My mother was a talented, instinctive cook—pinwheel cookies I never understood the math of, roast beef that cut like filet mignon, lemonade with a spritz of orange tang, carrots as good as candy. When she was in the final stages of her final illness, I understood, among many heartbreaking things, that I would never again watch her lean down and peer into her oven to check on the dish of the hour. I knew, too, that when it came time to pack up her home, I’d have the hardest time among her recipes and teas, pots and pans, those notes she wrote to herself that blurred with water drops and time.
How do you put all vestiges of your mother’s cooking away for a last time?
So many family stories begin in the kitchen. So many lives are shaped by what is baked, served, talked about, talked over. For our first five-day Juncture memoir workshop at an old farm, I asked each participating writer to send us 300 true words inspired by a memory of a kitchen. Old arguments, new achievements, lingering questions all appeared. The food was there. But so was the life.
MFK Fisher was a traveler, writer, and original foodie. In her essay “The First Kitchen” she introduces the early family cooks who swayed her. In “Grandmother’s Nervous Stomach,” published in 1971, Fisher reveals the silver lining in her strict grandmother’s habits, writing of that time when her grandmother’s somewhat-suspect nervous stomach forced the family to “eat tasteless white overcooked things like rice and steamed soda crackers in milk.” Bland meal followed bland meal until that grandmother slipped away for, say, a religious convention. That’s when the family went wild for the good stuff. When the family, in Fisher’s telling, became itself.
“No more rice water, opaque and unseasoned, in the guise of soup,” writes Fisher. “No more boiled dressing in the guise of mayonnaise. No more of whatever it was that was pale and tasteless enough to please that autocratic digestive system.”
As the dishes brightened, so did the family. Fisher’s parents’ postures softened. Fisher’s mother would, she writes, “lean one elbow on the table and let her hand fall toward Father, and he would lean back in his chair and smile. And if by chance my sister or I said something, they both listened to us. In other words, we were a happy family, bathed in a rare warmth around the table.”
Deliciousness changed the conversation. Spices and culinary style reminded the family of the fullness of life—and allowed them to live it.
Fisher writes of these days from a many-decades remove. She writes with the full understanding of what those grandmother-free meals taught her. “Increasingly,” she says, “I saw, felt, understood the importance, especially between people who love and trust one another, of a full sharing of one of our three main hungers, which are for food, for love, and for shelter. We must satisfy them in order to survive as creatures. It is our duty, having been created.”
In “The Kitchen Arias,” an essay found in the Lavinia Greenlaw collection, The Importance of Music to Girls, the kitchen was not just the rare place where “friends were always welcome and somehow my mother fed everyone.” It was also the place where “everyone talked and persisted whether or not anyone responded, so that it seemed as if each of us were singing to ourselves.” Greenlaw provides a long italicized list of unanswered utterances to prove her point. Utterances that range from: “And she’s got, you know, child-bearing hips.” to “Boiled wheat and ratatouille” to It’s a yeast infection.”
Greenlaw’s pages incite us not just to taste the food at the table, but to pay attention to the dialogue, or monologues, that are ongoing.
In the Mary Gordon essay “My Grandmother’s House,” found in the book Seeing Through Places, the kitchen offered the most common entrance to the house and, as an addition, “floated on nothing, it had no foundations, it was a ship that sailed on air.” Still, it was a serious place, with beautiful light where Gordon’s grandmother made beautiful things in a serious way. At one point, after the grandmother is gone, the kitchen will, too, disappear. Gordon uses that kitchen—its light, its lack of foundations, its beauty and severity—as both architectural report and character study.
Then there’s Diana Abu-Jaber, in her new memoir, Life without a Recipe, a book in which we learn about Abu-Jaber’s German grandmother and her Muslim father through the meals they want and make, the spices and sugars they carry the table. It is through food that the stories of this family get passed on. It is Abu-Jaber herself who stands at the crossroads, writing, in the opening pages, “I felt better at the table, which I thought of not just as a place to eat but also as a story-telling, argument-having place, useful and plainfaced and reassuring. If the world is the water, the table is the raft; place your hands on it and hold on.”
Finally, for Chang-Rae Lee, in “Coming Home Again,” the kitchen was where his mother lived, where her love was rooted, where Lee himself is both a best son and perhaps a too-well-loved one, impudent and generous.
Over the course of this essay, Lee is six or seven, watching his mother cook. He is a grown man, cooking her food as he remembers she would. He is teenager going off to boarding school, a son who cannot speak of his lonesomeness, a writer living at home during his mother’s final year. An entire relationship unfolds in these pages, and always the scenes center around food. Its chemistries. Its colors. Its ability to bind us. Its capacity for breaking our hearts.
“… it was always the cooking that started our conversations. She’d hold an inquest over the cold leftovers we ate at lunch, discussing each dish in terms of its balance of flavors or what might have been prepared differently. But mostly I begged her to leave the dishes alone. I wish I had paid more attention. After her death, when my father and I were the only ones left in the house, drifting through the rooms like ghosts, I sometimes tried to make that meal for him. Though it was too much for two, I made each dish anyway, taking as much care as I could. But nothing turned out quite right—not the color, not the smell.”
MFK Fisher learned deliciousness by way of contrast with the culinarily bland. Lavinia Greenlaw learned the sound of unanswered monologue at a table. Mary Gordon found the character of a woman in the architecture of that woman’s kitchen. Diana Abu-Jaber found, at her table, family genes and stories. Chang-Rae Lee returned to the kitchen and the recipes to reach back toward the mother he did love.
Think of a dish, a spice, a recipe, an arrangement of placemats that somehow stands in for your family or for your youth. Go back and trace it with words. Begin with the simple description. Name the herbs. Measure the sugar. Let us hear the oil perking in the pan. Root in the details. Trust the nuances. Then go beyond the culinary facts toward the people who have come together around the table you remember, the words that were said that could not be unsaid, the architecture of souls. You can find almost everything you need right there, in the kitchen.
NOTE: This essay is part of a seven-part video essay series celebrating classic and contemporary memoirists. To learn more, please go to Juncture Workshops, http://junctureworkshops.com/