American Life in Poetry: Column 339

People have been learning to cook since our ancient ancestors discovered fire, and most of us learn from somebody who knows how. I love this little poem by Daniel Nyikos of Utah, for its contemporary take on accepting directions from an elder, from two elders in this instance.

Potato Soup
I set up my computer and webcam in the kitchen
so I can ask my mother’s and aunt’s advice

as I cook soup for the first time alone.

My mother is in Utah. My aunt is in Hungary.
I show the onions to my mother with the webcam.
“Cut them smaller,” she advises.
“You only need a taste.”

I chop potatoes as the onions fry in my pan.
When I say I have no paprika to add to the broth,
they argue whether it can be called potato soup.
My mother says it will be white potato soup,
my aunt says potato soup must be red.

When I add sliced peppers, I ask many times
if I should put the water in now,

but they both say to wait until I add the potatoes.
I add Polish sausage because I can’t find Hungarian,
and I cook it so long the potatoes fall apart.

“You’ve made stew,” my mother says

when I hold up the whole pot to the camera.
They laugh and say I must get married soon.
I turn off the computer and eat alone.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Daniel Nyikos. Reprinted by permission of Daniel Nyikos. Introduction copyright © 2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.