In Ruth Reichl’s Book, Comfort Me With Apples, she describes dining at the movie actor Danny Kaye’s place. He was some kind of fancy ass cook with everything expensive and fabulous – the kitchen, the food, the guests. He cooked, they ate, he watched. According to Ruth it was weird and beautiful.
Recently I was invited to make grappa with my good friend George and his friends. As fun as that was, my attention was on the woman in the kitchen who gave us lunch – Luisa, George’s mum. Just like Danny Kaye, Luisa cooked and we ate. But it wasn’t weird, only beautiful.
Luisa’s kitchen is a classic L-shaped work space with a table and chairs in the centre of the room. Like the first house I lived in, her house has no dining room. Meaning it all happens around the kitchen table – Christmas, birthdays, card games, coffee, homework, bookkeeping, lamp repairs, mending, duck plucking. For the twentieth century Canadian working class – which is where my family and George’s fits in (via Italy) – the dining room was expendable square footage better used for a bedroom.
But in the stack of kitchen history and design books on my desk, there is no mention of homes without dining rooms. Only rational and irrational kitchen design from the efficiency experts of the 20’s and 30’s, the ones responsible for the L-shaped continuous kitchen (rational). They don’t say where the diningroom-deprived should eat but it certainly wouldn’t be in the middle of their choreographed foot path. A table messing things up? They didn’t even like cooks, whose walking pattens were unpredictable and messy.
These days cartographers map out kitchens with islands and peninsulas which are appointed with bar stools. Maybe Danny would have approved of this proscenium style kitchen where the cook performs to an impressed audience.
But Luisa’s kitchen, with her table and chairs, is a market square.
We ate spaghetti, chicken, salad, cakes, cookies. We drank home-made wine, then grappa in our espresso. The dog barked. George knocked over his water dish. The neighbour’s kids bounced on and off various laps, gurgling that pleasure laugh they do. They lobbied for candy from the giant candy jar on the sideboard. They ran down the garden path to check on the grappa production, then ran back while we sat and talked, our chairs pushed slightly away from the table. All of us kids to Luisa in her glorious irrational kitchen.
I wrote this story in 2010. Luisa is 90 something now, at the end of her life, no longer inhabiting her kitchen. Women of that generation owned their kitchens. And she owned this one. My mother owned hers, too. It is where Luisa made her husband’s work lunch, fed her family, made pastries for the church bazaar, fed the dog. Now, in the hospital, her kitchen is brought to her in tiny flavours, like grated Parmessan for the hospital soup. I like the way George is able to provide for Luisa from the same kitchen with the same care she once gave him.