On kitchens, and childhood lost and refound.

24 11 2008

I suppose some might have said it was inevitable that I made the connection between cooking and comfort. And looking back, I recall a time when I fell in love with the idea of cooking extraordinary food. It seemed to me that the best way to be outstanding in any situation was to be able to cook well. After all, food is perhaps the single unifying factor of any human experience. We all have to eat, most of us like to eat, and we usually feel about about whoever is feeding us, from infancy to old age.

But I had pretty much given up that possibility years ago. I knew I had some degree of talent, but where I’ve got imagination in spades for some things, I simply would never, ever, left to my own devices, conceive of parmesan spinach risotto and and spring green salad with pomegranate seeds, fennel and lemon zest. Ever.

Apparently by necessity, though, I’ve started to spend more and more time in the kitchen. And I’ve begun to spend less and less time with my eyes pointed at a recipe, and more and more time just looking over my growing selection of spices and what Bart Simpson once rightly called “the basic elements of food.”

I no longer need to make a phone call (all the time) to ask my mother what cut of meat to get for an oven roast vs. a pot roast. I can tell, now, by the marbling in a cut of meat, if it’s going to be tender for how I intend to cook it, or it the fat will make it too greasy. Odd, that I somehow know this.

So I stand in my decidedly un-glorious kitchen, soon to be someone else’s, with my immensely frustrating closed-top electric range stove, and think, “Wow. This space actually makes a difference to me now.” And as a side note, seriously, those sealed top ranges are awesome – as long as you’re somebody’s grandmother or you cook more than 3 days a week with something with “Helper” and an enormous, talking hand on the box. And if you do, it’s OK. This is your stove. But if not, I can share this much with you: There is a reason the old saying is “Now you’re cooking with gas!”

I’m looking around the kitchen. NPR is on the background. There is an intriguing and kitschy Williams-Sonoma bag on the counter (this is going to be a VERY expensive pie). The whole kitchen smells of roasting chicken mingled with the smell of dill. The dill instantly makes me think of my grandmother’s garden in Hatfield, perched on the little knoll that overlooked her backyard. The dill is something of a family legend. Planted one year, it came back every year. Every year. It also grew. It crowded out the rosemary. And the basil. And the cucumbers. And the tomatoes. Fed up one summer, my grandfather ripped it all out and tossed it down the bank.

Later that summer, the dill regenerated into a bumper crop in the garden, and promptly created a permanent presence on the southern facing embankment, where, I have no doubt, it stands today. My guess is that it will outlast the trees around it and the house itself.

In a long conversation with a friend recently, we worked our way around to the fact that the world we inhabited as children, for better or for worse, is gone. There can’t be more than a handful of children in my daughters’ classes who come from a home in which both biological parents married before the children were born, are still married, and have lived in the same house since. Almost all of us are divorced, remarried, transplanted from another state, and many of us have moved repeatedly. Some live with their mothers, some with only their fathers. One friend of the elder Ms. Murphy is known to explain to adults, “I don’t have a father.” I know what she’s indicating, but it’s a disturbing way to say it, and I can’t help but flinch a little every time I hear it.

I thought on that for days, that idea that the kind childhood we knew and, being children, took for granted, is now the exception, rather than the rule. To look back on my own life is to seal the argument. Growing up in the same house my parents bought when I was 2 years old, they only sold it a couple of years ago. I knew a consistency that I always assumed was universal. The yard and the woods looked the same each year as the seasons turned. The tree went in the same place each Christmas. The hedge out front looked the same when it was covered in snow. The brown cabinets in the kitchen, original to the house, steamed up the same way I my mother filled our relatively small stove with boiling pots each Thanksgiving in our tiny kitchen. I can still feel the woodwork of the doors against my hands, I still know right where to step in order to avoid the creak in the floor walking into the living room. I can still smell the basement in my nostrils, musty, still, unchanging, old toys mingled with laundry and luggage and my father’s workbench under the stairs.

My daughters have no such memories. Instead, they are smaller versions of the traveler I have become. They look upon a map with a worldly gaze. Rhode Island. Massachusetts. Vermont, north and south. Florida. Ranch houses and olf Florida cottages. A craftsmen home we rebuilt ourselves, soaring pine trees and golden sunsets over the Black River are Emma’s cherished remembrances. Lorah hardly remembers the grand Georgian Revival we called home for two years in what is possibly the most beautiful place on earth. They know the granite beaches of Cape Cod, the hills of the Green Mountains, and the sugar-soft sand of the Gulf Coast. The way, objectively, each new destination, and their input is immensely wordly, the moreso for their ages. Bunk beds, dad. This room will be more open if there’s more floor space. Can we live downtown? It’s easier to walk and SO much more exciting. Snow for Christmas, Dad, that’s what we want. And mountains. The smell better than flat land.

Is that childhood lost? Or has it just been time-shifted, the way we Tivo things now? (Though I prefer the more ancient art of “taping.” It’s so much more organic and visceral.) I’m not sure we’ve given up the magic of that consistencty. At their age, I had not yet left the state in which I was born unless it was a short ride to Connecticut, maybe. And when I finally left home for college, it was a terrifying, rending experience that left me shaken for some time, until I came into my own and embraced the true heart of the traveler, which I haven’t let go of since.

Perhaps, then, the consistency and security of our Gen X childhoods isn’t lost to our children. Could it be that the security of knowing you can make a home anywhere, because home comes from within, and that you may tread the unknown horizons without trepidation or fear, is our gift to our children? And if that is the case, maybe their idea of home will be crafted over time. Their idea of home may be the tapestry they’ve woven together through their experiences, and molded into the best of their travels, into what fits and fulfills the most. We’re told that our generation is the first in American history who cannot automatically expect a better lifestyle than our parents. Maybe this is the reversal of that threat. For our children, as for our parents, perhaps the best is yet to come.




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