The Washington Post

Jake Adam York’s barbecue poetry: a state of ‘Grace’

Jake Adam York says “Grace” to those ancestors who share the dinner table with him. (Sarah Skeen)

At the conclusion of the meal, I read a poem by Jake Adam York, an associate professor of English and creative writing at the University of Colorado Denver, who has written three books of poetry. The poem I read is titled “Grace.” It’s about barbecue

You read correctly: a poem about barbecue.

Thankfully (pun intended), my friends responded the same way that I did when I first heard York read the poem at last month’s Southern Foodways Alliance symposium in Oxford, Miss. They were deeply moved by the sentiment of families and communities linked through time by the things we do for one another, including, of course, the foods we share with one another.

In its way, the poem sticks to the ribs far longer than the Thanksgiving meal. And rather than make you want to take a nap, it makes you feel more awake.

I decided to share “Grace” with you, too.

Hey, you don’t have to read it at your holiday table. But I hope you will read it here. And I hope you like it. If you do, then check out York’s work on his Web site. Visit this page to hear him read “Grace” and other barbecue-related poems.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Because my grandmother made me

the breakfast her mother made her,

when I crack the eggs, pat the butter

on the toast, and remember the bacon

to cast iron, to fork, to plate, to tongue,

my great grandmother moves my hands

to whisk, to spatula, to biscuit ring,

and I move her hands too, making

her mess, so the syllable of batter

I’ll find tomorrow beneath the fridge

and the strew of salt and oil are all

memorials, like the pan-fried chicken

that whistles in the grease in the voice

of my best friend’s grandmother

like a midnight mockingbird,

and the smoke from the grill

is the smell of my father coming home

from the furnace and the tang

of vinegar and char is the smell

of Birmingham, the smell

of coming home, of history, redolent

as the salt of black-and-white film

when I unwrap the sandwich

from the wax-paper the wax-paper

crackling like the cold grass

along the Selma to Montgomery road,

like the foil that held

Medgar’s last meal, a square of tin

that is just the ghost of that barbecue

I can imagine to my tongue

when I stand at the pit with my brother

and think of all the hands and mouths

and breaths of air that sharpened

this flavor and handed it down to us,

I feel all those hands inside

my hands when it’s time to spread

the table linen or lift a coffin rail

and when the smoke billows from the pit

I think of my uncle, I think of my uncle

rising, not falling, when I raise

the buttermilk and the cornmeal to the light

before giving them to the skillet

and sometimes I say the recipe

to the air and sometimes I say his name

or her name or her name

and sometimes I just set the table

because meals are memorials

that teach us how to move,

history moves in us as we raise

our voices and then our glasses

to pour a little out for those

who poured out everything for us,

we pour ourselves for them,

so they can eat again.

Contact me with tips, opinions and news at Follow me on Twitter @jimshahin. Or leave a comment below.

Further reading:

* Barbecue, a topic to chew on

* Thanksgiving turkey prep primer

* At a White House Thanksgiving, tradition is a presidential thing

* Thanksgiving recipes from the White House

* Taste test: Heritage turkey breeds

* Thanksgiving food science: Five holiday flubs explained

* First comes Fakesgiving

* Six for sipping on Thanksgiving

* Garlic-studded roast pork, yuca and flan; hold the turkey

* Where to pick up Thanksgiving dessert

* Thanksgiving leftovers repurposed


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