The kitchen is an island, but it is not a deserted island. The first settlers’ houses were erected in the 1600′s. The kitchen was central to life then and it remains so today. It was the place where men, women and children gathered by the stove, which served both as cooking implement and heater. It is where large steel tubs were filled with hot water, directly from the same stove, for the weekly or monthly bath depending on availability of water and soap. This was a great privilege.
I imagine the early kitchens busy with activity from mothers chopping the ingredients for soups and stews and other soul-warming foods for their large families and fathers bringing in the wood to keep the fire going, the newly slaughtered hen for the Sunday meal or a new chair to accommodate the growing family, built over time in a corner of the wood shed.
There were no pressure cookers or pea shellers or blenders. Preparing a meal was a long process, one that began in the ground and progressed step by step through dedicated manual labor, but I suspect that on many occasions, and sometimes even in spite of scarcity and limited means, the results were not any less aromatic and appealing and impressive than today’s fancy dishes. Cooking is a form of expression. Coupled with the resourcefulness that was necessary under such conditions, it had to produce beautiful and delicious feasts.
The recipes we find in cookbooks exist because of this. Each recipe is a testament to all that was accomplished and overcome in the name of sustainability, perseverance and ingenuity. And our modern kitchens and appliances are a testament also, a variation on the theme. New tools; same goal: To feed, to feast, to gather, to warm the heart and to taste life fully.
Thus to this day we associate the kitchen with a place for gathering. Children come home from school, drop their bags on a kitchen chair and reach in the fridge for a refreshing, home-made juice or smoothie. It is often at the kitchen table that parents have the deepest talks about life with their children, it is where we discuss and resolve conflict, where we plan vacations, where we console each other at times of loss and where we gather to celebrate and overcome.
Of all the rooms in a house, the kitchen is where most of our education takes place. This is where we talk over a meal and learn what matters to our siblings, our parents and community. Even as we think we are only chatting about this and that, venting even, we gather information, learn values, develop opinions, an understanding of the world, an idea about what we might become. All of this whether there is food on the table at the time or not. The kitchen nourishes thanks to all its tools and appliances and in spite of them.
As children, we pull pots and pans from cabinets right unto the floor and return them, helter skelter, fascinated by the shiny surfaces and the extraordinary noise. No other room in the house offers such entertainment. A bit later, we sit for hours watching a parent, a babysitter, a favorite aunt or grand-parent grind meat in the contraption that is momentarily secured to the edge of the counter for that purpose. We listen as they explain how the food dehydrator works, we ask to turn the handle of the apple peeler. If allowed to do so, we lose ourselves in the motion, fascinated by the cleverness of the tool. Just one more apple. What if we tried a pear?
At those times, as children, when we are allowed to handle the mesmerizing arsenal of the kitchen, we suddenly know what it feels like to be included, to have the trust of others, to be creative, to transform fruits and vegetables into something else. We probably grasp something even more subtle at that time: That true nourishment is about more than food and that it demands labor, the sort of labor that goes without saying; the sort of labor that enhances the experience of life itself, somehow.
We cannot explain this now anymore than we can as a child, but we know that something more than just nourishment is lost the moment we stop making our own food. This is why, I think, we will never stop completely. Making and sharing food is as vital as love. Sharing recipes is like sharing hope and handing down essential food preparation implements to children is like giving them life insurance.