The Sow and Other Poems

Poems from the farming life.

The Sow

Standing in a foot-high swell of snout and tail, I pretend
to know which piglets will make good pigs. As I point
the Amish boy dives into the muscled lot, comes up
with one leg hooked, piglet thrashing. I nod,

and back hooves in hand he wheelbarrows each
squealing shoat to the trailer until it is full.
From the other side of a metal gate, she paces, watches.
When we finish and I finally let my eyes rest

on her, she is lupine—nothing like the rounded,
ruddied hogs her brood will become. Hackle of bristles
at her nape, long snout lined with teeth. The fence
groans as she thrusts her weight against it, but she owns

the loose, long-legged ranginess of an animal
stretched by hunger or grief. Back home, raw
sunlight will bleach the grass, piglets nosing
their new pasture, turning up steaming soil, their senses

brimmed with fresh earth and all its gifts. I wish,
like them, I could fill my mind with abundance, forget
the single swollen teat that hung from her belly,
two weeks weaned.

Maundy Thursday

First sunshine after days of rain and all the Amish women
are out mowing, skirts stained green with spring.

They have pulled down the wash that this morning
whipped at the air like bruise colored flags. Children lure

kittens from the barn with pans of milk. In the yard,
they catch chickens and against their chests

quell the beating wings. Men press their hands into fields
too wet to plow, and leave yokes hanging idle

while Clydesdales browse pastures the color of a churned sea.
One gelding stands apart from the others, his head

held high above the sweet, ragged tufts of grass,
the giant, muscled cleft of his rump turned toward the road,

toward that great river of wind that swiftly pulls
another storm across the unplowed fields.

How to Make Risotto

First, uncork a bottle of white wine and pour a generous glass. Set aside. In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt a half stick of butter. This may look excessive. It's not. Don't worry.

Using your best knife and that lovely cutting board you got for your wedding—the one from the woodworker's shop at the Old Bag Factory in Indiana, with the deep mahogany stripe—dice one large onion. You will feel accomplished as you do this, since you know how to dice an onion efficiently and cleanly. Try not to think about the time that vegetarian caterer tried to instruct you before you'd even picked up the knife (Think of it like a globe and cut off the poles; the peel will fall right off. Did he think you were a child?)

Pick up the lovely cutting board, hold it over the pan with the melted butter, and draw your knife across the surface so that a cascade of onions falls into the pan and you hear that first satisfying sizzle.

Take a sip of wine and begin searching for the arborio rice, which hopefully you have in some jar somewhere, though you are never quite sure and come to think of it you always find yourself in this situation with your wine, your buttery onions, and where is the arborio?

You find it. Take another sip of wine. Measure out one cup of arborio rice. Then decide it is not enough. Measure out another cup of arborio rice. Consider whether you have celery in the fridge and if you want to add that to the onions pre-arborio. Quickly wash and chop two stalks of celery while you wonder whether your onions have been cooking too long. Sauté celery and onions together.

Add a little more butter. Add the rice and stir until the mixture is heavy and begins to look like a pan of small, tear-shaped pearls. Take another sip of wine while stirring, then pour the rest of the glass into the pearls.

Stir until the wine is evaporated. Recall that you need another saucepan full of warm broth. Turn off the burner while you get the broth ready. Acknowledge that your brother, who taught you how to make risotto, would find this very unorthodox. He would worry about the consistency of the rice without constant stirring and liquid absorption. You are not worried—this is a difference between you and him.

Pour yourself a fresh glass of wine and take another sip. Turn on the burner again, medium-low, and begin stirring. Ladle some broth into the pan and continue stirring. You may start to get warm at this point and then recall that you always get warm when you make risotto, standing over the pan with its hearty steam billowing into your face and hair, and that then you are flushed and damp when the guests arrive. The guests will likely arrive at this moment. They do.

Add more broth and continue stirring until they come into the kitchen. They will comment on how good it smells—you have to agree, really—and then you hug them and press your damp cheek against theirs, which is cool and dry from the wind outside. Add more broth and continue stirring. You don't need to pour them glasses of wine because your husband has already done so. He is entertaining them with a story, and you can focus on broth and stirring.

Notice the arborio's consistency: it is weeping a creamy sauce. Notice the level of the broth in the saucepan. It is getting low. Quickly chop whatever vegetables you have decided to add—mushrooms, spinach, leftover roasted squash—and continue with the broth and the stirring. Remember to sip your wine. Your arm may begin to ache. This reminds you of your brother again, and how you would take turns stirring and being sous chef.

The guests are again in the kitchen, leaning over the pot to smell it. Ask one of them to stir while you get the parmesan (never mind that you left the pan unstirred many times this evening—you need to look authentic now). Shake parmesan directly into the pot without measuring. Shake a little more than you think you need. Remember that parmesan is salty and you are using this instead of adding salt. And you love parmesan.

Give the heavy mixture a few more stirs. Turn off the burner and let the risotto sit for a few minutes while you set the table. Light candles. Take off your apron. Spoon steaming mounds of risotto onto plates and pass parmesan, even if you are the only one who wants it. Pour more wine for the guests, for your husband, and for yourself. Sigh as you sit down and look around the table. Say grace for exactly this moment, and eat.

About the Author

Elise Hofer Derstine

Elise Hofer Derstine lives in Goshen, Indiana, where she is a freelance writer and co-owner of Blue Heron Farm, a pasture-based livestock farm that raises chickens, sheep, pigs, and cattle. She is co-author of the children's books What We Wear: Dressing Up Around the World (Charlesbridge, 2012) and the forthcoming Music Everywhere! (Charlesbridge, 2014).