Click Here For The Annotated Version Of “Omelet”
In Omelet, poet Zora Satchell presents us with a three-column treaties on intimacy and care—not sex or romantic attachment. Satchell bypasses the low-stakes framing of romantic relationships to bring us non-sexualized vignettes of intimate care. What at first glance appears to be a random grouping of recollections around breakfast food, is a nuanced exploration of the forces that corrode and strengthen our bonds. Depictions of deep intimacy and care outside of romantic/familial bonds has been, up to now, a relatively unexplored terrain. However, as our communities begin to reopen, and as we begin the physical journey back to each other, we are not the same people we were a year ago. Many of us have lost people: to indifference, to political strife, to shifting economics, to COVID and other diseases both literal and figurative. We have learned to reassess intimacy, to rethink the ways we show care, and we developed a greater understanding of generosity. Satchell gives generously to the reader.
Omelet is rich with symbolism, social commentary, and intentionality. The opening epigraph is our first clue to the level of intentionality Satchell brings to this piece. Audre Lorde posited that eroticism is the space between our sense of self and our most chaotic desires (“Sister Outsider“). Anthony Bourdain (at least, the Bourdain of popular culture) guided viewers through explorations of the single element that unites all animals: the need for sustenance. What sustains us? What nourishes our bones and our souls? How do we sustain each other? In the space between our most authentic selves and our most complicated desires, how do we connect with one another?
Bourdain’s thoughts on eggs are well documented, so why did Satchell select this quote to open the poem? Our answer waits in the language. “Learn,” suggests to the reader this is something that requires some effort, perhaps practice. The immediate application of this new skill, in Bourdain’s mind, is to help someone else: to provide breakfast for someone. To be nice. To do good. The epigraph ends with an admonition of sorts: it isn’t what we make, but how we make it that reveals our character. This idea of intentions carrying greater meaning than the act itself is a thread throughout the subsequent poem. Consider: making a basic omelet isn’t very hard or very expensive. However, getting out of your warm cozy bed and making someone breakfast—that requires generosity of spirit. It shows care and fills the space between our truest selves and our wildest desires with kindness. Under a canopy of this goodhearted kindness, Satchell unfurls her memories of making omelets for friends.
Eggs are high-key symbolic. Let’s begin with what an egg actually is: the content of the hard-shelled reproductive body of a bird. When an egg is fertilized, the yolk becomes a nutrient source while the whites pull double duty as a water source and shock absorber for the developing embryo. When eggs are not fertilized, they become poetic omelets. The nutritional density of eggs is why they’re sought after across the animal kingdom for nourishment. From snakes to humans, and even other birds: it’s a tough world for eggs. Some animals, like Salmon, will even feed unfertilized eggs to their freshly spawned bebes, because the sacks are so packed with nutritional value. Eggs are also relatively inexpensive. So from the perspective of wanting to provide a nutritionally dense meal when one is “sad and [has] barely any money left,” as the speaker laments in the opening vignette, omelets make perfect sense.
There’s something to be said, too, for the biological function of how an egg is made. It is a byproduct of the bird. It is the host replicating itself. It is the culinary equivalent of giving away a piece of yourself. My mind is drawn to the human reproductive system, and how eggs are a way of passing genetic material from one generation to the next. Giving of oneself to sustain something outside oneself is a core theme baked into the scenes Satchell shares with the reader.
Omelet’s structure is discussed in the author’s interview but here let’s note the visual impact of Satchell’s choice. The three-column structure is reminiscent of a newspaper or archive. The impression given is that of a record being kept and in a sense, this observation is confirmed by the text. Like an archival record or old newspaper clipping, readers are left with more questions than answers, larger stories are implied, and Satchell doesn’t attempt to pacify our curiosity with tidy endings to each vignette. Instead, we’re asked to sit with the echo of what we’ve just read as we move into the next thought.
Vignettes also allow Satchell to direct the viewer’s attention in a way that standard lineation would not. A close read of Omelet makes clear how intentional the author was with aesthetic and word choices, but in creating the sense that we’re watching a movie as we move from scene to scene, Satchell’s decision making shines brightest. This pacing keeps our eyes bouncing between memories. The impact of this visual technique is that we can’t move in a straight line, start to finish, point a to point b. Our thoughts drift back to something we read in the previous vignette, our eye wanders over a column or two. This is how we experience time, not how time happens. This is how we remember things, and not the way we experience them. This disorientation of perception complements the message of the poem well. It centers on the fallibility of memory, reminding us that our vantage point is limited. Like Bourdain’s disembodied voice drifting in and out of the poem, our speaker lives with the shortcomings of even their best intentions. Even our best intentions can still fall short. This concept dovetails nicely with the social commentary folded into Omelet.
Cooking as a measure of retaining and creating a home is a hallmark of diasporic literature. Cooking for others is a current that runs through most diasporic communities as care work and placemaking. However, cooking has a legacy of strengthening and corroding our attachments and relationships. Food in the face of displacement and alienation can be a source of survival (as in the summer spent eating omelets), comfort (as in the destressing with Corey), but it can also be a means of delving into something that makes us (the chef) feel good (providing) while missing what the person right in front of us needs (as with Xavier).
Satchell doesn’t obscure the feeling of struggle on the page. Clearly, something bad happened to Xavier. We hope Corinne is out there living her best life, and she might be, but we don’t know. Is Corey still working at the job they hated? Did their state end unemployment assistance early? Did our speaker ever stop feeling sad, or lonely; do they have enough money? We don’t have those answers. The only answer Satchell gives us is that, at the very end of the poem, after all that giving, the speaker is giving to themselves. Satchell ends Omelet the way it began, with the simple act of preparing eggs. This isn’t a referendum on generosity, quite the opposite. After all that giving, our speaker doesn’t regret—but we see evidence they may have wizened some. In the last lines of this piece, our speaker once again cracks eggs—but this time, they’re feeding themselves.
Full disclosure I have a close working relationship with Zora Satchell, we’re both founding members of The Estuary Collective and are colleagues at Kissing Dynamite. This poem was performed as part of the Brooklyn Poets Fellowship showcase but has not been published, which is outside the usual parameters of this column but it felt like this was the right poem for this moment.
If you cook a lot or even bake a lot, you know eggs are a base food central to a lot of recipes. They have a lot of range. With baked goods, they serve as the glue that holds the rest of the ingredients together. You can use them with fried rice, ramen, and of course omelets. They are a staple of any kitchen for that reason. The first thing I ever learned to cook was scrambled eggs. When I moved out and was struggling to feed myself and had to learn how to budget a grocery list I learned that even if you have nothing else, you should have eggs. Feeding myself, getting creative with my meals, was essential to learning what kind of adult I wanted to be. As I made and lost friends, it also taught me a lot about friendship and intimacy. As my cooking skills changed, so did my friendship group. This poem was about capturing that intimacy and also mourning the loss of it. Eggs were chosen because for an entire summer that’s all I really fed myself and my friends. During that summer they became a food that would symbolize hope, transition, and grief.
In Omelet, there’s a very clear directorial point of view. It feels as though we can see a camera shift with each vignette. Can you share how your passion for film and television influences your poetry?
Film and television have a huge impact on how I write poetry. I’m constantly watching movies and TV and a lot of my memories are shaped by the films I was watching at the time. Naturally, it shapes the way I pace the story I am trying to tell as well as how I present visual details; this is consistent throughout my work. I’ll often reference a tv show or even do my best to echo the feeling of a movie within the line breaks or visuals. For example, an earlier poem of mine “It’s during one of our autumn X Files marathons”’, is heavily influenced by the movie My Girl. My Girl is about how one girl experiences the loss of her best friend and in my poem I play with memory and time to process the nearly successful suicide attempt of my best friend. While the poem references the X Files a lot, I looked to My Girl when it came to how I wanted to capture the pacing and emotional build up of the poem. The film was also a source of inspiration in terms of shifting between light imagery, of a butterfly, to more traumatizing emotions.
For this poem, I wanted the opening stanza to feel like a cooking show where the audience is meant to be in the chef’s home kitchen. I also wanted to catch a somber but hopeful moment of self-reflection which acts as a framing for the “flashback” vignettes. The best movie scene I can think of as a reference to this is in Joy Luck club; I thought about how food would prompt one of the four aunties to begin narrating their story.
You deploy three columns as a format in this poem. Can you share what considerations went into deciding to format the poem this way? What does the format add to the content? Did it shift the draft for you in any way?
The poem wasn’t originally formatted in three columns. In earlier drafts it was more traditional formatted, however, after putting it through a workshop with the Luminaries, Itiola Jones suggested I restructure it in a triptych. The form is modeled after the painting style of the same name where a poem was put into three sectionals, the second being larger than the other two. The more popular version of the poem form follows a past/present/future style where the poem has three stanzas following along that path. For me I wanted the poem to follow more closely to the painting. Primarily because there is more than one stanza, and the poem is not (at least not explicitly) concerned with the future but also because of what I was trying to convey emotionally and visually. Putting the poem into three columns/panels created the illusion of a breakfast plate which was essential to the theme of the poem and also something I always try to do with my food themed work; ex my other breakfast poem “what i mean when i say im as domestic as breakfast’ is trying to capture a similar look. A Triptych painting is also supposed to be folded together, which also reminds me of folding an omelet together. The form was also important to the flow of the poem. Since the poem is essentially a collection of vignettes, the three columns allowed me to strengthen the integrity of the emotions in a way that regular stanza flow could not. The poem is emotionally layered. I am connecting three different scenes with three different friends together through the food and I needed the experience to be emotionally layered. As my reader’s eyes wander across the poem, I needed it to feel like they were unpacking the layers of the emotional journey. When you are reading stanzas that just go vertically across the page it’s easy to glaze over lines and miss the emotional weight if one is not careful. I needed my readers to be extra careful, to work a little harder to stay with the details of the story.
As you were drafting, were there any lines you loved that did not make it into the final draft?
Surprisingly there weren’t any lines I had to cut that I had been deeply attached to. If anything I needed specificity in the revisions. For instance, the Anthony quotes as a framing device were added in the second draft, as were more sensory details like the ingredients to the omelets and such.
What were you reading when you wrote this poem? What were you reading when you edited this poem?
When I first sat down to write this poem at the beginning of the pandemic, I was doing a 30/30 and needed prompts. I was reading Chen Chen’s You MUST Use the Word Smoothie: A Craft Essay in 50 Writing Prompts. One of the first prompts was “to make an omelet” and the floodgates opened. I firmly believe making an omelet is an essential skill and Chen Chen’s prompt had me examine my relationship to the omelet. It brought up memories of different friends I held close but also carried feelings of grief for whether due to distance or losing that relationship. The poem was written and edited but it had been sitting in my spirit and mind for a few years before so while writing it I knew I needed to return to a lot of the pieces that I have read over the last few years that were essential to my own relationship to cooking such as this profile pieces on Princess Pamela , Meg Pillow’s Ten Rules for Cooks on the Verge of Collapse, and Rax King’s “ Love, Peace, and Taco Grease”. As I was finishing up college I came to understand food as an essential to how I built community and processed my feelings and these pieces helped frame that for me so I reread them in the process of writing and editing this poem.
Imagine this piece in conversation with non-literary pieces of art (i.e.: sculptures, music, paintings, etc). Can you tell me a little about who is in the conversation?
I think the biggest nonliterary influence on this piece is Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. His presence is felt throughout the poem. The summer I was making all the omelets was also the summer he passed away so his show was all I streamed on Netflix for weeks, especially when I was cooking. For me the conversation Parts Unknown is having with omelets is one of grief. The quote at the beginning is speaking directly to how the act of cooking an omelet should be read within the poem (i.e an act of care and friendship) however the act of watching the show as I cooked these omelets was a mourning ritual to honor a chef that had influenced my cooking as well as my mother’s.
When he died in the summer of 2018, I was going through a huge transition. I was entering my last semester of college after a tumultuous year: I had been a part of anti-racist student organizing that had ended due to infighting (and had taken down my entire friend group with it), I had gone through my first major breakup, and all around me the world continued to burn. Meanwhile, I moved into a whole new living situation which prompted a reconciliation with my mother, to whom I hadn’t spoken within a year. How I processed Bourdain’s loss was also a huge part of my processing of the major transitions I was experiencing. That time in my life revealed to me just how difficult it was to hold love and care for my friends while also realizing that our friendship wasn’t necessarily guaranteed forever. I also wrote this poem in retrospect, a full year after the last vignette took place. Having Bourdain’s work be in conversation with this poem captured that duality of missing someone, and hoping that they still carry your love for them, while also mourning the relationship that either no longer exists or is no longer experienced in the same way.
AUTHORS NOTE: Zora Satchell originally included the following paragraph in response to my second question about her directorial point of view. I relocated the response to this section for reasons that will become apparent in short order.
In each vignette, I wanted to capture a particular emotion. I thought a lot about scenes with food that communicated a shared bond as well as care, like Anne and Diana’s tea time with the Raspberry Cordial, Celie nursing Shug back to health in The Color Purple, or the breakfast spread near the end of A Little Princess.
I think the scene that replayed a lot for me mentally while writing this was the egg montage in Runaway Bride. In that movie, eggs are used to communicate how Julie Roberts puts more care into her relationships than she does herself. Throughout the movie when asked what her favorite way to eat eggs is she’ll just say whatever way her partner likes. It isn’t until she sits down and cooks herself an entire egg buffet that she is able to genuinely know that part of herself. While there is plenty to dislike about that movie, the act of finding a way back to yourself was compelling. And that’s why Omelet ends alone in the kitchen, without regret for past acts of care for my friends, but also ready to be there for myself.
If you were to trace the lineage of this poem backward two generations, what four other pieces of literature would be in that family tree?
I think this poem’s grandparents would be:
Having a coke with you- Frank O’hara
I wrote a Good Omelet- Nikki Giovani
Eating Together by- Li-Young Lee