Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Slightly Longer History of the Kitchen and Me

My road to the kitchen did not begin near one. At a tender young age I was milking cows, raising chickens and tending garden on a small farm outside of Logansport in northern Indiana. I grew up under the guidance of a mostly-employed mother and father. When Dad wasn’t employed, he busted my butt daily with chores around the farm. Mom worked to make ends meet yet still rose every morning before everyone else and went to bed after everyone else. When home, she and the kitchen were inseparable.

I ate just about everything. I don’t recall it being an option. First, there was raw hunger. Farming did that to a young boy. Second, rejecting my mother’s cooking would have displeased my father.

If pressed into duty, I could have boiled water for instant coffee, fried some eggs, or a rasher of bacon. Simple stuff. Mostly I gathered - eggs from the henhouse, milk from the cows, veggies from the garden, or fruit from the orchard. The closest I came to meal preparation involved the separation of chickens from their heads.

Chasing down the fowl became a sport. (There wasn’t a lot to do for entertainment on a farm.) Once captured, I gripped the legs tightly, stretched the neck from two narrow nails atop a block of wood, then separated the head from the body with an axe, preferably a sharpened one. I was always amazed by the prowess of a headless five-pound rooster or hen. If not gripped tightly enough, the bird would flop violently for several minutes. This did not please my mother who was standing by with a tub of scalding water. Plucking feathers and gutting chickens was woman’s work. Mom’s fried chicken was legendary - at least to the end of our driveway.

We spent a lot of our waking hours in food-related activities - irrigating the grazing pastures for the milk-cows, or the meat from a steer butchered each year - planting, fertilizing, weeding, spraying and growing vegetables and strawberries for our roadside stand -nurturing the orchard and standing guard against predator blackbirds - raising chickens for fresh eggs and fried chicken. (There was only one way to prepare chicken - fried.)

This relationship with the land is an art now lost in most of the country, though there is a minor movement back. Barbara Kingsolver’s latest book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, speaks to this. Growing up, the naturalness of the four seasons and the evolution of plant and animal life seemed integrated into whom we were. Sitting down to eat around the kitchen table, or Sunday dinners in the dining room, connected us to each other and to our environment. The kitchen was the center of our family’s lives. We rarely think much about that kind of life until it is gone.

After marriage, PJ and I tag-teamed the kitchen duties. Whoever had the toughest schedule stayed out of the kitchen. One of us (alternately) was both working and taking classes the first eight years of marriage. It was pretty simple fare in those days. Our wine tastes hadn’t progressed much past Almaden Hearty Burgundy. When I formally banded her from the kitchen 20 years ago, it took some serious scrubbing to get the tire tread marks off of the floor after she burnt rubber while exiting.

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