Gail Singer is an old dear friend of ours. She’s a filmmaker and has a deep love
for food. One night, she started telling me about her theory of mankind—she suggested that the discovery of fire was simultaneously the invention of the kitchen. You could also say that’s the beginning of interiors! I think the notion of taste,
in its literal sense, and the relationship we have to the designated space where
we cultivate our palate is fascinating.
Text by Gail Singer
Photography by Jenna Marie Wakani
The kitchen is where my heart and soul live. The kitchen, my kitchen, is my studio, my laboratory, my operating room, my haven. My collections of cookery books are my research tools. My utensils are pots, pans, measuring cups, and a range of cutting devices that could challenge a surgical O.R. My overstuffed spice cupboard, the contents gathered from every market I visit all over the world, are like inks, watercolors, and oil paint.
It all began a long time ago, in the early mornings of my childhood: sitting at the blue Formica table on a chrome chair with a bright yellow plastic seat cover stuck to my behind, or walking across the linoleum floor to the electric stove, the coffee gently burping in a Pyrex percolator. My father made the coffee, and sometime during the afternoon, my mother made cinnamon buns, perfuming the kitchen with the ambrosial scent of yeast and cinnamon and sugar that greeted us when we came home from school. Things change: one-day, huge boxes arrived, and our kitchen table and chairs were given away. A surprise. My father set up our new pure white, legless kitchen table and chairs, Eero Saarinen’s “tulip” table. So daring in a Midwestern town that prided itself on “plain.”
This was an era of melamine dishes, but we never had them. Despite my parents’ lack of sophistication, they had their own standards; it was “china” all the way. The china may have been chipped or unmatched, but it was definitely not plastic. My parents’ curious naiveté saved me from TV dinners; in our kitchen, anything homemade, however bland or overcooked, was better than a TV dinner. I was terribly envious of my friends who ate from tin foil containers with ridged compartments separating pale gray beans from stringy chicken and watery potatoes, the infamous “Swanson TV Dinner.” I had my first-ever just the other day.
No, we nibbled little rib steaks, pickled tongue, meatloaf, Lake Winnipeg smoked goldeye, lox and cream cheese, fresh rye bread, chicken soup, and occasionally brisket braised in a Pepsi cola “jus,” macaroni and cheese, fried liver, and canned peaches, the latter having been “put up,” along with Bing cherries, dill pickles, and blueberry wine by—of all people—my father. I didn’t know that his skills in the kitchen were not exactly a universal male trait, and one of my biggest life disappointments was the discovery that none of the main men in my life had kitchen skills. (That could account for why all those relationships had fairly short “best by” dates.)
In the cooling days of August, I would sit beside my father at the kitchen table, washing the cukes to make pickles, tucking them into the jars with the beautiful dill “crowns” and salt that aid in the fermentation process. Spices, hot peppers, and garlic. Later, in September, we would dip bright yellow peaches in hot water, magically peel off the skin, and pour sweet boiling water over the peaches. Tightening the lids just so, we would drown the filled jars, watching as they burped out the air within, while attempting to emulate the expulsion of air, and in doing so, making our own music.
Much later—by then as adult as I would ever be—I spent years on the road as a sort of itinerant filmmaker. One day (overwhelmed by grappling with world disorder and chaos), I realized that my more essential purpose in life was to take note of the marvelous calm and generosity of people around a table: in the gathering and preparing of food, in the recognition that the taste of a particular food was astonishing, in the atmosphere of congeniality that such events inspire. It became apparent to me that the efforts and skill put into the cooking of foodstuffs was one of the most comforting and bountiful aspects of being alive. There was and is a certain universal humanity in the sharing, giving, and taking of food, in the home kitchen. The Japanese and the Spanish replicate this by creating a direct relationship between the chef at a sushi bar or the host at a tapas restaurant. These are the moments that dispel differences among people. Hospitality is a fundamental underpinning of most civilized societies. Often, the poorest are the most generous.
The kitchens of the poor resemble most closely the kitchens of the past: a simple source of heat, with access to water, and the assistance of a variety of tools. I have sat by a fire in a Nepalese village while a craftsman has formed a knife from a simple piece of metal and a quickly carved wooden handle. A child in a Thai village in the Northeast has woven a basket and caught me a carp from a field. And I have seen the great kitchens of the former royal families near Delhi in India: two sets of vast kitchens, one for Western style cooking from the colonial past, the other used to cater to the Indian guests. In London, I have envied mammoth highly ornate cast iron stoves that extend deep into the kitchens of wealthy Victorian homes. I have been dazzled by the 15th-century Dutch kitchen, the first to benefit from the clever kitchen designers of the day: mathematicians who worked out the best placement of windows to improve the illumination of the working areas of the kitchen.
Modern kitchens are astounding. My own is compact, jammed and (I regret) often untidy. But I can walk into my kitchen blindfolded and put my hands (carefully) on a beautiful knife acquired in Japan, open a cupboard door which has a handle purchased in a market in Venice, leaf through the hundreds of cookbooks (okay, now I have to take the blindfold off), which I began collecting in my teens. I can grate nutmeg, ginger, cheese, cabbage, horseradish, all with a different, appropriate tool. For cutting bread, tomatoes, slicing meat, cutting sandwiches, I employ a variety of appropriate, sharp knives.
My dishes and pans are all exposed. Dutch ovens and other cast iron pots and pans compete for attention with the copper pots and pans and the specific odd vessels, such as the straight-sided Japanese egg pan for tamago, the French crepe pan of a specific heft, and the wok, and small fry pans in a variety of weights and size. These all hang from hooks off the wire shelves that hold the ceramic handmade plates and bowls for different purposes, designed for me by various friends.
The burgundy finish on the cupboards was “baked” in an automobile paint factory. My kitchen is also an art gallery. Paintings of fish I have found in marketplaces in Moscow, London, Bangkok, and Mexico “swim” up and down the walls. So, too: a gorgeous drawing by my friend Lorraine Herman (an early rendition of Kensington market in Toronto), a “lane” photo by the late photographer, Lutz Dille, and drawings of houses from my own remarkable street in Toronto, Nova Scotia, and St. Petersburg. A portrait by Rene Fumeleau of some Dene children at home near Yellowknife, display clothesline full of smoked fish drying.
It is here among these treasures that I daydream about tomorrow night’s feast: shall I make a paella, a bouillabaisse, a cassoulet? I check out the recipes, including my own. Lucky me, I have directed television series with outstanding chefs from professional to amateur, expanding my knowledge, my palate (and my waistline). I have more recipes than I could use in five lifetimes.
In the end, I decide to make an Iranian dish: salmon roasted in a coriander/ginger/garlic/coconut chutney, wrapped in banana leaf. So I must leave you now. It’s approaching midnight, my favorite time to go food shopping.
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