — will not be present at the dinners to read their pieces, but the words will speak for themselves, in a Kentucky accent.
For example, Lyon’s “Where I’m From,” in which the poet recalls “the dirt under the back porch” which “tasted like beets,” conjures “fried corn and strong coffee,” their flavors seasoned with “a sift of lost faces / to drift beneath my dreams.”
The corresponding menu — devised by Michel and chef de cuisine Tyler McNabb and written by Michel in the form of a poem — is appropriately earthy and nostalgic, featuring, among other delicacies, “Shaved baby beet, smoked carpaccio of beef, thin slices of king mushroom / Rings of pickled shallots and scattered pickled mustard seed / Glistening drizzles of olive oil.”
The menu also features scratch-made bread, fried corn, “summer’s first green beans,” lime pickle (a recipe from McNabb’s grandmother, Ruth Ann, who helped teach him to cook in their hometown of Cynthiana), along with a choice of entrees that include milk-roasted pork with apple sauce, cornmeal-crusted crab cakes and, for an additional $20, ”a big ol’ skillet-seared Cowgirl Ribeye” with smoked onions.
Preparing the carpaccio last week in the Holly Hill kitchen, McNabb seared the locally sourced, herb-crusted beef in a cast-iron skillet before slicing it thin and then — in a step that reinforced the dinner’s cutting-edge yet old-timey feel — pressed the slices flat with a rolling pin, overlaying them with equally thin shavings of wine-red beets.
“Like George Ella’s poem, the idea of this menu was to reach back in time and create a meal using only our memories,” McNabb said. “We want to help the diners experience some of their own memories, through the poem and through the food. So the flavors are familiar and will bring back memories for people, perhaps from being in their grandmother’s back yard.”
Lyon’s poem, which begins with the line “I am from clothespins,” McNabb and Michel thought of their respective grandmothers’ back-yard clotheslines, bedsheets drying on afternoons full of breezes and sunlight. “We decided to make a dish of pasta sheets, very floral and herbal, with fromage blanc and lots of little vegetables hiding underneath.”
The Poetry Dinner Series
Where: Holly Hill Inn, 426 N. Winter St., Midway
When: Opens Wednesday and continues through Oct. 5.
Reservations: 859-846-4732 or go to hollyhillinn.com