Thursday, August 23, 2007

"K" is for "Kitchen"

My mother's kitchen is huge. It has unparalleled counter space. It has two sinks--one in the counter and one in the isle counter--a convection oven and a conventional oven. She has an assortment of cutting boards (two built into the kitchen counters others that I remember from my child hood moving house to house with us.) Cooking in my mother's kitchen is a delight, because it is a social event. My last trip home, four years ago when my daughters were 5 and 1, one of my closest girl friends flew with her 5-year-old daughter to spend Thanksgiving at my parents home with me. To try to offset the burden of extra company for Thanksgiving, my friend and I volunteered to cook up the entire feast. Mom insisted on doing the turkey herself, but apart from my parents sneaking in in the early morning to pop the bird in to the oven, the rest of the day was spent with five-year old girls grating, peeling and washing things at the two separate sinks while my girlfriend tutored me in the art of preparing mouth watering dishes.

My girlfriend is a real cook. She is in her element in a kitchen.

I am not. I am not a real cook that is. I am a recipe cook. I select the recipe, I study it, I consider it, I study it some more and then I follow it, painstakingly down to the last detail. My food tastes pretty much like one would expect, edible but not memorable.

Despite my complete lack of cooking finesse, I enjoy a good kitchen. I love my mother's kitchen because it is HUGE. On that Thanksgiving day five years ago, my one-year-old sat at the end of the kitchen isle unloading pots and pans from a cupboard underneath the isle, my five-year-old viciously and cheerfully frisked and scrubbed vegetables at the isle sink. My friend's five-year-old painstakingly grated huge mounds of cheddar cheese next to her mother by the stove top. My friend was busy teaching me the art of creating a light and flaky pie crust.

And I brewed and poured coffee into our earthenware coffee mugs. (I love my mother's plates, dishes, cups and bowls--so many local pottery pieces). I leaned on the kitchen counter and laughed and gossiped and talked and talked and talked. In the moments when we got the girls out of the kitchen and to the dinning room table to color in turkeys and fall leaves, we dissected our lives and our marriages over our cups of coffee. But all afternoon the kitchen never sat in silence.

My mother's kitchen, the 2 sink, middle isle one is not the kitchen I grew up with. That kitchen was in the house in the foothills of California. It had only one sink, no center isle and only one cutting board. But it had an attached breakfast bar, where in fact my family ate most of our meals.

While one person was cooking or cleaning up in the kitchen, another could sit at the breakfast bar and do what I like to do best in a kitchen: talk.

In fact, should you ever find me at all reticent, drag me into the nearest kitchen and I'll open up.

I don't recall a single conversation of importance with my mother that didn't take place in the kitchen.

Even guests seemed to intuit the conversational pull of the kitchen and despite seating arrangements or name placards the best conversations always erupted in the kitchen.

When I was 9 and I was helping my mother by offering guests tea or coffee I remember how out in the living room the adults would receive a tea cup with formal thank yous but how they would later walk into the kitchen and leaning against the kitchen counter start real conversations with me. Sometimes they told me about their own childhoods or something about their own children. Often they gave me advice or offered insights that made no sense to me at the time, at that age. Just this morning, as I sat staring at Saki (4 years old) who was whacking a large empty cardboard box with a stick (loud, but still not as loud as last week's obsession which was dumping marbles in a metal bowl and then swishing them around and around and around) I heard again, Mrs. Rudemyer confessing in my mother's kitchen, "Oh Laura I can't wait until my Amy is your age! And can talk about something! I can't wait to have interesting conversations with her! Talking with you is so fun, you have opinions and ideas! Young children can be so repetitive and . . . . boring. It's a challenge." As Saki continued to enthusiastically whip the box with her stick the 40 year old me smiled at Mrs. Rudemyer and thought "how true."

And yet, I want that little box whipping child in my kitchen! In fact, I try to lure both girls into the kitchen with me whenever I can. Unfortunately, our kitchen here in Japan is basically a thin rectangle. There is no room for anything, certainly not for more than one person at a time. I worry that the cat will eventually show signs of brain damage I end up stepping on her and booting her about so frequently in the kitchen as she tries to wind her way past or through my legs to her food dish at the end of the kitchen. One side of our kitchen is lined with the refrigerator, the sink and the stove top. The other side is lined with the dish cupboard, a standing plug in isle (wooden table with outlets built in it) pushed up against the wall that holds the rice cooker and coffee pot and the small convection oven. The convection oven is a BIG domestic triumph and it took me five years to get it. But now I can bake American style and it can even fit a small turkey. Then at the very end there is a tiny space for the cats bowls. They have to eat shoulder to shoulder. Counter space I create by laying cutting boards across the sink.

And yet, here I am still trying to coax my daughters into the kitchen to talk with me. I am never so desperate for conversation as when I am in that tiny kitchen.

Our first apartment here in Japan had an even tinier kitchen. It was only one side of the wall and that was the wall that was also part of the family room. I enthusiastically bought a huge wooden table to plunk down opposite the wall with the kitchen on it. The table was so big that you could barely squeeze past it. In fact, Reno usually just danced up on and down the bench rather than try to squirm around it. It looked like I had put Barbie furniture in a traditional sized doll house--very out of proportion. And still no one stayed to talk to me. Reno and her father usually sat in front of the T.V. at the end of that room. We ended up calling it the "overpriced cutting board."

When we moved into our mansion in Osaka I was enthusiastic over the kitchen. It was marginally larger, but the part I loved was that the sink had dual facets in it (although after living there for four years I only remember one occasion on which I actually had a friend there to use one facet while I used the other.) and that there was an open counter looking out into the dinning room. Where I of course placed the monstrous dinning table. My family however, continually drifted towards the end of the dinning/family room, pulled by the force of the T.V. and my big homey table became a kind of "side bar". I could look out that kitchen window at that empty table as much as I wanted to. The hoards stayed firmly encrusted on the sofa, opposite the table, out of my range of view, in front of the T.V.

Of course at meal times I could force them to sit at the table. But where was the epicenter for conversation in our family? In Osaka, it ended up being in the ofuro. Which is fine for family, but you can't exactly drag company in to the family bath, ask them to disrobe and get chatty now can you?

Here in Akita, I find that the kids open up and want to talk to me at bed time. No matter how long the day has been or how late the bed time hour, they sit up, suddenly perky and willing to divulge all kind of fascinating details about their day or they are inspired at the precise moment that I say, "now lay down and go to sleep" to ask questions that are deep and significant.

Growing up, I was inspired to explore and plumb the depths of the universal truths by the site of a peeler in my mother's hands. My kids seem to get inspiration from the lines etched in my face from fatigue.

For me, a kitchen is a place for creation and communion. If there is someone in there that can cook too than not only my soul but my palate will be satisfied as well. But my main concern in the kitchen is the feeding of my soul. Japan's skinny kitchens have put that aspect of life on a strict regimented diet. No one wants to squeeze in there with me!

So I am trying to perfect the art of meditation in a kitchen. Using recipes as mantras, stirring and whisking and chopping up the events of the day, preserving memories and striving to balance my soul while I attempt to put something edible on the plates at the big table.

Oh, and if you ever have the desire to call and chat during the pre-dinner hour (from 5 to 6p.m. Japan time) please feel free to ring me! My cordless phone works perfectly well in the kitchen!


Donna said...

Our old house had a tiny kitchen, with no counter space. One of the advice homeschooling moms get is have the kids bake and cook with you, they will learn math that way. But it was such a chore, the girls fighting over whose turn it was to stand at the counter, I hated it and felt bad that I hated baking Christmas cookies, for crying out loud. Our new house has a much bigger kitchen and finally I can bake with the girls in comfort. I do wish it had a window over the sink. There was one house we looked at when we were house-hunting with a window over the sink looking into the yard and neither my husband or the house-hunting-lady, what the heck do your call her, mortgage broker I think? Anyway, neither of them seemed to understand how special I thought that window was.

I kind of like being alone in the kitchen, I tend to daydream alot and cooking gives me the chance to indulge in that. I hope your efforts towards meditation are successful!

coarse gold girl said...

Talking about windows over the sink--my mother's kitchen widow looks out over their side deck to several bird feeders and one squirrel feeder that they have set up on that side of the house. My father bought her a little mic that is connected to the birdfeeders. She can turn it on and hear the birds in the kitchen.

I know how special a window over the sink is. My dream kitchen has a beautiful little garden of home grown herbs on that window sill above the sink. . .


Christelle said...

new blog alert:
it's more exclusive, but I believe other blog authors can access it.

coarse gold girl said...

I'll try to e-mail this to you as well, but it looks like you have to send me an invitation for me to be allowed on the new blog.

Trisha said...

When Sophie gets bigger one of the things that I can't wait to do with her is cook. I don't care if it comes from a box or is homemade!! Bailey sometimes helps out in the kitchen but he would much rather eat than prepare.

azumarisan said...

I know what you mean about those tiny Japanese kitchens! They're a nightmare. My mother-in-law in Hokkaido has this very narrow space in which to cook and wash up but the most fascinating part is that every thing has a place and everything is so arranged as to maximise the usefulness of it. I'd never seen a kitchen so small until I went to Japan, then i truly appreciated the kitchen at the duplex (2 beds, 1 kitchen, 1 bath) that I had! We have since built and i have a beautiful big galley kitchen that i love. I agree with you that the kitchen is where I do most of the talking. Everyone seems to hone in on the kitchen as their place to stand around and chew the fat.

Also thanks for posting on my blog "gaijin fujin".

Kelly :)

Sarah said...

I love kitchens! I love to go home and sit with my mom and my sister in the kitchen. Sometimes we cook but mostly we just retreat to enjoy ourselves.

Our kitchen is the one long stretch of counter that is open to the house. I think it's called a "system kitchen". At first I didn't like it but the kitchen table is right in front of it (or behind it? hmm...) and when I'm cooking dinner my girls will come and sit at the table and talk with me. I cannot tell you how much that warms my heart.

But now Emi is in 1st grade and thinks she should be allowed to cook with me and I just don't have enough stamina or patience for that. I wish I did, but I don't so she's just out of luck until I figure that out!

kate said...

Laura, I love this!

Thank you for reading my blog and for your comment about ultrasounds. It helped so much. I'm so glad that I now have your blog to read, as well.


Sheri said...

Again, I love reading your the thought of a kitchen here being used like that but they are just so small-can't really see it happening