Ordinary Sugar

Aunt Mary made graham
cracker cake without
measuring cups, divided
one pound light
brown sugar with a knife,
half for the cake and half
for the pearlescent
hand-beaten, double-boiled
icing. Aunt Earline made
yellow cake with frosting
of real fudge—234 degrees
and all, slow cooled, poured
just before the rapid and
irrevocable hardening.
Ordinary sugar coaxed
to its epiphany.

An heir to their confectionary
sleight of hand, I keep
their notes pressed in a book
and safe. Sugar is poison
to my arthritic knees,
but their recipes will rest,
nonetheless, pristine,
not spoiled with things that
just seem sweet. I’ll make
savory dishes out of what
grows green, what snaps
pleasurably, what must,
after twice the loss
of such women, be plenty.

Of Grandma Mattie, sugar
alchemist, it is said, if they
were all she had to hand,
she could make sweet potato
pie out of russets. Seduce
their pale starches until they
tumbled into caramel.
What the loving living tell.
I remember her gleaming
glass eye, her pregnant
wordlessness, her spinning
through the kitchen hot
and fast. Too, the ruthless
manic canning, putting by,
putting by, against memories
too near starvation—the
machine in her belly built
to last. I do not have preserved

in my book how she seasoned
her pear chow-chow or trapped
the summer gardens her labors
made lush. I know only that
she fed the earth her eggshells
and morning coffee grounds,
that she harvested continually
and in fullness, the tender skins
near breaking, near sugar,
always before the chill. Not one
bite lost. She’d mastered,
in a life, how to grow
a winter meal, to till, to weed,
to water, to tend, learned how,
I hope, to be satisfied.

Help me, Lord, to be satisfied.
I was born impatient, under
a vibrating star. But my mother
taught me gently, before
it ached us both to stand,
how to slice fat into cold flour,
sprinkle ice water by tablespoons,
form a perfect discus of dough
without touching it. Unfurl
the crust from a good
French pin. Brush with milk.
A proper flute. Taught me,
too, how to discern and sort
and sugar down the fruit,
and when to fill the plate,
and when to wait, instead,
for the juice to come in.

Amanda Gunn, “Ordinary Sugar” from Things I Didn’t Do with This Body. Copyright © 2023 by Amanda Gunn. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Copper Canyon Press, coppercanyonpress.org.