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Chapter 2: Recipe for reading.

By the end of this chapter, you should begin to ...

* apply the steps of the reading process to a variety of texts;

* distinguish between different purposes for reading and use appropriate, effective strategies for each;

* incorporate "writing to read" strategies in your reading; and

* use effective reading strategies as part of your revision process.

Writing and reading are as closely and inevitably connected as cooking and eating. Just as the end goal in cooking is for someone to eat the food, the end goal in writing is for someone to read the words--whether the writing is a text message, business letter, poem, or academic essay. For most cooks, eating--or tasting--is a part of the cooking process itself. (a) Similarly, for effective writers, reading is part of the writing process. Writers must read their own work as they revise it, and they must be good readers. Unless they can see what their words actually say, they won't be able to judge whether the words accurately reflect what they want to say. Further, just as good cooks may taste other people's dishes as part of developing their cooking skills, good writers will "taste" other people's writing to get new ideas or to "educate their palates."

Reading is also like listening, and good reading is like good listening. Good listeners will first try to understand what the other person is saying before jumping in with their own comments. Poor listeners, on the other hand, are always thinking about what they are going to say next and in doing so are likely to miss the other person's point altogether. As readers, we should focus on what the actual words say. Read them aloud. Listen to them. Once we've understood the reading, once we've tasted all the flavors in a particular dish, then we can evaluate and respond.

Texts come in many different forms, just as foods do, and we have different reasons for reading (or eating) them. (The word "texts" here refers to any piece of writing, not just the message sent from your cell phone.) We don't eat all foods in the same way or for the same purpose. Would you wolf down a chocolate bar the same way you would savor an expensive dessert? No, nor would you read a text message from a friend in the same way you'd read an article about molecular gastronomy or a sonnet by Shakespeare.

In this chapter we'll look at strategies for "tasting" different types of texts. If we're reading only for entertainment ("snacking"), we can skim through and ignore nutritional value. However, when we're concerned with more focused, high-stakes types of reading, such as reading for information or ideas ("balanced meals"), we need to take the time to "chew" the text carefully. The following series of steps can help us to read more effectively, that is, to improve our "digestion."


Before you even begin to read, it's helpful to get an idea of the size and scope of the reading. What is the text about, and how long is it? (We do the same with meals--how long does it take to eat a dinner of EasyMac versus a Thanksgiving feast?) If it is a chapter in a textbook, skim through the pages and note the headings. These will give you important clues about the main points covered in the reading.

As you're scanning the chapter, it's also helpful to ask yourself what you already know about that topic. It's easier to understand and remember new information if you have a sense of where it fits in with the knowledge you have now. For example, if you're assigned to read a chapter about foodborne illness, you might think about what you already know about bacteria such as E. coli and about cross-contamination, and then ask yourself how the reading will expand on your knowledge. It's as if you're creating a framework for the new information. Then, as you read, you place the new bits of knowledge inside the frame you've already created.

Scanning the chapter will also give you a sense of how much time you'll need to read it carefully. The more you already know about the topic, the less time it may take you to add new information to your mental framework. The less you know, the more time it will take to create and fill that mental framework.

After you have a framework for the new information, go ahead and read the chapter or article. Unlike reading for entertainment, reading for information usually means you don't just read straight through. Instead, you read sections of the text, then pause to make sure you understand what you've just read. If you don't understand, you should read it again, perhaps out loud. Chew it over. Depending on the purpose of your reading, you may want to make a note of any questions you have in order to ask them in class or try to find answers through research. Whatever the topic is, try to visualize what you're reading about. If you can imagine the ripening of a tomato or the whisking of a hollandaise sauce, you are more likely to enjoy your reading--and to understand and remember it.

As you read, it is useful to highlight important points and concepts in some way, whether in the text itself or on a separate page of notes. It's more effective to read the chapter once, stopping to understand and record what's important, than to read it through several times without really digesting or retaining the information. Think again about the comparison to eating: the faster you chew and swallow, the less likely you are to perceive and appreciate the flavor profile of a dish. You might even get indigestion! However, when you're focused on tasting, you may go very slowly, stopping to inhale the aromas, holding the chocolate or wine in your mouth in order to experience each flavor note completely. Further, chewing each bite carefully improves digestion.

One way to highlight important points is literally with a hi-liter, a brightly colored marker. Highlighting is fun, a smooth slip along the paper. Don't highlight too much, though, or you won't be able to find those important points easily. Instead, highlight just the main idea, key terms, and significant supporting details. Look at the example in Figure 2.1.

Figure 2.1 Highlighting Important Points in the Text

That set of rules for preparing food we call a cuisine, for
example, specifies combinations of foods and flavors that on
examination do a great deal to mediate the omnivore's dilemma. The
dangers of eating raw fish, for example, are minimized by consuming
it with wasabi, a potent antimicrobial. Similarly, the strong
spices characteristic of many cuisines in the tropics, where food
is quick to spoil, have antibacterial properties. The meso-American
practice of cooking corn with lime and serving it with beans, like
the Asian practice of fermenting soy and serving it with rice,
turns out to render these plant species much more nutritious than
they otherwise would be. When not fermented, soy contains an
antitrypsin factor than blocks the absorption of protein, rendering
the bean indigestible; unless the corn is cooked with an alkali
like lime its niacin is unavailable, leading to the nutritional
deficiency called pellagra.

--Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma, p. 296

If you need more detailed notes, or if you want to be able to erase your notes, try marking up the text with a pencil. Your notes might include any or all of the following: main ideas, supporting points, questions, vocabulary. Compare the notes in Figure 2.2 taken on a portion of the same passage from The Omnivore's Dilemma. If you use a good system of note-taking, you don't have to keep re-reading the chapter; you simply refresh your memory by looking over your notes. Some people find it more effective to take notes on a separate sheet of paper. These notes can range from quite formal outlines to simple lists of the points you want to remember.

Figure 2.2 Detailed Penciled Notes

The meso-American practice of cooking corn with lime and serving it
with beans, like the Asian practice of fermenting soy and serving
it with rice, turns out to render these plant species much more
nutritious than they otherwise would be. When not fermented, soy
contains an antitrypsin factor than blocks the absorption of
protein, rendering the bean indigestible; unless the corn is cooked
with an alkali like lime its niacin is unavailable, leading to the
nutritional deficiency called pellagra.

Michael Pollan, An Omnivore's Dilemma, p. 296

I. Benefits of cuisine, that is, specific food pairings

A. killing microbes--wasabi with raw fish

B. killing bacteria--tropical spices

C. Enhancing nutritional value--lime with corn and beans, fermented soy with rice

In addition to taking notes of some kind, it can be useful to check your comprehension of the reading by summarizing sections of the text (through writing or speaking) and connecting them to what you already know. Look at the following summary of the paragraph:

   Many traditional cuisines use food combinations that protect their
   "eaters" from foodborne illness and enhance the nutritional value
   of the ingredients.

If your understanding of the text is limited by an unfamiliar word or reference, try to figure out its meaning from the context, that is, from the other words and sentences around it. However, that isn't always possible. Because misunderstanding a word can prevent you from grasping something essential about the passage, it might be more effective to look up words and jot down the definitions in the margins of the text or on your separate page of notes. You don't want to go down the wrong path and have to retrace your steps later. If you need to learn vocabulary words or facts, making flashcards is an extraordinarily effective activity.

Another way of learning and reviewing material from the text is to create your own charts and diagrams or to explain in your own words a chart or diagram from the text. Each time you turn words into pictures or pictures into words, you use both hemispheres of the brain--literally "broadening" your understanding of the text. If you're reading a political or philosophical text, for example, make a chart that compares and contrasts the views of one writer with those of another or with your own. Or, if you're looking at an illustration of the human circulatory system, try explaining it in words. Respond creatively to a text, perhaps by recording your impressions in a journal or writing an imaginary letter to the author. The more "work" you do with a text, the more thoroughly you will understand and remember it.

The steps in the reading process will vary, of course, depending on your purpose in reading, your previous knowledge of the topic, and the difficulty of the text. Let's look at some of the different types of reading you might have to do.


Reading for information is what we do with such texts as news articles, recipes, or textbooks. We're looking for facts and processes, and--depending on how much we already know--we can often skim through, looking for the new facts and details we need and placing them within the framework we've already developed. It might be that we need very specific information, such as the year in which the potato arrived in Europe, and we will simply scan the chapter in search of that detail. If the information is unfamiliar, however, we'll have to read more carefully, and probably take notes on the new terms or steps in a recipe. If the reading is part of a course, you'll need to make sure you learn and remember the new information. You'll probably want to make a separate set of notes for easy review, as well as flashcards if you need to learn specific information like dates, formulas, or vocabulary.

You will also want to be certain that you're reading a reliable source. If the text has been assigned by your instructor, chances are that it has already been vetted. However, not everything we might read contains accurate information. Just because something has been published does not mean it is true. You will want to make some kind of assessment of the credibility or authority of the reading. Ask yourself if the author seems to be knowledgeable and if the publisher or online source is reputable. Test the new information against what you already know. Ask yourself why the author is writing this particular text and for what audience. (For a more detailed discussion of evaluating the accuracy of your information, see Chapter 18.)

Reading for information is foundational in our school work and in much of our professional lives. Therefore, the more effective we are at harvesting and digesting information from the text, the better. Dig in to the reading about potatoes in Exercise 2.1.

Exercise 2.1 | Reading for Information

Read the following passage from Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking (first edition, 191-192) and note important details. Be sure to look up the meaning of any unfamiliar words.

The potato, a relative of tobacco and the tomato, is indigenous to Central and South America, from the southern United States to the tip of Chile. It was cultivated more than 4000 years ago in mountainous areas, up to 15,000 feet, where corn cannot grow, and was a staple food of the Incas. The name comes from a Caribbean Indian word for the sweet potato, batata. Spanish explorers brought the plant to Europe around 1570, and England and Ireland had it by about 1610 and immediately accepted it as an important food crop. Because it was hardy and easy to grow, the potato was inexpensive and the poor were its principal consumers.... The potato came to the United States as a food crop indirectly, via Ireland, in 1719; the first large area of cultivation was near Londonderry, New Hampshire. It quickly became established on all continents, in temperate, subtropical, and tropical climates, and is now the most important vegetable in the world, excluding only the tropical lowlands, where manioc, another large tuber (tapioca is made from its starch) is more easily grown.

Answer the following questions:

1. How old is the potato?

2. What does indigenous mean?

3. Who were the Incas?

4. Why were poor people more likely to eat potatoes?

5. How and when was the potato introduced to the United States?

In addition to answering questions about the reading, thinking creatively about the information can help us to understand and remember it. Try the activities in Exercise 2.2 using the same paragraph from McGee.

Exercise 2.2 | Activities to Increase Comprehension

1. In one or two sentences, summarize the paragraph from McGee in Exercise 2.1.

2. Describe a scene in which an American family in 1719 is cooking with potatoes for the first time.

3. Create a timeline of the potato's travels.

4. Draw a map of the potato's travels, labeling the appropriate areas and dates.


In addition to reading for information, we may also read for ideas; that is, we may read in order to understand a concept and perhaps to apply it to a new situation. Like certain foods, some kinds of written materials are harder to "digest" than others. A book about psychology or economics, for example, will most likely require more time and effort to read than a restaurant or movie review. You may need to read the text several times--perhaps read it out loud to hear as well as see the words--and to stop and think carefully about what the author means. Let's look at an example.

In A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, Daniel H. Pink discusses the types of skills needed for success in a changing world. First, he defines two ways of thinking, L-Directed and R-Directed:

      Call the first approach L-Directed Thinking. It is a form of
   thinking and an attitude to life that is characteristic of the left
   hemisphere of the brain--sequential, literal, functional, textual,
   and analytical. Ascendant in the Information Age, exemplified by
   computer programmers, prized by hardheaded organizations, and
   emphasized in schools, this approach is directed by left-brain
   attributes, toward left-brain results. Call the other approach
   R-Directed Thinking. It is a form of thinking and an attitude to
   life that is characteristic of the right hemisphere of the
   brain--simultaneous, metaphorical, aesthetic, contextual, and
   synthetic. Underemphasized in the Information Age, exemplified by
   creators and caregivers, shortchanged by organizations, and
   neglected in schools, this approach is directed by right-brain
   attributes, toward right-brain results. (26)

Pink then argues that both types of thinking are essential for success in the Conceptual Age; that is, a "whole" mind is needed. He goes on to define six of these combined skills, including design. "Design," he explains, "is a classic whole-minded aptitude, "a combination of utility [L-Directed Thinking] and significance [R-Directed Thinking]" (70). Examples help to make his point clear. From cars and TVs to vegetable brushes and toasters, he writes, the aesthetic appeal or significance of an item is as important to its success in the Conceptual Age as its performance.

Examples are very useful in giving the reader a better handle on an idea. They're a way of re-reading or re-thinking the material. Imagining your own examples or applications can also be helpful. In your experience, for instance, how do the two sides of design play out in a restaurant's dining room or on its menu? Do you choose your kitchen knives and pots based on their utility or on their beauty, or both?

Finally, to check your comprehension, it is useful to paraphrase or summarize the author's idea in your own words.

Exercise 2.3 | Paraphrasing or Summarizing the Reading

Explain L-Directed and R-Directed Thinking in your own words. Then explain how "design" uses both kinds of thinking.

Exercise 2.4 | Finding Your Own Examples

Think about two purchases you've made recently. What role did the "design" of each item play in your decision to buy it over its competitor?

As in all kinds of reading, when you read for ideas you will begin by looking at the facts of the text, the surface details, but you will then want to look beneath the surface of the text or "between the lines" and draw conclusions about what is not written. For example, ask yourself, What is the author's purpose in writing this particular text? (In a conversation, you might ask yourself, Why is he telling me this?) What assumptions does the author seem to make about the reader's knowledge about the topic and about his political, ethical, or religious beliefs? As we consider another example, the concluding paragraph from Jose Antonio Burciaga's essay "Tortillas" (Courtesy of University of Texas-Pan American Press), let's look first at the surface details and then at what may lie beneath them.

      Then there is tortilla art. Various Chicano artists throughout
   the Southwest have, when short of materials or just in a whimsical
   mood, used a dry tortilla as a small, round canvas. And a few years
   back, at the height of the Chicano movement, a priest in Arizona
   got into trouble with the Church after he was discovered
   celebrating mass using a tortilla as the host. All of which goes to
   show that while the tortilla may be a lowly corn cake, when the
   necessity arises, it can reach unexpected distinction.

The main idea is that tortillas have sometimes been used as art rather than food, and the paragraph offers the two examples of "a small, round canvas" and "the host" in the celebration of mass. We'll want to be sure we understand the surface details, such as the meaning of "whimsical" and the reference to the "Chicano movement." We may want to examine Burciaga's tone or attitude in the last sentence and think about whether or not he was offended by this use of the tortilla, and whether he expects the reader to be.

Exercise 2.5 | Reading for Ideas

Re-read the paragraph from "Tortillas" and answer the following questions:

1. What is the effect of Burciaga telling us that the event (the priest getting into trouble) occurred "at the height of the Chicano movement"?

2. Look up information on Burciaga's life. How does this add to your understanding of the paragraph? Why?


The process of reading a story, poem, or other literary work is similar to the other types of reading we've discussed in that we begin with the surface details, the characters and events, the time and place. We look for the main idea in each paragraph, and we'll also want to look for any implied meaning, assumptions, or contradictions. We may need to look up unfamiliar words or references. We may also want to use such outside clues as information about the author and the historical context, mythology, psychoanalytic theory, or other fields of study to enrich our understanding of the work. Reading literature differs most perhaps in the degree to which we become engaged with the material. As we read a story, for example, we often empathize with the characters and try to make predictions about what will happen to them. We may discover that the story has connections with our own lives and with other works.

Current research in neuroscience supports the idea that we make strong connections with the stories we read. (2) Apparently when we see a word for a smell (like "coffee") or a texture (like "velvet"), our brains light up in the same areas we'd use when actually smelling or touching something. When we read about a movement of the arm or leg, such as kicking a soccer ball, our brains light up in the same areas we'd use when performing that action ourselves. Further, reading about human interactions in a story can help us develop our social skills as if we were living through the experiences along with the characters. Think back to the reading from Moby-Dick in Chapter 1: inhaling the "warm savory steam" of the chowder, chewing the "small juicy clams." Perhaps we imagined ourselves "plying our spoons in the bowl" as Ishmael and Queequeg did.

Look now at the following paragraph, excerpted from Sarah Vowell's essay "Shooting Dad" (17-18), about a father and daughter who disagree on almost everything.

      Our house was partitioned off into territories. While the kitchen
   and the living room were well within the DMZ, the respective work
   spaces governed by my father and me were jealously guarded
   totalitarian states in which each of us declared ourselves
   dictator. Dad's shop was a messy disaster area, a labyrinth of
   lathes. Its walls were hung with the mounted antlers of deer he'd
   bagged, forming a makeshift museum of death. The available flat
   surfaces were buried under a million scraps of paper on which he
   sketched his mechanical inventions in blue ballpoint pen. And the
   floor, carpeted with spiky metal shavings, was a tetanus shot
   waiting to happen. My domain was the cramped, cold space known as
   the music room. It was also a messy disaster area, an obstacle
   course of musical instruments--piano, trumpet, baritone horn, valve
   trombone, various percussion doodads (bells!), and recorders. A
   framed portrait of the French composer Claude Debussy was nailed to
   the wall. The available flat surfaces were buried under piles of
   staff paper, on which I penciled in the pompous orchestra music
   [that] I started writing in junior high.

The main idea of this paragraph is clearly stated in the first sentence: "Our house was partitioned off into territories." Author Sarah Vowell then develops this idea through comparing and contrasting the "territories" that belong to her father and herself. Her father, a gunsmith, has a work space filled with tools and ingredients related to his craft, while her space reflects her interest in music. Read the paragraph carefully, checking your understanding of the vocabulary and references.

Exercise 2.6 | Reading Surface Details

Answer the following questions from your reading of the excerpt from "Shooting Dad"

1. What is "the DMZ"?

2. What's a "lathe"? What does a "labyrinth of lathes" look like?

3. Why is the floor "a tetanus shot waiting to happen"?

4. What does "pompous" mean?

If you thought "pompous" meant "excellent" or "romantic," say, rather than "self-important" or "pretentious," you might miss an important clue about the narrator. Sometimes we get tired of looking up new words, but it usually pays off.

Once you're clear about the details, read the paragraph again and try to make sense of what those details tell us about the story and its characters. For example, we might ask what the term "DMZ" or "demilitarized zone" suggests about the relationship between the author and her father. Or we might wonder what the choice of Debussy suggests about the narrator's interests and personality. To answer these questions more fully, of course, we would need to read the entire essay. These are just examples of the kinds of questions that help us to look beneath the surface of a literary text.

Reading literature is also different from reading a news story and other types of texts in that the structure of the sentences and the choice of the words themselves are central to the meaning and impact of the work. Notice that although their interests seem diametrically opposed (guns and music), both father and daughter have work spaces described as "a messy disaster area." Also, in each work space "the available flat surfaces were buried under ... paper." These parallel phrases reveal to the careful reader that there is a similarity between father and daughter. We might reach the same conclusion by visualizing the items mentioned in the paragraph. There are long, hollow metal objects (guns and trumpets) in each work space; therefore father and daughter have something in common.

A special aspect of reading literature is observing and analyzing the use of figurative language, such as metaphor, personification, alliteration, and onomatopoeia. In Vowell's paragraph, we can find the following examples of alliteration, that is, repetition of the initial consonant: "a labyrinth of lathes" (repeated initial l's) and "makeshift museum" (repeated initial m's). Notice how the repetition of sounds draws attention to the passage, adds interest to the text, and suggests a playfulness in the narrator's attitude. (For more on figurative language, see Chapters 12 and 17.)

Finally, in reading literature--as in all types of reading (and listening)--we need to distinguish between what the text actually says and what thoughts we might have about the same topic. Otherwise we might misunderstand the text because we jump too quickly to an "interpretation." Suppose a reader who was opposed to hunting saw the line about "the mounted antlers of deer he'd bagged" and jumped to the conclusion that the father was brutal and unsympathetic, completely missing Vowell's clues about her father's personality. While it is natural for us to bring our own experiences into our reading, we also need to be very clear about the difference between our thoughts and the author's actual words. We should always return to the evidence of the text and check our interpretations against it.


In order to be effective writers, we also need to be effective readers of our own work. We have to learn how to read what is actually written on the page rather than get lost in what we were thinking about as we were writing. We have to step away from the work somehow and try to look at it objectively, as if we hadn't written it ourselves. Try to let some time pass before revising--ideally a day or more. If you don't have that much time, however, at least get up and move around, get a drink of water, before looking at what you've just written. At that point you are more likely to read your work effectively.

Just as you might take notes on a textbook chapter, you may find it helpful to take notes on your own writing. Mark passages that are especially good (positive reinforcement works well), that need more information, or that should be revised or deleted. Pencil in ideas. Highlight words or phrases that need revision. If the order of sentences or paragraphs seems off, try re-reading in a different sequence; then make a note of your preference. Be sure to record your reactions as you read; you don't want to take the chance of forgetting some important insights.

Another way to increase your effectiveness as the reader of your own work is to read it aloud, whether to yourself or others. Reading aloud to a real audience, whether a class or just one person, can dramatically increase your sense of who your readers might be and whether or not your writing is communicating effectively with them. Sometimes you can literally see on their faces whether or not you're getting the reaction you're aiming for--like watching your customers taste the dish you've prepared for them. You may hear that a transition is missing, or that you need to begin a new paragraph. You will also have a reaction yourself: "Yes, it sounds good" or "No, it's not right."

In addition to helping you think about content and organization, reading aloud can help you adjust the rhythm and flow of each sentence. Think about it--reading aloud uses the mouth and tongue just as eating does. By reading aloud we literally feel and taste the words. Sometimes they taste good. They're easy to say, and the sound of them is pleasing. At other times, however, they leave a bad taste, whether because they're confusing, boring, or awkwardly phrased. When you come across such a sentence, try several different alternatives and read each of them out loud. Then choose the most delicious one!

Let's look at an example. Suppose you'd written the following sentence. Read it out loud.

   In Sarah's case the father and daughter seem fine with each other
   maybe not super close but who knows maybe they shared some interest
   that they found out later they had in common.

After reading the sentence out loud, we hear that it needs to be shorter, smoother, less repetitive. (It's quite motivating to hear the problem. Weak writing is easier to ignore when we just scan over it with our eyes.) Consider this alternative to that clunky sentence:

   Although Sarah and her father aren't particularly close, they seem
   fine with each other. Maybe one day they'll discover some common

Reading aloud is also useful in proofreading, as it both slows you down and makes you more aware of your audience. It can be helpful to place a sheet of colorful paper on your text to hold your focus on each line. (See also Chapter 29.)

Revision can be frustrating because we just don't want to read our work anymore. We just want the assignment to be over with! However, thoughtful reading and rewriting can dramatically increase the effectiveness of a piece of writing. Taste, and re-season.


Elizabeth Bishop has been called one of the most important American poets of the twentieth century, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1938 and the National Book Award in 1967. Her poetry is known for its precise representations of the physical world and its underlying themes of struggle, grief, and longing.


   The Fish

   by Elizabeth Bishop

   I caught a tremendous fish
   and held him beside the boat
   half out of water, with my hook
   fast in a corner of his mouth.
   He didn't fight.
   He hadn't fought at all.
   He hung a grunting weight,
   battered and venerable
   and homely. Here and there
   his brown skin hung in strips
   like ancient wallpaper,
   and its pattern of darker brown
   was like wallpaper:
   shapes like full-blown roses
   stained and lost through age.
   He was speckled with barnacles,
   fine rosettes of lime,
   and infested
   with tiny white sea-lice,
   and underneath two or three
   rags of green weed hung down.
   While his gills were breathing in
   the terrible oxygen
   --the frightening gills,
   fresh and crisp with blood,
   that can cut so badly--I
   thought of the coarse white flesh
   packed in like feathers,
   the big bones and the little bones,
   the dramatic reds and blacks
   of his shiny entrails,
   and the pink swim-bladder
   like a big peony.
   I looked into his eyes
   which were far larger than mine
   but shallower, and yellowed,
   the irises backed and packed
   with tarnished tinfoil
   seen through the lenses
   of old scratched isinglass.
   They shifted a little, but not
   to return my stare.
   --It was more like the tipping
   of an object toward the light.
   I admired his sullen face,
   the mechanism of his jaw,
   and then I saw
   that from his lower lip
   --if you could call it a lip--
   grim, wet, and weaponlike,
   hung five old pieces of fish-line,
   or four and a wire leader
   with the swivel still attached,
   with all their five big hooks
   grown firmly in his mouth.
   A green line, frayed at the end
   where he broke it, two heavier lines,
   and a fine black thread
   still crimped from the strain and snap
   when it broke and he got away.
   Like medals with their ribbons
   frayed and wavering,
   a five-haired beard of wisdom
   trailing from his aching jaw.
   I stared and stared
   and victory filled up
   the little rented boat,
   from the pool of bilge
   where oil had spread a rainbow
   around the rusted engine
   to the bailer rusted orange,
   the sun-cracked thwarts,
   the oarlocks on their strings,
   the gunnels--until everything
   was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
   And I let the fish go.

'The Fish" from THE COMPLETE POEMS 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop. Copyright [C] 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.


* What happens in the poem?

* What words and phrases describe the fish?

* How does the narrator feel about the fish? How do you know?

* Why do you think the narrator lets the fish go? What lines in the poem support your answer?

Grant Rainiere Young was born and raised in the Philippines. He is studying culinary arts in the United States.

Bitter Dinners

by Grant Rainiere Young

Food can be one of the most pleasurable things that everyone experiences. Its purpose is not only to nourish us. The happiness food brings to the people who are savoring it exceeds this primal reason. On every occasion, I see food as a component that binds the people who are enjoying it. When families and friends gather, food can uplift the company. Even between strangers, food can ignite a joyful encounter. Yet, in the case of two stories I have read, food made an opposite impression on the characters. The memories of the past bring together the stories of the narrators from "Fish Cheeks" and "Killing Dinner." Between their families and the writers themselves, conflicts with their family arise on the occasions they remember, which all revolve around food. In "Fish Cheeks," it is the traditional Chinese dinner. In "Killing Dinner," it is the slaughtering of the chicken. Because of the events that happened in each story, I have seen that the characters' relationship with food changed.

In my understanding from the stories, these unfortunate events came from the characters' choices in their lives that were not in total accordance with who they were and what their family expected them to be. In "Fish Cheeks," when Amy knew that her crush, an American named Robert, was coming for Christmas dinner, she cried because she was afraid that he might dislike the Chinese customs of her family. Her tears were a manifestation of her worries that not being an American by ethnicity was not acceptable to her potential lover. Being overly caught up with her qualms, she mumbled, "What would Robert think of our shabby Chinese Christmas? What would he think of our noisy Chinese relatives who lacked proper American manners? What terrible disappointment would he feel upon seeing not a roasted turkey and sweet potatoes but Chinese food?" (116) It appeared to me that she was not proud to be Chinese. On a stronger point, it seemed she even would want to change herself into being white. She stated, "For Christmas I prayed for ... a slim new American nose" (116). Having grown up in and been exposed to a culture that was not her own might have enveloped her true identity. This could explain her scorn for her family's food and dining traditions.

On the other hand, in "Killing Dinner," Gabrielle Hamilton talked about a father who was angry at his daughter. Even before she failed to kill the chicken efficiently, I believe that her father was already unhappy with her being a seventeen-year-old high school dropout who was living with him. She stated, "That fall, I spent a lot of time sitting outside on the log pile at dusk smoking hand-rolled cigarettes in my canvas jacket, watching the garden decay and thinking about death and the inherent beauty of the cycle of life" (71). This might have increased the aggravation in her relationship with her father, who might not have approved of her apparent idleness in life. I believe that her father only did what he did to discipline his daughter. Her mastery in butchering various types of meats came later. She boasted, "I have butchered two-hundred-and-twenty pound sides of beef, ... carved tongues out of the heads of goats, ... boned the saddle and legs of rabbits, which even skinned, look exactly like bunnies" (71). However, this confidence didn't start out in a pleasant beginning.

Because of these scornful and unhappy feelings, the characters' reaction toward an enjoyable occasion turned out to be bitter. The food that was the center of their stories caused them suffering and embarrassment. On the night of the Christmas dinner, the fourteen-year-old Amy Tan was in absolute despair. Around the dinner table, every person had caused her so much misery because she thought that their actions were not acceptable to the person she wanted to like her and perhaps also to herself. She mentioned, "Dinner threw me deeper into despair. My relatives licked the ends of their chopsticks and reached across the table, dipping them into the dozen or so plates of food" (117). When the main dish of steamed fish was brought out, she was terrified. Robert's grimace when he saw the whole fish added to her misery. She was very ashamed. She said, "I wanted to disappear" (117).

In the same way Amy dreaded the fish cheeks, killing a chicken horrified Gabrielle when she unsuccessfully hit it in the neck multiple times. Although it might have started with Gabrielle confident, the dull hatchet her father gave her caused the chicken to suffer. This revolted her father. In her story she said, "My dad was animated with disgust at his dropout daughter--so morose and unfeminine." With this, she also suffered. She stated, "I kept coming down on the bird's throat--which was now broken but still issuing terrible clucks--stroke after miserable stroke, until I finally got its head off. I was blubbering though clenched teeth" (72). She carried the guilt of disappointing her father throughout the meal. When they had the bird at the dinner table, she thought to herself, "I'm not sure you should sit across from each other and eat the roasted bird in resentful silence, either, but we did that too, and the meat was disagreeably tough" (73). She could have smoothly killed the chicken with pride. At first, she had felt honoured. "I said it was important to confront the death of the animal you had the privilege of eating, that it was cowardly to buy cellophane-wrapped packages of boneless, skinless breasts at the grocery store" (72). Because of her actions, her father may have tried to teach her a lesson of responsibility. In his own way of discipline, he intentionally gave her that dull hatchet.

In both stories, the main characters felt negatively toward the food that was supposed to be enjoyed. Amy felt shame about her family's food traditions. Instead of devouring her favourite dish of fish cheeks, her adverse thoughts about losing Robert because of her customs hampered what could have been a wonderful meal. For Gabrielle, her botched slaughtering of the chicken made her father angry. It was not directly because of how the food tasted, but the consequence of their actions was to make their experience with food unpleasant. However, this change in perception about a certain food or occasion around food was transient. Even though the food might have caused conflicts and suffering between the characters, I could still see that these events also provided them enlightenment. It made Amy proud of her culture when she understood that her family was only trying to bring her back to her roots. At the end of the miserable night, her mother gave her a miniskirt because she knew Amy wanted to be American. But her mother reminded Amy, "But inside you must always be Chinese. You must be proud you are different. Your only shame is to have shame" (117). After many years, Amy realized that her actions on that Christmas Eve were pointless. With Gabrielle, that unfortunate event might have driven her to becoming a successful chef. Her passion for meat, butchering, preparing and cooking it, could have stemmed from her debacle with the bird. I could see that her struggle opened her eyes to accept that she needed to become more responsible. Yes, there might be instances, like what happened in the stories, when food could be a source of unhappiness. But, in the end, food will always give people a smile in their faces.

Works Cited

Hamilton, Gabrielle. "Killing Dinner." Best Food Writing 2005. Ed. Holly Hughes. New York: Marlowe, 2005. 71-73. Print.

Tan, Amy. "Fish Cheeks." The Bedford Reader. 11th ed. Ed. X. J. Kennedy, Dorothy M. Kennedy, and Jane E. Aaron. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2012. 116-117. Print.


* What makes the two dinner experiences "bitter"?

* In what ways are Amy's and Gabrielle's conflicts with their families similar? In what ways are they different?

* Do you think the author learned anything about his own or others' real lives by reading these stories? Did you? Explain.

* Read the two stories for yourself. What aromas, textures, and actions do you find?



1. Look over the "ingredients," that is, the text to be read, to find out what it's about. Scan the pages, looking for clues in headings and illustrations. Think about what you might already know about the topic, and prepare a framework on which to "hang" new information.

2. Read the text, pausing to check you've understood it. Look up unfamiliar words or unclear references.

3. Record important information by highlighting or taking notes on main ideas and key terms, noting questions, and/or summarizing in your own words.

4. Depending on your purpose for reading, you may wish to create a more formal set of notes and/or summaries, as well as flashcards for key terms and concepts. Writing a response to the author and talking to classmates about the reading can also be very helpful.


1. Summarize main points.

2. Take notes on key facts, dates, formulas, ingredients, vocabulary.

3. Be sure the source is reliable.


1. As always, check reliability.

2. You may need to read more slowly to understand ideas, or read a passage more than once. Stop and think about what the author is saying. Can you put the author's thoughts into your own words? Can you think of other examples?

3. Look beneath the surface of the text for clues to the author's purpose and assumptions. Think about how that affects your understanding of the author's meaning and reliability.

4. You may want to consider evidence outside the text as well, such as biographical information about the author, the historical context of the work, and other works on the same topic.

5. Be sure to distinguish the thoughts conveyed in the text from the thoughts you already have about the topic.


1. Reading literature can engage us both emotionally and intellectually as we make connections with the text. Further, reading about movements of the arms or legs stimulates the parts of the brain we'd use to perform those actions ourselves.

2. Be prepared to read a story or poem several times. First, read for the "facts." Who's there? What's happening?

3. Next, use these facts or surface details to make sense of the story, the characters, and/or ideas in the text.

4. Pay attention to the language itself, including sentence structure, word choice, and figurative language.

5. You may want to consider such outside clues as biographical information, historical context, psychoanalytic theory, or mythology in interpreting a literary text.

6. The experience and knowledge that the reader brings to literature is very important. However, you need to be careful to distinguish between the thoughts conveyed in the text and the thoughts you already have about the topic.

7. See also Chapter 17.


1. Just as you might take notes on a text you're reading, read your own writing carefully and take notes on potential revisions to content, organization, and word choice.

2. Be careful to focus on what you've actually written; don't get distracted by what you think you've written.

3. Reading aloud can be extremely effective, particularly reading aloud to an audience or having someone else read your work to you.


1. Imagine that you were living on a farm in Ireland around 1610 when the potato first arrived. Write a dialogue between yourself and a neighboring farmer in which you discuss the strange new vegetable.

2. Choose a food you know well, like potatoes or rice. Then, using Burciaga's "Tortillas" as a rough model, write an essay in which you define the food and describe its various uses.

3. Describe the ways in which you are similar to and different from a family member.

4. Tell the story of a food experience you've had, such as catching a fish or butchering a chicken, or eating a "bitter dinner."

(a) See Chapter 12 for a description of cooking without tasting!
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Title Annotation:UNIT 1: PROCESS
Author:Cadbury, Vivian C.
Publication:A Taste for Writing, Composition for Culinarians
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2015
Previous Article:Chapter 1: Cooking up communication.
Next Article:Chapter 3: Getting started with the writing process.

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