Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Pleasures of a Small Kitchen

Growing up, we celebrated holidays in my grandmother's apartment, which was parked above the red brick grocery store she and my grandfather, a butcher, built in the 1940's. My grandmother was a lousy cook, but not for lack of trying. Until she died, she brought my uncle a buttered hard roll wrapped in wax paper each morning. Her workaday specialities were paste-like oatmeal and chili made with old beef pushed through a hand-cranked grinder that clipped on to the kitchen table.

For holidays, she turned up the heat, roasting gigantic turkeys or dozens of cabbage-wrapped golumpki in the oven. As seemed to be the habit with her generation, she baked everything slow and low. Ever smelled cabbage baking for four hours in a 200 degree oven? Don't.

But the greatest marvel was that she turned so much food out of her little apartment kitchen. We lived in Connecticut, where nearly everyone we knew lived in a house. An apartment was an anomaly, as was a small kitchen. Many Italian families in our town had two kitchens: one on the main floor and one in the basement.

My grandmother was the oldest daughter of a large farming family. I called my sister to double-check the number of our great-aunts and uncles, but neither of us could remember: Tadeuz, Stanislaw, Piotr, Helka--and who was that guy who lived in the attic? Alfred? Albert? A-something. Adolf!

On holidays she cooked for her children and grandchildren as well as her siblings and their children. We lit candles set into painted metal wreaths and woke up early to roll out sweet potato dough.

So it never seems like much of a feat when I cook for five or ten or twenty in my tiny San Francisco apartment. It feels normal, even preferable to one of those weirdly spacious kitchens with a dishwasher or, godforbid, adequate counter space. Cooking with friends like Sonya is a symphony, but not honeyed Debussy, more twangy, abrupt Elliott Carter, full of bumps and starts. Messy, like love, like friendship, like anything worthwhile and good.

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