“Chicago-Style Italian Beef,” from Vessel
by Parneshia Jones

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I love poems about food, especially ones that, like today’s, literally make my mouth water and send me off to look up recipes. The form of today’s poem, “Chicago-Style Italian Beef,” is free verse, 45 unmetered and unrhymed lines organized into six stanzas, with the last in the form of a couplet. Diction is plain-spoken, rendering the poem accessible and its voice colloquial and intimate. Even without regular meter, the poem makes subtle music in the repetition of sibilant S sounds (lines 1-10) and in other consonance, e.g., “wind, wide lake, and white lighting” (line 24), “opera of pimentos and peppers”(line 32), and “drizzle over, down” (line 35).

There is a lot to love about “Chicago-Style Italian Beef” besides its mouth-watering subject matter. One literary device very effectively at work is hyperbolic overstatement adding whimsy and humor, as when the speaker compares a lowly beef sandwich to—of all things—opera and, at the poem’s end, to an encounter with God. Another literary tactic is the use of injunctive mood, the speaker telling a “you” (which could be the speaker talking to herself, as well as to Italian immigrants in Chicago, and to us) what to do. As I’ve mentioned before in these columns, using “you” in this broad way helps draw readers into the experience of the poem, making it feel more relevant and inclusive. Use of Italian diction (ciao, arrivederci, vendetta, spumante, giardiniera, sotto aceti, and more) contributes cultural resonance and color. Finally, attention to specific detail, as when the author essentially provides the recipe for sotto aceti in lines 30-34, conveys authorial authority about her subject and adds authenticity.

The poem opens by establishing its setting, telling an implied you to “Take a trip to” Chicago, a place styled “Planet South Side” and home to stockyards and “turn-of-the-century Italians (lines 1-3).” Subsequent lines offer precisely chosen details to evoke a sensory world, especially one having to do with taste. Here, recipes receive the pope’s blessing and rolling pins are given the same syntactic weight as “rosaries,” an equivalence that (along with the “baptism” reference in line 27) prefigures the poem’s ending where eating the sandwich equates with proximity to God.

The poem is titled after that very sandwich, “Chicago-Style Italian Beef,” but an important supporting actor is its secret ingredient, the sotto aceti (also known as giardiniera). A spicy vegetable relish pickled in brine, it takes time to mature and is used to garnish beef that must be sliced “whisper” thin by hand. In marked contrast to the fast-food versions of roast beef subs often seen now, this one is the product of slow, deliberate labor following a recipe not simply passed down through generations but literally hand-carried by Italian immigrants “in glass jars, / in silk-lined suitcases across the ocean [lines 8-9].”

“[B]ig-shouldered city” evokes Chicago’s iconic poet Carl Sandburg to enrich and enlarge the setting, “this midwestern place of wind, wide lake, and white lighting [line 24].” It also paves the way for more personification in lines 14 and 27. Personification is a figure of speech that attributes human characteristics to nonhuman things; here, the taste of the beef is “wide-hipped,” and the roll that surrounds it gets “drunk” on its own savory juices. By the time I read about those wet seams giving way I was starting to feel a bit drunk myself, and also awfully hungry.

“Tell them this is home now” in line 25 marks the first point at which I began to read the “you” as also including (in what some call the “first-person you”) the speaker herself. The details of place are communicated with such specificity and intimacy it feels as if the speaker has directly experienced them, as if Chicago might be “home” for her as well, and so I was not surprised when the poet’s bio confirmed this. The next short stanza (lines 26-29) delivers the coup de grace in a poem chock-full of delicious details, and I especially loved the “baptism of its own broth” that drenches the bread—yum.

Stanza 5 returns, and with operatic passion—“the sotto aceti, ahh the sotto aceti”—to the secret ingredient smuggled across the ocean in those immigrant suitcases. I didn’t think it could get much better than au jus-drenched sandwich seams giving way, but this poem’s signature style is the way it keeps upping the ante, done again here in “opera of pimento and pepper.” That’s hyperbolic overstatement, of course, but executed so well that even as we smile at the reference, we have to acknowledge its essential accuracy and truth. That image works precisely because of its incongruity, the unexpectedness of comparing a lowbrow pickle to a highbrow art form, but it also works because we associate boththings with Italian culture.

The rest of the penultimate stanza gives more instructions on how to eat the sandwich—messily and with gusto—and on what to do, or not do, while enjoying it. Chicago-style Italian beef may be fast food for its consumers, but preparing it is anything but fast. The beef must be meticulously seasoned, then sliced with razor precision, then garnished with a complex relish that uses many ingredients. Its fullest enjoyment, moreover, depends on doing what the on-trend Slow Food movement wants us all to do: slow down long enough to fully savor the experience of eating. “[D]on’t rush,” we are told. “[G]o make love some more, / drink more wine,” and when you do eat the sandwich, let its juices “run down your arm [lines 37-9, 43].”

The reiteration in the poem’s closing couplet that “This is home now” convinces me that the speaker is, in this poem, also addressing herself as someone who now lives in Chicago and enjoys its ethnic foods. I feel at home by then, too, on that low stoop and able to believe that eating this delicious-sounding local delicacy is something that can bring a person closer to God. Not much left to say now, but—Mangia, and of course, Buon appetito! And if you are, like me, now wanting the recipe, you’ll find a slew of them here.


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