Nonfiction

The Bread of Kings by Teresa Lust

Fake Pies and Pig Thighs by Rachel Komich

An Essay in Which Pam Greer Oozes Out of Her Clothes by Richard LeBlond

On Pierogi(s) by Mark Lewandowski

Vegetexting by Jennifer Bal

The Benefits of Eating Too Much in the Desert by E. M. Eastick

A Question of Taste by Meredith Escudier

The Beauty of Pizza by Austin Rogers

Marmalade: The Melomeli of Modern America by Michael Pennell

Three Elizabeths, One George, Hot Cross Buns, and Hampstead Heath by Paula Panich

Duck by Eileen Shields

Food for Thought by Kathryn Jenkins

Playing Mass by Catherine Scherer

My Big Fat Orthodox Thanksgiving by Ruth Carmel

The Astrophysics of a Sandwich by Raychelle Heath

Tantric Chicken by Mara A. Cohen Marks

Full by Kelly Ferguson

Monkey Eve by Carolyn Phillips

Capon by Natasha Sajé

The Paella Perplex by Jeannette Ferrary

The Right to Eat by JT Torres

This Isn't Supposed to Happen in the Morning by Heather Hartley

Recipe for Winter by Khristopher Flack

Step One by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Flour Fool Meets Great Poet and Pie Instructor by Amy Halloran

Everett by Jason Bell

The Intrigue of Aaron Barthel by Kristy Leissle

Personal Sugar Defense Kit by Sari M. Boren

Kitchen Tirade by Eric LeMay

Eat Dessert First by Iris Graville

Parsley by Natasha Sajé

American Zen Breakfast by Dick Allen

This May Make You [Sic] by Paul Graham

Prisoner's Thai Noodles by Byron Case

Lavender Fields by Susan Goodwin

Ménage à Fongo by Kathryn Miles

All That She Could Make with Flour by Katherine Jameison

Weasel by John Gutekanst

Into the Deep Freeze by Jason Anthony

Defining Gluten by Ann Lightcap Bruno

The Text(ure) of Pleasure by Tara Deal

On the Perils of Food-Buying in a Foreign Land by Tony Eprile

Kitchen Tirade, in which the Author Experiences Righteous Anger over an Instant Beverage

by Eric LeMay

for Grandma Mary LeMay, at 95    

August 2013    

“Go on, now, get!” shouts Grandma Mary, flapping a dishtowel from across a stove full of steaming pots.

She’s trying to shoo us—my granddad, my dad, a slew of oversized uncles and rampaging grandchildren—out of the kitchen, where every burner is going, where the oven is crammed, and where every counter is piled high with plates and serving platters and Tupperware containers, holding everything from dinner rolls to lemon pies, and where we’d all wander, inevitably, like a herd of famished sheep.

“I said, get!”

It never worked. No matter how big the house, no matter what crucial football game might be on, provoking the shouts of my sports-obsessed uncles, or what sunny weather might be calling out all of us cousins to find some sort of collective trouble, like the Fourth of July when we decided to see who could jump off the highest point of the roof. No, we always ended up crammed back in the kitchen, bodies bumping off one another. We’d weave around my Aunt Sybil, as she stirred up Jell-O salad or whipped mashed potatoes, and swipe a finger’s worth. We’d duck under my mother as she arranged black olives or deviled eggs, their fluffy, mayo-heavy yolks sprinkled with bright red shakes of paprika, and we’d snatch and swallow one whole. We’d pretend we needed to grab a drink of water or get through to another room, all so we could get back in the kitchen, where the real action always is.

And there, at the center of all this boiling and roasting and baking and slicing, has always been Grandma Mary, the culinary matriarch of the LeMay family, swatting at us with her dishtowel and shouting, “Get! Get!” when we reached critical mass. She’d been up late the night before, making dressing, or she’d gotten up before dawn to get this or that slow-cooking dish in the oven or she’d brought an oven with her, because sometimes she just needed an extra crock pot or turkey fryer. “Get!” she’d shout, then cackle as one of her sons gave her the slip and made off with a piece of roasted ham.

When we got desperate, we’d divert her with hugs and kisses—she was always a sucker for those—and when we’d get away with another mouthful we knew, as she knew, that the hugs and kisses and even those affectionate swats with that sweaty dishtowel were the true meat of the meal.

For Grandma Mary, cooking and love are inseparable, and she taught us how to love one another in the kitchen.

    

    

When I was young, I thought our kitchen was unique.

Those weird LeMays, I’d decided. I’d be perched in the corner, polishing off as many cheese cubes as I possibly could before I got caught and I’d see this chaos before me and think: everyone else’s families are gathering together—where else?—in the family rooms, and here we are, all of us, packed into the kitchen, jostling overtop of one another, poaching from half-finished dishes, and gabbing about the latest newborn or worrisome diagnosis, as though a family couldn’t talk unless there was string bean casserole to pick apart. Why, I’d wonder, why couldn’t we all just sit down, kick back, and act like a normal family?

Even now, when my wife and I go home to my folks, after a three-hour drive, we end up standing in the kitchen, catching up on the latest news and working our way through a fleet of plastic wrapped plates that my mother keeps on the counter, all while she’s preparing dinner.

“Oh, and I made you some chocolate chip cookies,” my mom will suddenly recall, stopping mid-chop or mix. We might be talking about the precarious state of my job, how I don’t know, officially, whether I’ll have one at the end of the year, and now I’m munching a cookie and trying to explain my yearly contract. But before I can finish, my dad pushes a package of donuts at me from another spot on the counter.

“Breakfast of champions,” he’ll say, referring to an old Saturday Night Live skit we both love, where a tubby John Belushi pretends to win the Olympic decathlon on a training diet of little chocolate donuts.

So now I’m eating a cookie and holding a donut and trying to clarify the salient details of the rehiring process, when my mom realizes there’s a pimento spread in the refrigerator that I haven’t tried.

“It’s so good on crackers!”

And that reminds my dad of a new spicy mustard, “with horseradish,” and now I’m balancing two Ritz crackers, one loaded only with mustard and the other with a disconcerting pink goo, and I’ve got a mouth full of donut and cookie and my wife has now taken over the story, so I can start shoving some of this in my mouth, when my mom says, “So are you guys ready for dinner?”

That’s the LeMay kitchen: a pre-dinner eating tour, then dinner, then a post-dinner roundup, “How about another donut? Another cookie?” And when you point out that you’ve essentially jammed the contents of the cupboard and refrigerator in your belly, my mom will remember the freezer.

“I’ve been eating these new veggie sausage patties for breakfast, and you’ve got to try one,” she’ll insist, while my dad starts digging out a few half-gallons of ice cream and setting them on the table.

All this happens after a dinner that’s inevitably included a spirited discussion of our latest diets and our attempts to live more fitly, with my dad declaring at some point that he’s lost or gained then lost “five or six pounds” as he spoons out one more hit of mint chocolate chip.

Could any other kitchen be like this? And by “this,” I mean could any other kitchen be the spot for these sometimes sweet, sometimes absurd moments that define us as families?

    

    

Most are.

I realized this kitchen-truth when I left Ohio and moved to the East Coast. In cities Washington, New York, and Boston, I discovered that even the born-and-raised urbanities would reflect fondly on their family kitchens. These kitchens might have been tiny and most of the food in them might have come from Chinese carry-out containers, but no matter how small it was, the kitchen always seemed to be the right size to hold a family together.

And that was true even when families fell apart. Kitchens aren’t just warm, homey places. In a kitchen, things heat up, things combust, and sometimes things end up a hopeless charred mess that leaves you no choice but to dump it in the trash. I recall a friend whose parents divorced when he was quite young, and the only good memory he had of his mother was the time they spent together late at night, after she returned home from her second job. She’d bring back a bag of McDonald’s and the two would share it, usually in silence, at the kitchen table, dipping fries out of the same pile of packet ketchup.

To me, an Ohioan at heart, this scene sounded depressing, but my friend explained that those silent meals were a sort of ritual for he and his mother, one that just the two of them shared when no one else was around or awake. (Every night, after he was supposed to be asleep in bed, he would wait, listening for the front door, then sneak out to the kitchen and meet his mother.) In that moment, at that meal, he and his mother were free from the chronic tensions of the house, the fights and the brooding and his siblings’ yelling and struggling for attention. They could just be together, and the kitchen let that happen.

My friend’s kitchen isn’t unique. Everyone has kitchen stories because everyone has to eat. Sometimes these might be stories from the soup kitchen or stories about not having a kitchen—right now, as I write, the non-profit organization Feeding America estimates that one in six Americans, some fifty million people, are suffering from hunger—but for those of us lucky enough to have one, the kitchen isn’t just a room in our house; it’s a place where we discover who we are, how we do and don’t come together, a place where we mix and mingle like so many ingredients and, just maybe, blend with one another into something better than we’d be alone.

    

    

If kitchens are hot spots, stewing us together, they can also be lonely places, where we heat up soup for one or jostle past our spouse as we yank a yogurt from the fridge and bolt out the door to beat the rush-hour traffic. Yet these kitchens also show us what we do and don’t value. I like to think that’s why I got mad the other night over a commercial for Carnation Breakfast Essentials.

I’m not usually one to flip out over ready-to-drink products, but there we were, my wife and I, watching TV at the end of the day in that vegitative way, in which you feel as though what’s on the screen might be a dream because you might be asleep, though you’re pretty sure you aren’t, because you’re watching TV, but you probably shouldn’t be, and why keep watching TV if you can’t keep your eyes open, since this can’t be good for you, can it?

Commercials, in this state, are particularly annoying. Who wants to half-dream an ad? And, admittedly, this commercial was no more insipid that any other, but for some reason I suddenly felt the need to make sure it was known, for the record, that this one, this particular commercial, was ridiculous. I may have even said that—“This is ridiculous!”—as though I were the first person to notice that advertising doesn’t accurately represent reality.

“What are you talking about?” my wife asked, a little alarmed.

“Well, it doesn’t even make sense that she’d have a kitchen,” I insisted. This clarification didn’t clarify much, and my wife had the good sense to wait me out.

Half-asleep herself, she, like you, had no idea of the commerical’s content or, come to think of it, that I was talking about a commercial. (Why would I? Why would anyone?) That meant she had to see it. Yes, that meant I intentionally sought out and forced my wife to watch a commercial.

Here, as best my hazy memory can reconstruct it, is what we saw: a TV Mom in mom jeans tries to wake up her floppy banged Tween. But Tween can’t wake up—not with a nudge, not with the blinds thrown open, not with a jostle, not even with the covers thrown off. Not, in fact, until Mom sassily hits the cymbal on Tween’s drum set, startling him upright. Cut to a close up of delicious brown breakfast liquid, pouring out in supposedly enticing slow motion, accompanied by a voiceover plugging its nutritional wholesomeness and ability to satisfy paternal obligations with minimal effort, etc. Then cut back to Tween, in the kitchen, chugging down a glass of delicious brown liquid in spotless glass, as Mom beams with maternal satisfaction, while also wiping down the counter with a dishrag. The commercial goes on for a few seconds more. The Tween scampers out the front door toward the presumably ultra-bright school bus, but it’s the dishrag that got me.

“What,” I asked my wife with Socratic air, “what possible reason would a mother have to clean up the kitchen after pouring out an instant-breakfast drink that comes in a plastic bottle?”

    

    

I’m not proud of getting huffy about an ad, but it sticks with me. Probably because it more or less craps its supposedly delicious brown breakfast liquid over real kitchens and everything we do in them. Instead of places where pots and people clang and clash, the kitchen becomes an idealized soda machine, except that in this case the soda machine not only dispenses a tasty and healthy breakfast drink, but also gives birth to you.

For all its noxiousness, this isn’t a new vision of how the American family should eat. Think of those dream kitchens of the future from the 1960s, in which perfectly prepared meals pop up, instamatically, at the press of a button, while father smokes his pipe and mother orders the robotic maid to set the table and call the kids in from jet-packing. An instant breakfast drink, with the notion that—preseto!—you can satisfy your nutritional needs in a few quick gulps, is a later-day version of this no-muss, no-fuss, Tang vision of a fully automated home.

But what got my guff is that Carnation Breakfast Essentials knows we don’t want to live in that techno-home. It knows we go to the kitchen for more than nutrition. That’s why mom is standing there, with a useless dishrag, wiping down a perfectly clean counter: she’s there because everyone knows that in a kitchen we do more than feed one another. A kitchen is where we care for one another, where we connect and come together. And even a product that eliminates the need for a kitchen knows this truth. That’s why it also serves us up a mom, so we’ll choke down its vision of a family.

We may wince at this vision, with its backwards view that a woman’s place is in the kitchen and with the added insult that in a kitchen only pretend-work happens, but I still think the ad attests, in a warped way, to how we see ourselves. We find it hard to imagine ourselves—as a couple, a family, a congregation, a community—without a kitchen. To say it another way, Carnation Breakfast Essentials knows that what’s really essential is a kitchen.

The 18th century French gastronome, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, famously wrote, “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are.” That may be true, but it’s not only what we eat that matters. It’s also how we eat, how we make what we eat, who we eat it and make it with, and how, as a result of all this making and eating, we gather together in that one room of the house that’s devoted not only to eating, but to one another. In our kitchens, we discover who we are.

Show me your kitchen, and I’ll show you your soul.



  Eric LeMay is Alimentum's Web and Book Review Editor.