Thanks to father's influence, this poet is well versed in cooking
CAMBRIDGE - As perhaps befits a man who learned to cook from an Army mess sergeant, Cambridge poet Charles Coe feels no fear in the kitchen. "I can do Italian, Mexican, French," he says nonchalantly, then, "I do a killer cassoulet. I love making cioppino. I make a vegan corn chowder and a high-carb mac and cheese." He whips up an Asian-style chicken dish he's dubbed "wings of desire" and he loves to bake.
On this cool fall evening, Coe, author of "Picnic on the Moon," is preparing a chill-chasing spicy chicken stew - more of a soup, really - he'd recently created for a dinner party. The credit for this adventurous cook's ease in the kitchen goes to his father, Connie Coe, the aforementioned mess sergeant. His father had been orphaned early, and was raised by his grandmother. The young boy was "a little feisty," says Charles Coe, and to punish him, his grandmother would force him to sit and watch while she cooked. The punishment succeeded beyond all expectation: Not only did the elder Coe settle down, he learned the craft, eventually working in restaurants as a teenager.
That skill came in handy when he was drafted. During the Korean War, he remained stationed in Texas, perfecting the cooking skills he'd learned earlier. Back in civilian life, Coe's father did much of the cooking for the family, with his son often by his side in their Indianapolis kitchen. "I remember standing on a chair to stir pots," Coe recalls. His father's lessons were fundamental: "How to handle knives, always remembering to wash your hands first." But it gave Charles a level of comfort in the kitchen that has stayed with him.
Dad's dishes were basic but fondly remembered. "He loved making roasts and soups and fried chicken. He made turkey with apple cornbread sausage stuffing that I can still taste." His father's pot roast inspired Coe to write a cycle of haikus that reads, in part: "when choosing the meat/ father carefully inspects/ each scarlet treasure . . . now the meat must rest/ while our eager forks await/ an introduction./ father's folded hands/ in the room the only sound/ quiet words of thanks."
The father might not recognize - though he'd surely appreciate - the range of dishes that come from the son's kitchen. Coe, 55, coordinates grant programs for literature and music organizations for the Massachusetts Cultural Council, but he also put in years behind the stove at local restaurants, which helped expand his tastes beyond the simple dishes of his youth. Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of Coe's kitchen eclecticism, though, is the annual Garlic Orgy he has hosted with another cooking pal for some 20 years. It's a sublimely odoriferous potluck whose only condition is that every dish contain some measure of garlic - a little or, frequently, a lot. Guests have been known to bring everything from chicken with 40 cloves of garlic to garlic apple pie, but Coe's contributions have been decidedly less extreme: "I made a garlic-studded meatloaf one year, roasted root vegetables with garlic once, the cassoulet one year."
The spicy chicken stew was his contribution to this year's garlic extravaganza, which took place in early October. He created it for the occasion - another risk he's not afraid to take - because it seemed the perfect dish for the event and the season. The dish, he explains, isn't "straight-up traditional," but it uses, for instance, the traditional Mexican technique of thickening the dish with corn flour. That gives it a bit of body, almost creaminess, although the soup is low in fat.
It's not overwhelmingly garlicky, with only four cloves in a party-size batch that feeds more than a dozen. Simple seasonings give a pleasantly smoky, spicy character. The cumin is characteristic of Mexican cooking, smoked paprika (you can substitute regular paprika but the smoked really makes a difference) offers a fireside element, and chipotle chilies add more smoke. The finished dish is only a little spicy, and wonderful on a chilly evening.
Every drop was consumed at this year's Garlic Orgy, says Coe, but that's nothing unusual for this crowd. "I always look at the table and say, 'This is an insane amount of food.' " The aroma reaches out the door, beckoning passersby who stop and sniff the fragrant air - and when the party's over, Coe's concerns about overabundance invariably prove unfounded. "At the end," he says, "there's not a morsel left."