Poem about boiling cabbage
September 24, 2010 2:34 PM   Subscribe

I once read a poem in a literature anthology which said that the smell of boiling cabbage in a crowded tenement conveys desperation. My impression is that the poem may have been written 1940-1960 by a well-known American author. Can someone provide a citation for the poem?
posted by Abuissak to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Carl Sandburg wrote a bunch of poems with cabbage. Here's one, and another, and another. He also often wrote about the conditions in cities and among the poor--I think he'd be someone to search for.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:47 PM on September 24, 2010

Hm - my first thought was Turgenev's prose poem Cabbage-soup, which is also a desperation/grief poem. Perhaps Gwendolyn Brooks's The Lovers of the Poor?
posted by catlet at 3:00 PM on September 24, 2010

Grace Paley comes to mind, more of a short story writer I think. I don't have time to search now.
posted by mareli at 3:03 PM on September 24, 2010

George Orwell 1984 pg 1 "The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats"
posted by canoehead at 3:16 PM on September 24, 2010

You aren't thinking of Jacob Riis' classic (non poem). How the Other Half Lives?
posted by bearwife at 3:17 PM on September 24, 2010

Simon Armitage wrote a poem about cabbages and prison life. "Not the hospital tuck, but the smell of the cabbages. Not the five-knuckle fuck, but the smell of the cabbages," etc. He's not from the US, though.
posted by herrdoktor at 3:33 PM on September 24, 2010

Seconding George Orwell, but I'm thinking it wasn't just in 1984. I'm fairly certain there is a quote (that I can't find...) about the smell of boiled cabbage being the smell of poverty in one of his accounts of English working class life during the depression - Down and Out in Paris and London, or The Road to Wigan Pier.

According to Slate, the Hardy Boys series used the same metaphor on a regular basis. There's a Jonathon Swift poem in the same article noting the smell of poverty, but nothing's quoted about cabbage.
posted by Ahab at 9:00 PM on September 24, 2010

2nding Ahab about Orwell's Down & Out in Paris and London. It's been years since I read that book, but it popped in my head immediately when I saw your question. I'd look there first. Then again, it sounds like something William S. Burroughs would say too.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:47 PM on September 24, 2010

Gwendolyn Brooks' "Tenement Building"
posted by egret at 1:22 AM on September 25, 2010

When visiting slums of Nairobi a few years ago, they referred to cabbage or lettuce as something in Swahili as skooma-wiki (I'm sure it's spelled differently, but pronounced as such) which they explained meant, in intent, "will last you for a week until you can find meat," so as to say, it is a desperate last-effort to have *something* to eat in times of desperation.

Doesn't apply directly to the question, yes, but adds a little cultural context in that it's not just an American thing =)
posted by Quarter Pincher at 9:43 AM on September 25, 2010

Ugh. Sorry, not Burroughs; I meant Charles Bukowski. I *always* do that with those two. Dangit!
posted by iamkimiam at 12:40 PM on September 25, 2010

Have been searching for this poem unsuccessfully. Commenting here so that I get notified if someone finds the answer...
posted by bardophile at 6:09 AM on September 29, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the tips - My memory (from years ago) was that this poem about boiling cabbage was by Gwendolyn Brooks, although I didn't want to plant such an obvious suggestion in my AskMe question.

From wikipedia: "Her Selected Poems (1963) was followed in 1968 by In the Mecca, half of which is a long narrative poem about people in the Mecca, a vast, fortresslike apartment building erected on the South Side of Chicago in 1891, which had long since deteriorated into a slum."

My local public library has "In the Mecca" in its collection, so next step is to check the book out and see if I find the poem.
posted by Abuissak at 3:38 PM on April 19, 2011

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