As teenagers, my brother and I horrified our mother by playing a game in which the only object was to hit each other in the thigh as hard and as loudly as we could. We found this very entertaining, both the game and my mother’s horror. “Masochists!” she would yell, “Sadists!”
She knew her sons were not developmentally too far from “normal,” even if her genes for high intelligence seemed to be skipping a generation. I think she felt only mildly disappointed. She knew she couldn’t entirely control the potential idiocy of her children, but she sure as hell could send two boys out into the world, capable of making a proper white sauce.
She taught us how to cook. Before dinner, one of us would slouch around the kitchen, dicing garlic and onions and shredding cheese (one of the best jobs as you got to steal cheese). I stood in front of the electric range and stirred the roux, man. I was slow, but I learned I could cook something decent for myself, something still related to the world. Something good.
Cooking is an essentially positive act. Cooking makes people. Other than childbirth and medicine and acts of life-saving heroism, not many activities can make that direct claim. When I cook, especially if this positive act gives me the allowance to have a drink at 5:00, I like to imagine I’ve run my fingers through the tousled world and placed resulting treasures unexpectedly together. Lemongrass and dark brown sugar, medjool dates, prosciutto.
In my twenties, I supported my music habit by cooking in a restaurant and gained confidence preparing a variety of food types, but compared with cooking for loved ones, the experience was significantly less positive.
The restaurant kitchen is an angry place. Everyone else works out front, smiling their asses off and getting tipped. In the kitchen, it’s hot, tense, and unhappy. Ever wonder why the wait staff, or even a menu, tells you “no special orders?” Because the cooks, who could often do such things without much bother, are pissed. They are dicks. They will put quarters pulled from the deep fryer onto the counter, hoping wait staff will pick one up.
But pity those fools—the kitchen is where they stash the misfits. I would imagine things are different in some places, but in the kind of taverns where I worked that’s often where you found the untrained, the drug-addled or painfully drug-recovered, the gruff and unsociable, the weird. There’s often a smart young kid headed toward culinary science, but those types stick out and move up the chain. In my case, I needed a job on the quick and had never worked in food service. But I could chop. I could peel. And I had friends who worked the bar, so they put me and my crazy head of dreadlocks in the kitchen.
I never really got used to making ten lunches or dinners at once. I worked too slowly. I got in trouble for using too much wine in the scampi, too much cheese on the pizza. But I did learn to enjoy acceptance into the twisted fraternity of the kitchen—the owner’s crazy partying nephew, the grumpy alcoholic chef we affectionately called “Sugar Bear” (which he hated/loved), the even grumpier Polish night cook, a cartoon of an Italian guy who only worked lunch and claimed to be a “pimp,” a couple of local drummers. Even when you and your co-workers seem like outcasts—and maybe especially then—it’s better to belong to something.
We carved pipes out of huge industrial carrots and smoked in the alley, we hung out in the refrigerated trailer and enjoyed the finest locally-made desserts whenever we felt like it, we listened to classic rock all day and night and joined in with the Italian guy’s shtick of changing the word “love” in every song to “lunch.” We slid our boots and sneakers along the greasy linoleum and boogied on the line and sang along with Bad Company, “I’m ready for lunch! Oh baby, I’ma ready for lunch.”
I’m thankful that I didn’t become a career kitchen guy. I ply my cooking skills, what I have anyway, on my wife and kids and anyone we can get to come over. The kitchen is my refuge now. I know where the spices hide, each glowing with their own magic and potential disaster. In the kitchen at home, I can hide a little and sip a beer and do something everyone needs. I guess that might not be so noble, acting aloof and hoping to be praised for it.
But I belong there, and my people seem to always have known it. When my daughter Sofia was two, she developed a strong desire for her mother’s undivided attention. If I so much as approached them, she would become irate and often yelled at me: “Get back in the kitchen!” I often wondered how this would have gone over if everyone’s gender and position were switched. Some kind of wondering gets you nowhere.
I got back in the kitchen.
This week’s poem, “Churning Butter,” by Danny Earl Simmons, reminds us that cooking, or food preparation anyway, is not magical for everyone. Simmons provides the morsels we look for in a poem, however—connections that surprise and amuse and terrify. His poem delivers, too, on the line level, each pulsing with a rhythm and energy of its own. “Churning Butter” is tightly constructed, funny, and unsettling.
Emily Franklin packs nearly all of the elements you might hope for in a novel into the space of a 1,000 word flash piece. “That Great and Soft-Hearted Thing” boasts quirky, astonishingly detailed and believable characters, humor, a funeral, mystery, a sinister police presence, and a portrait of the type of woman we should all be lucky to have in our lives. “Kitty” was the kind of person who, when life seemed lame or unfortunate, baked a batch of oversized meringues in response. Franklin, by eulogizing Kitty into being, by creating and simultaneously taking her away, reminds us of our ephemerality.
A married couple’s discussion while cooking dinner about the right to marry propels “The Lifestyles of Others.” Alissa Ssendawula crafts a razor-sharp depiction of difficult conversation. While the subject is timely, the nuances of relationship are eternal, and her story skillfully captures those fragile negotiations. I appreciate the way this story maintains tension with the threat of something explosive looming over the mostly quiet action.
Photo by madlyinlovewithlife