Composing at the Kitchen Table (a draft)

This last month has been busy, what with two conferences, final essays, and all the end-of-semester meetings and tasks that somehow always pop up at the worst possible time. However, I want to share the start of a new project (born out of work I’ve done this semester in a class on Composing Practices). For now, I’m sticking with the ambiguous title of this post, “Composing at the Kitchen Table.” What I’m sharing with you today is the opening to that essay, which is both an intensely private moment from my life and a deeply moving experience that has certainly shaped my academic career. I look forward to writing and sharing more of it as my work progresses.


Growing up, I don’t remember ever having a kitchen table. The kitchen itself was a room barely larger than my small bedroom, and the only space for me to sit was in the doorway. I would lounge with my back against the doorframe as I watched my mom cook dinner. If anyone in our family hovered around her while she was cooking she would shoo us away, especially the the two cats always milling about her feet. She did not like to be hemmed in by too many hungry mouths in the kitchen.

After being married for a few years, she convinced my dad to renovate, turning the tiny kitchen into one of the biggest rooms in our small suburban home. I remember she spent months planning it out, reading books on kitchen design and sketching renderings of possible layouts. Not one to be outdone, she had a convection oven brought in (a new machine for the home cook at the time), a double-wide sink added, a new refrigerator that made ice that always tasted salty. I learned it was important to establish the triangle of stove-refrigerator-sink; books made it dance-like as they emphasized how the cook moved about the kitchen.

“Our successive living spaces never disappear completely; we leave them without leaving them because they live in turn, invisible and present, in our memories and in our dreams. They journey with us.
In the center of these dreams, there is often the kitchen…”
(Michel de Certeau, Pierre Mayol; The Practice of Everyday Life, volume 2, pg. 148)

The one constant in her renderings, though, was a space to sit; stepping over me in the doorway was probably getting old. She added a bar onto the backside of the far kitchen counter, creating a space where we could sit but still be out of her way (but close enough to grab samples of dishes left unobserved for a few seconds). While not the kitchen table of my imagination (something old and wooden, with deep scratches from years of use) it was a space where I wrote thank-you cards and to-do lists, where I watched her cook and asked her questions about life and love and the proper way to cut an onion (use frozen was her suggestion).

It was also the place where my dad and I sat most often while she deteriorated from cancer, and it was where we were sitting the morning after she died. It’s where we sit still, perhaps because the matching armchairs in the living room remind us too much of what’s missing. The difference now, though, is that I’m the one cooking while my dad and partner sit at the counter.

I share this personal story as a way into understanding the value of the kitchen as a powerful, moving space; it functions as a central figure in our lives, especially in moments of crisis. It wasn’t until I started to grieve the loss of my mother that I realized how integral that space was to my life, and especially to my life as a writer and an academic. My love for food and my deep-seated desire to understand the many ways in which women like my mother survived hardships only known to women (and in particular women who lived through the 1950s) was born in that space. It was at that counter that I learned more than how to cook; it was where I learned strength, resilience, how to assert my own voice. Yet, until recently, I had never considered it as a space of resistance to all that women have endured at the hands of a toxic culture divided by gender, class, and race. I had never before considered how what I wrote in that space, including work during my Master’s, was made profoundly political by association. Indeed I wasn’t sure if the kitchen was considered off-limits for feminists after Virginia Woolf’s assertion that we needed rooms of our own. If the kitchen had ostensibly always been ours, did it still count as a place in which to do important work, or were we simply trying to dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools?

As I’ve matured I’ve come to a better understanding of my own practice; if I write in the kitchen and I’m a feminist, of course it can be and is a feminist writing space. But I don’t believe I’m alone in feeling the tension that circulates around writing in the kitchen.

The Women in My Kitchen

When I first looked at the Cincinnati apartment I would eventually move into, my (now) landlord gave me a tour. In pointing out the various features (built-in bookcases, a weird sink-closet in the bedroom) he lamented over the small size of the galley-style kitchen. After enthusiastically signing a lease (those built-ins!) I told him how much I like to cook. “But why take this place with that kitchen” he asked me. “Are you sure you really want the place?”

Yes, I really wanted the place. Small kitchen aside, the apartment had its charms (built-ins). Besides, I figured, I’ve lived in places with smaller kitchens, less well-organized kitchens. This would be just fine.

But, honestly, I didn’t expect it to be great. In reality, my kitchen has become one of my favourite places in the entire apartment. Its smallness obscures its functionality; its configuration belies perfection. Sure, it needs a dishwasher, a larger place for a trash can, a garbage disposal. But, it reminds me that not everything must be perfect to still be good. Just like me, the kitchen has its flaws; but it is overwhelmingly as unique and well-suited for its purpose as any kitchen I’ve ever lived with. Cooking in this kitchen comes naturally to me—it’s comforting, cozy, manageable. It feels like stepping into my own little world, a place where life mostly makes sense, where I know I will find the spice or spatula I’m looking for with ease, and where I feel good about what I’m doing (even when it’s occasionally a smoking-pan-of-dinner disaster). It is—in every sense of the word—charming.

Let me give you an example. On a whim recently, I decided to research the sink in my apartment’s kitchen. It seemed vintage, albeit in good condition, and I wondered if I could find out when it was probably installed. Never would I guess that it was most likely original to the building (1937) and that it was a top-of-the-line model that was also sold with a customizable mix of cabinets and drawers (all of which are still here). Somewhat shocked by my discovery, it led me to wonder exactly how many other women (or men) had stood in this same kitchen as I do every day—washing dishes, cooking, eating, staring out the window at the neighbor’s house. How many others were here before me, and what did they cook?

In a way, thinking about this makes me feel more connected, not only to the imaginary renters before me, but also to my mother. In some ways, I feel like I am reenacting her when I’m standing in my kitchen; I get these short flashes of what her life was like before me, but also of what our life was like when she was still here. Even though my childhood kitchen was very different (large, fancy, and also very 1990s), perhaps some of what I find so comforting about this kitchen is that very sense of connection I have to people across time, not only those I knew like her, but also those who will always remain unknown to me.


The sink itself: Whitehead Monel original

Exploring homesickness through condiments

Something I’ve realized lately is just how many condiments I owned before moving to Ohio. Every night when I reach into the fridge, searching for some of Ben’s tamari or that bottle of Tapatio or that jar of Trader Joe’s harissa I bought on a trip to Wisconsin, I’m reminded that I left everything in a refrigerator in Kansas. Sometimes I just want to slam the fridge closed and open it again, hoping I’ll inspire some sort of food fantasy reverse Wizard of Oz situation and all my beloved jars will appear.

Instead, I’ve been shopping. One of my first priorities after moving was to find and replace all of those condiments, and in doing so I’ve realized how much condiments serve as totems of familiarity and reminders of home for me. Eating a breakfast sandwich at a local diner, the Proud Rooster, was the inspiration; a bottle of Frank’s Red Hot was sitting on the table, and I snapped a picture to send to my dad with the caption “they have it here too!” His response: “Good. I put that shit on everything.”

There’s something so comforting in finding a place or a person that shares a love of Frank’s. It’s different than sharing a favourite dish; condiments speak to a more personal level of attachment. They add flavor in a way that an individual is in control of, even if she wasn’t the cook of the meal. There’s a level of “doctoring-up” at play that ties the personal to the historical. While Frank’s is one of a million hot sauces (and only one of the many I keep in stock), I still associate it with my family, like some sort of family “secret” ingredient. In the same way that my dad’s joke is a long-running response to any Frank’s sighting, just having a bottle of Frank’s somehow makes me feel closer to those I’ve left.

Perhaps that’s why the loss of all my fridge condiments hit me so hard, harder than anything else about moving so far. They were a collection, a jumble of jars and containers that spoke not only to my familial ties, but to my explorations as well. I certainly didn’t grow up with harissa, or tapatio, or Maille dijon mustard. Those were additions I’d made, ones that somehow bolstered my identity as a culinary experimenter. In seeking out new flavors, I’d pushed beyond the boundaries of my Midwest upbringing to discover a side of myself that I’m just now beginning to understand—a side that is wholly fascinated with how food speaks to both personal and national cultural identity.

So I’d found those condiments, and in a hokey way some idea of who I want to be (#phdlife), only to lose them again in a 14-hour move. But even after losing them, it takes just one trip to Jungle Jim’s to replace them all. Perhaps that’s what’s so startling to me about condiments in general—they’re so important, yet so easily replaceable.

The simplest way to feel just a little bit closer to home.