Why is that my happiest childhood memories seem to revolve around the home where we had the largest, brightest kitchen? Well, maybe not the largest, brightest one – the one in Florida was larger and brighter. But this one was homiest. Perhaps it was the yellow and white tinge of the wallpaper. The windows that looked out onto the backyard that I loved from the first time I saw it. The sunken rock garden, where we let a chicken run around when my mom thought it was time for us to learn the anatomy of the food we were eating. The garden in the back where my dad planted fruits and vegetables, which his mom (Lola) tended when she visited, both getting frustrated with our infant puppy Frisky who dug the plants up in the course of her play. The apple tree in this garden that Lola tapped with nails to get it to bear fruit.
I remember apple slices drying on string, framing that window to the backyard. I remember coming in from the carport into this kitchen, sometimes with a friend who lived down the street. Mommy always fed all of us with whatever she had made for our dinner; or maybe she whipped up something new for us just then.
This was in Halifax, 20 Scarlet Road, from 1986-1989. I was 6 to 9 years old. Of all the places we lived, we stayed here the shortest. Yet my most vivid childhood memories take place here. When I think on my childhood, I think of moments related to this place, this kitchen. I remember fruit picking with the family – strawberries in the summer, blueberries in the late summer, apples in the fall. Peaches at some point. Mommy made all of these into jams, preserves that we took with us to Winnipeg. Daddy labeled them with our names. I remember running my fingers over the block printing, “AMANDA’S PEACH JAM.” I don’t know why they labeled them with our names, but I liked it. It made me feel special. It made this jar mine, even though I would be sharing it with the rest of the family.
And I wonder why I’ve been so attracted to cooking lately, to baking flat breads. Why shucking a husk of corn and pulling off the silk, running my fingers down the kernels to make sure I get all the strands, feels so honest, so natural to me. It’s fall here in New York. And for the past 3 years, I’ve been sitting in front of my computer, desperate to come up with words to fill up the pages of a thesis. Not even handwriting, which flows better for me sometimes, seems more connected to my heart, as Natalie Goldberg said in Writing Down the Bones. But typing – it always seemed more official. I needed to make it perfect, because I didn’t ever want to delete anything. I worry about the words disappearing, so I either saved an obsessive number of copies of a single document, labeled by date, or struggled to find the “perfect” words, so I wouldn’t have to delete them later.
A cassoulet, stew, fried chicken, collard greens: these don’t require perfection. Perhaps this is why I love them so much. Baking flat breads doesn’t require as much perfection as other pastries. I revel in the hand chopping of a simple sinigang, which admittedly does use a mix of dry tamarind ingredients. But chopping an onion: cutting off the bottom and top browns of it, peeling back the yellow-orange paper to reveal the gleaming smooth white underneath. Standing it up and holding it steady with my left hand, and chopping the white oval in half. Setting one half down on the board, holding it still with my left hand, as my right hand slices it from right to left, like the reading of Talmudic scripture. Turning the onion halfway around, to slice it the other way, still right to left, into even finer pieces.
The kitchen in that Halifax house was self-contained – enough space for a casual dining table, enough room to move around and cook. Winnipeg’s kitchen required us to eat in another room; Florida’s kitchen looked out over the family room and TV, and was built for entertaining. But Halifax was for the family: we entered and exited through the kitchen, brought ourselves out into the world and back through the food and heightening of the senses – touch, taste, smell, feel, listen – created there.