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Sunday Scribblings: In the kitchen

Monday, March 26, 2007 by Marianne Elliott

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In the kitchen of my childhood my mother
taught my sisters and I to bake cupcakes, current scones, chocolate cake,
caramel slice and meringues. Baking with Mum was a fun activity that involved
not too many rules and lots of space to learn. I loved dipping a cup into the
big flour and sugar bins in the pantry, carefully measuring the softened butter
into the mixing bowl and standing right inside the pantry while I watched Mum’s
big old cake mixer cream the butter and sugar. Mum had taught us how to
recognise by sight and texture when the mixture was adequately creamed, but inevitably
I preferred to test it by taste. 

In the kitchens of the farmhouses in which
I grew up the preparation and presentation of food was almost exclusively the
domain of women. It still is. Most days my father would arrive back from the
cowshed just in time to clean himself up and take his place at the head of the
dinner table.

In the kitchen of my first shared house, however,
during my first year at university, I had to learn to share space and food with
two men who were as different from me as they were from each other. Tully, our
resident surfer, would be up and out to the beach early in the morning taking
the whole loaf of bread with him and leaving none for Stuart and I to toast for
breakfast. Stuart was older, more considerate and house-trained, but whilst he fancied
spaghetti bolognaise for dinner I was both a vegetarian and constantly on a

In that kitchen I carefully baked the
perfect chocolate cake and cycled out to a farm a little outside of town to
give it to a cute boy I had spotted at church, the boy I ended up marrying.

After Dave and I got married we were on an
incredibly tight budget. We lived in a two story concrete block flat in which
condensation would collect on the ceiling and run in yellow rivulets down the
walls, washing away some of the many years worth of grime, grease and smoke. In
our wee kitchen we devised ingenious ways of making a miniscule grocery budget
stretch to cater for a dinner party for friends and neighbours. 

Years later, single and studying again, I
lived in a tiny granny flat or sleep-out in the garden of a villa where my
little sister and four of her best friends were living. It had a very basic little
kitchenette with a bench-top grill and an element. I was studying at the time
and often worked through the night at the little oak table in the kitchen,
making endless cups of tea and gazing out the kitchen window into the moonlit
garden and across to the sleeping house. Sitting in that little kitchen I felt
as though I had the world to myself.

In our kitchen in Gaza my housemate Sharifa
and I cooked together many afternoons, sharing all the dramas of our daily
lives over a bubbling pot of lentil soup. When we got up in the morning at 6.30
am she refused to speak a word of English, insisting that her brain simply
couldn’t work at that hour, so over mint tea and my breakfast cigarette she
taught me a thousand new French words, with a sufficient sprinkling of
French-Arabic slang thrown in to give me some street credibility next time I
was in Paris. 

One of my favourite places in the world is
a kitchen in Tel Aviv. I’ve spent countless hours in the kitchen of Israel and
Aviva, who were like second parents to me, welcoming me into their home
whenever I got away from Gaza for the weekend. Aviva’s only requirement was
that I stay for shabat dinner on Saturday, and that I try a little of
everything she prepared. She never let me help with the cooking, my only job
was to sit at the kitchen table while she cooked, talking about everything from
the challenges of her work as a management consultant to the pressing (in her
view) question of when I planned to have babies.

Apart from shabat, the kitchen was Israel’s
domain and when I came down the stairs from my room after a lovely, lazy lie-in
it was always Israel who insisted on making me espresso coffee and who laid out
the breakfast table; a buffet of white and yellow cheeses, sliced vegetables,
olives, and pastries. Apart from my own, I can think of few other homes where I
felt as totally loved, accepted and welcomed as I did there, and the kitchen
was the heart of it all. 

Here in Afghanistan for the first time in
my life I live in a house with a cook, Payman. He doesn’t really like it when I
cook for myself, but he is coming to accept that I will insist on doing so at
least some of the time. However, I can’t deny that I have adapted well to the
privileges of having him around. My current morning ritual is to wake early and
do my morning meditation, then wander downstairs to collect a big soy latte
that Payman makes for me. I come back upstairs and write in my journal, shower,
dress and head back downstairs for the glass of freshly squeezed orange juice
that is waiting for me in the kitchen. I like to think that I am Payman’s
favorite, partly because I am the only woman living in the house at the moment
and partly because I speak a little bit more Dari than the others.

Ultimately, there are few places that give
me a sense of home more strongly than my mother’s kitchen when it is filled
with the women of my family: my mother, aunts, cousins and sisters. They
bustle, chat, laugh, cook, slice, dice, mix and stir. One of them stops to
scoop up a small child who is getting underfoot, passing the child out to the
men in the lounge with an instruction to keep a closer eye on her. They drink
wine, make fun of each other, then get back to more cooking, more laughing,
more industry, more love.


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8 Responses to "Sunday Scribblings: In the kitchen"

  1. Mardougrrl says:

    This was so rich and atmospheric…your life is so exotic to me it’s like a novel, or a window into an alternative world.
    In short, I loved this. 🙂

  2. lacithecat says:

    Ah … my mother can’t cook (which still doesn’t quite understand) and my grandmother was a very humble chef. So – I wished I was one of the daughters in Like Water for Chocolate. I could then put people under a spell and let my emotions be translated in my cakes.
    Alas, fiction is fiction …
    But your story almost makes me believe it could be true.

  3. I loved this little insight into your growing up years, Frida- it’s amazing how kitchens and all that goes on in them can really shape our feelings towards the world and those around us. I missed having the company of women relatives around me as I had no grandmothers growing up and then moved so far away from my family… but hearing stories like yours fills my heart with such joy!
    Thank you for sharing this wonderful look into your life!

  4. Tori says:

    Wonderful travel through your time line.
    Thank you for sharing!

  5. gautami says:

    I lived through it. I travelled through it. I saw the love in it. Living and breathing post.

  6. Nathalie says:

    Hello, there.
    I followed you in from sundayscribblings.
    You’ve had quite a odyssey of a life so far.
    I quite enjoyed your tale.

  7. Pecos bluee says:

    Great site and I enjoyed this post. I will come back again. Thank you for the info.

  8. It’s so true – go to any kitchen any place in the world and you will find the flavor of the whole country. I enjoyed traveling along with you.

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