Good morning — it’s the day after the day after; it’s also the second day of Kwanzaa, Kujichagulia (Self-Determination). This time, for me, tends to be one of reflection: what’s happened in this year just passing? What are the possibilities, my dreams and visions, for the year to come?
(Aha – a prompt!)
I spent some of yesterday re-reading Women Who Eat, a collection of essays by women about food, cooking, eating — which, by necessity, is also a collection of essays about family, about mothers, about relationships. What do we eat and why? What don’t we eat and why? How did we learn to cook, if we did? How did we learn to feed ourselves, if we did?
This is a time of year with a lot of focus on food, on family gatherings around big meals, so it’s another reason to consider these questions — food brings up big associations and memories, and can be fertile ground for writing.
I learned to cook from my mom, watching her in the kitchen.
(How much of this writing am I really ready to do today, directly into the computer, like my hands could do something creative and generative on these plastic keys. )
She moved around the kitchen like nothing was outside her reach, she understood all the different machinery and what it was good for (juicer, food mill, blender, mixer). She was a vegetarian and a natural food aficionado when I was young, so I learned about kefir and homegrown alfalfa sprouts and carob (things she never learned in her own mother’s kitchen in the middle of southern Nebraska). What else did I learn? I learned about the possibility of joy and creativity in the kitchen, making things up and having tasty mistakes. I learned how flour and water and yeast turned into a live thing that grew in her pottery bowl and then became a brown warm smell that filled the whole house. I know how to knead now because I watched her, and my body still tries to become her body whenever I make bread.
Did I learn, too, that cooking could be an escape? That the kitchen could be a place of unassailable creative possibility — I mean, a place where we could open the fridge door and begin imagining what to do with all the leftovers that would be fresh and interesting and tasty and new — when there wasn’t money to make a whole new meal? My mother taught me about cooking (and eating) well and healthily on a budget — about coupons and carrying a calculator while pushing the cart through the aisles at the discount supermarket downtown, about how nearly every ingredient has a substitute you can use, about making due, making up, making good.
From watching her, too, I learned about perfection and rules and sublimating joy to someone else’s demands and desires.
One of the first poems I ever wrote was in response to an exercise called My Mother’s Kitchen — and the poem I wrote was a kind of a fairy tale, a wishing-to-remember, a child patting at a tiny loaf of bread while her mother kneads the big loaf for dinner. There’s a kitchen timer in the piece, toward the end, a kind of alarm: a terrible foreshadowing.
It can be interesting to revisit prompts, reuse them: I would write a different poem now. I would try to get into words the smell of my mom there in the first kitchen I remember her in, out in the country, with the wheat fields outside our window — you could see them beyond the alfalfa and avocado she had sprouting, erupting, on the windowsill — everything that mattered, everything she was fighting and offering when she ground us fresh peanut butter or pushed fat bright carrots through the Juicerator for lunchtime, everything she was pushing back and everything that was coming.
(Another poem, entirely, if I let myself write about my father’s kitchen.)
If I had a child, what would they say about their mother’s kitchen? The foods I cook tend to be simple, hearty, unpretty but tasty and filling. I am good at breakfasts, stir fries, beans, soups, salads, bread, pies, cookies, desserts. I am not good with meat anymore, or with fancy. I’m good with potatoes, though, and corn. I can do the things with flour and sugar and butter that my women relatives have done for generations. There’s lineage there, togetherness, assistance and honoring even when I feel like I’m in my kitchen all alone.
What about you? What do you remember about your mother’s kitchen? What don’t you remember? Take 20 minutes, start writing, let yourself remember the foods you loved, the foods you were ashamed of. If there wasn’t a mother in that kitchen, who was there? Follow your writing wherever it seems to want to go.
Thank you for your skilled memory, the way you take what you were given and you create power and joy and nurturing now. Thank you for your words.