Poems for the Gardener and the Cook

Book review by Kristina Sepetys

As poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil explains in her forward to Leaning Toward Light: Poems for gardens & the hands that tend them, the word anthology means “gathering of flowers,” and indeed, that is what the book’s editor, El Cerrito resident Tess Taylor, has done in a collection that celebrates the impulse to tend and nurture.

The author of five poetry collections, including Work & Days, a farm journal named by the New York Times as one of the best poetry books of 2016, Taylor has been the poetry critic for NPR’s All Things Considered for over a decade.

Her colorful little volume, just out from Storey Publishing, includes 170 poems from nearly 90 different authors including Ada Limon, Ross Gay, Wendell Berry, Czeslaw Milosz, John Keats, Jericho Brown, and a large group of local Bay Area voices like Alan Chazaro, Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Forrest Gander, Genine Lentine, Katie Peterson, and Maw Shein Win. Taylor includes some of her own poems as well.

Mostly short, the poems are organized by headings like “Weeding & Wilding,” “Being & Waiting,” “Grieving & Release,” and “Wintering & Turning Again,” and among the poems, Taylor has sprinkled a half dozen simple, earnest recipes, each with a short introduction by the poet who contributed it. See the excerpt below for a lovely recipe that’s seasonal to this early-fall moment.

Leaning Toward Light is a reflective and hopeful collection of thoughtfully curated poems that will move and inspire gardeners as well as cooks. It would make an equally fine gift for nearly anyone.


Tess Taylor will be appearing along with local poets Katie Peterson and Maw Shein Win at Books, Inc., 1491 Shattuck Ave in Berkeley on Wednesday, October 4, 2023, at 6pm. A benefit for the Edible Schoolyard, the event is free and open to the public.

Bay Area poets Tess Taylor (credit: Adrianne Mathiowetz), Maw Shein Win (credit: Mary Kalin-Casey), and Katie Peterson (courtesy) will appear together at Books Inc. in Berkeley on October 4.



By Ann Fisher-Wirth
(Story and recipe excerpted from Leaning toward Light ©. Edited by Tess Taylor. Used with permission from Storey Publishing.)

A harvest is about food, but also about people. It evokes a time and place.

Fresh tomato pie, which I used to make when our kids were still at home, conjures up our early years in Oxford, Mississippi, where we’ve lived since 1988. In our early years here, our wonderful independent bookstore, Square Books, had an upstairs café run by Mary Hartwell Howorth, champion gardener and sister-in-law of the bookstore owner, Richard Howorth. Every once in a while, one of her café recipes would show up in the monthly periodical advertising new books—et voilà, the recipe for tomato pie. The pie’s spicy dressing also makes me remember another chef, Angelo Mistilis, who has since passed away. He had run a restaurant on College Hill, but we knew him as a neighbor who passed the day on his front porch swing, always ready to call a greeting. He was a local legend, not only for his hamburger steaks and fries, but also for his unfailing friendliness and kindness. One story I love is that he used to provide art supplies for the men around the corner at the old city jail, and buy and display what they made.

Tomatoes are the quintessential summer harvest. For years I grew them in the raised-bed garden my son built in our side yard—a small garden but, at first, wildly fertile. The high point was one steaming July day when just four plants yielded 13 pounds of tomatoes, my pea vines snaked graceful and fat with pods toward the sky, and one of my zucchinis grew so huge that in desperation I tried to use it for gazpacho. Now I grow flowers, not vegetables; that same raised bed is full of daffodils and irises, a gardenia bush, white and scarlet roses. Thinking of tomatoes evokes those years in the ’80s and ’90s, when we were first learning to make Oxford, Mississippi, our new home. It evokes Square Books, a phenomenal cultural center all these years, and the Square Books café with its yummy egg and olive sandwiches, tomato pie, and mint- chocolate frosted brownies. And it evokes memories of Angelo and his wife, JoDale, chatting as we passed by—two neighbors who always made us feel welcome. Of such memories the tendrils of a life, a community, are made.

Feta, Tomato, & Basil Pie 

  • 1 partially baked pie shell
  • 4 medium tomatoes, peeled, sliced, and drained
  • 1 cup Parmesan cheese
  • 1 cup Angelo’s Feta Cheese Dressing
  • Garlic and basil to taste
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • Cracker crumbs


  • ¼ pound (1 cup) feta cheese, crumbled
  • 1 ½ cups vegetable oil
  • ½ cup white vinegar
  • ¼ cup grated white onion
  • 2 tablespoons capers, drained and chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ teaspoon salt

Fill pie shell with tomatoes. Combine Parmesan, Angelo’s Feta Cheese Dressing, garlic, basil, and cornstarch; spread over tomatoes. Sprinkle cracker crumbs on top. Bake at 350°F (180°C) for 20 minutes.