Kitchen #7: The Truman Show

Truman

The Truman Apartments, 200 East 100 North, Provo, Utah

October, 1985

I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
— Alan Ginsberg, “A Supermarket in California”

DEEP VOICE:

She is in a movie. She is 19 and a student at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.
College, movie. Same thing.

SCENE: INT. THE TRUMAN APARTMENTS – KITCHEN – NIGHT

VOICES AND VOICE-OVERS SPEAK,
NOT UNLIKE THE VOICE-OVERS AND VOICES IN DUNE

…OR DRAGNET

…OR BLADE RUNNER

(meaning DEEP)

(SLOW … and DEEP)

DEEP VOICE
Her first apartment. The Truman. A 1920s brick four-plex with hardwood floors and “The Truman” spelled out across its dusky brick face. The landlord, Chase Shepard, owns a trampoline.

EARLY OCTOBER, GOLDEN LIGHT FILTERS THROUGH THE 2nd-STORY WINDOWS. MUSIC.

JONI MITCHELL
(sings)
I’m Don Juan’s Reckless daughter
I’ve come out two days on your tail
Those two bald-headed days in November
Before the first snowflakes sail

DEEP VOICE
Each unit is a “shotgun,” with the living room in the front, leading through a door to the bedroom in the middle, through another door to the kitchen in the back. A back door down a fire escape.
No hallway.
A stage within a stage within a stage.

DOWNSTAIRS NEIGHBORS
(music sounds, thinking sounds, cooking sounds, buzzing sounds)

DEEP VOICE
She is painting the kitchen, with its tall, deep, old-growth Douglas fir, built-in cabinets. She is painting deep into the dark corners, already covered with 5 coats of renter’s paint.
The paint is “Peach Pie.”

JONI MITCHELL
(sings)
Out on the subtle plain of mystery
a split-tongue spirit talks
Noble as a nickel chief
Striking up an old juke box

DEEP VOICE
Houses have lives. Houses are organisms, like an anthill – the ants defined by grains of sand; the grains of sand defined by ants.
Even a small house, a small house, a small apartment, odd in its conformity, is a body, with different parts doing different tasks.

An anthill is a we.

A house is a we.

We are painting the kitchen, the kitchen and she.
Fumes fill the air, and all the windows are open. A dream floats in and out.

UPSTAIRS NEIGHBORS

(thinking sounds)

What’s for lunch? 

(tromp, tromp, tromp, up and down the stairs)

SHE
A hive of our own craftsmanship.
The Beehive House
Of our own wax, layer upon layer.
Put your shoulder to the wheel, push along.

DEEP VOICE
A hive, my dear, yes.
It has been built for you and this moment – and you have built it and this moment.

This is the room of industry.

This is the room of belief.

This is the room where your ancestors live.

SHE
This is my first own set of rooms. My first own room.

Do your duty with a heart full of song.

SHE
And yet Virginia Woolf still filled her pockets with stones, wandered into the River Ouse. Ooze.
Celtic for water.

DEEP VOICE
Yes, solitude breeds insanity.

SHE
But lack of solitude does the same.

THE DEEP VOICE
Either way, its breeding.
Get used to it.

DOWNSTAIRS NEIGHBORS
(music sounds, thinking sounds, cooking sounds, buzzing sounds)

SHE
We all have work, let no one shirk, put your shoulder to the wheel.
The Truman. The Lion House. The Beehive House.

JONI MITCHELL
(sings)
And he says:
“Snakes along the railroad tracks”
He says: “Eagles in jet trails”
He says: “Coils around feathers and talons on scales.”

SHE
That is what I’m afraid of.

DEEP VOICE, GETTING DEEPER
What?

JONI MITCHELL
(sings)
Behind my bolt-locked door,
the Eagle and the Serpent are at war in me.
The Serpent fighting for blind desire,
the Eagle for clarity.

DEEP VOICE, GETTING DEEPER
Breeding.

SHE
Why am I afraid of that institution? isn’t that what every Mormon girl wants?
Isn’t it?

DEEP VOICE, GETTING LESS DEEP
In the continuum of mental disorders, where do you stand?

UPSTAIRS NEIGHBORS



(thinking sounds)

What’s for lunch?



(tromp, tromp, tromp, up and down the stairs)

SHE
Narcissist, Anti-social, Histrionic, Borderline?

MADONNA
(sings)
Borderline,
feels like I’m going to lose my mind.
You keep on pushin’ my love
over the borderline.

DEEP VOICE

Keep painting, youngest child. You are somewhere on the spectrum, dancing your bee dance, making your movie.

SHE
Who are you?

DEEP VOICE
What role am I playing?

SHE
Whatever!

DEEP VOICE
Exactly!

DOWNSTAIRS NEIGHBORS
(music sounds, thinking sounds, cooking sounds, buzzing sounds)

SHE
I must be mostly Narcissist. Youngest child. Alone in a crowd. Wanting to create my life as a movie, in a time, in a place that is not here, not this decade.

THE DEEP VOICE
Showbiz kids makin’ movies of themselves
they don’t give a fuck about anybody else.

SHE
You know Steely Dan?
Aren’t you from, like, 1850?

DEEP VOICE
Well, I am dead, but I’m not a complete moron.

GETTING DEEPER
And so you collect Nostalgia.
Les Souvenirs.
Memories.
To Remember.
To remember a time, a place you never lived in.
A Romance of and with and to
yourself.

SHE
A proposition of a preposition. A position.
(She sings)
Of, in, by, to, for, with, at, down, from, into.
Under, about, between, on, near, over,
across, against, that is my list.
Yes! And what color will this light be when I paint it?

THE DEEP VOICE
Peach Pie

SHE
And what time of day? And what light?
And what will I cook when I get there?

THE DEEP VOICE
Where?

SHE
Exactly.

BREAK

ROOMMATE
(Pale, disheveled blonde halo of curly hair, ratty jeans and black leather, skeleton tattoo. Enters through front door, followed by large, dour, hirsute Jewish man.)
We’re having a party!

THE VISITOR
Who’s invited?

SHE
It is you! The Visitor!

DEEP VOICE
He looks like Alan Ginsberg.

SHE
So that is who is invited.

ROOMMATE
Then that is who’s coming!

DEEP VOICE
Old friend!
What is happening is happening. Who are we but each other?
Ich Bin Berliner. I am Alan Partridge. Who is John Galt?

SHE
We’ll make a movie!

ROOMMATE
The Show of Shows!

DOWNSTAIRS NEIGHBORS
(music sounds, thinking sounds, cooking sounds, buzzing sounds)

THE VISITOR
Of each other? Of ourselves?

UPSTAIRS NEIGHBORS



(thinking sounds)
What’s for lunch?
(tromp, tromp, tromp, up and down the stairs)

SHE
I saw the best of my generation, starving, naked in the hysterical streets…

DEEP VOICE
Sounds like Fast Sunday in Provo.

THE VISITOR
Who said Fast Sunday?

ROOMMATE
We fast once a month.

We don’t eat for 24 hours, and donate the money we would have spent to the church to feed the needy.

SHE
And we think and pray.

THE VISITOR
Think and pray? Think of prey?

DEEP VOICE
The Visitor speaks in questions?

THE VISITOR
What will we eat?
Reality Sandwiches?
Naked Lunch?

DEEP VOICE
What is sustenance to you?

At this point, SHE and ROOMMATE give each other a knowing look, not knowing what it means.

ROOMMATE
We are sustained by art, by color and sound.

SHE
We are nourished by our heritage.

DOWNSTAIRS NEIGHBORS
(music sounds, thinking sounds, cooking sounds, buzzing sounds)

ROOMMATE
And our God.

UPSTAIRS NEIGHBORS

What’s for lunch?



(tromp, tromp, tromp, up and down the stairs)

SHE and ROOMMATE
(giggles)

MARK STRAND
We are eating poetry.

THE VISITOR
With symbolic lettuce and symbolic dressing?

What kind of knowledge have the dead?

Can they still love their mortal acquaintances?

What do they remember of us?

SHE
We baptize the dead.

We marry them (to ourselves and to each other).

We seal them – for time and all eternity.

We ask a lot of our dead.

DEEP VOICE
You can say that again.

SHE
We ask a lot of our dead.

ROOMMATE
What IS that voice?

THE VISITOR
A voice?

SHE
The eagle and the serpent are at war in me.

ROOMMATE
The Serpent fighting for blind desire.

SHE
The Eagle for clarity.

DEEP VOICE
None of this sounds natural.
Just put on a show, for God’s sake.

ROOMMATE
The party planning phase of this show is going well!

SHE
But you have a question?

ROOMMATE
Natural man, Natural woman, Natural food.
What is natural?

THE VISITOR
Are you shopping for images?

ROOMMATE
In a supermarket in California?

DEEP VOICE
Huh?

SHE
Someone said: What peaches, what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night!

Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados! Babies in the tomatoes!  

DEEP VOICE
Sounds like Tuesday in Provo.

THE VISITOR
What movie shall we watch?

ROOMMATE
One uncensored.
Howzabout let’s make one of the downstairs neighbors?

DOWNSTAIRS NEIGHBORS
(music sounds, thinking sounds, cooking sounds, buzzing sounds)

SHE
Showbiz kids makin’ movies of themselves,
They don’t give a fuck about anybody else.

DEEP VOICE
The dead know nothing of censorship.
But we know our Steely Dan.

ROOMMATE

Or upstairs neighbors?

UPSTAIRS NEIGHBORS

(thinking sounds)

What’s for lunch?



(tromp, tromp, tromp, up and down the stairs)

ROOMMATE
Naked Lunch.

SHE
Excuse me?

ROOMMATE
Steely Dan was the name of the dildo in Naked Lunch.

SHE
We all played piano for Sunday School, we all sang in Merry Miss choir, we all jitterbugged at Dance Festivals.

ROOMMATE
We’re all Mormon showbiz kids.

THE VISITOR
Yes?

ROOMMATE
We all were baptized for the dead.

SHE
That they might live in glory for eternity.

DEEP VOICE
Yes?

SHE
Put your shoulder to the wheel, push along.

THE VISITOR
What do we know of the dead? Did anyone answer that one yet?

DEEP VOICE
Nada. Zilch. Nuts.

UPSTAIRS NEIGHBORS



(thinking sounds)



What’s for lunch?

(tromp, tromp, tromp, up and down the stairs)

THE VISITOR
Nuts?

ROOMMATE
We need to go shopping for the party!

JONI MITCHELL
(sings)
Restless for streets and honky tonks
Restless for home and routine
Restless for country safety and her
Restless for the likes of reckless me

SHE
The dead is my grandmother, who came to this place for me.
I just realized I will betray her…

ROOMMATE
And I will betray mine.
I will worship at the altar of CeeBeeGeeBee BeeGees HeeBeeGeeBees.

SHE

And I at the altar of Bacchus.

SHE and ROOMMATE
(in unison)
And both of us the page.

THOMAS DOLBY
(sings)
Like tiny insects
on the palm of history
A Domino Effect
In a cloud of mystery

THE VISITOR
Is a poem a shopping list?

ROOMMATE
We will tattoo the present onto our bellies
with the ink of history

DEEP VOICE
What size do you WANT to be?

ALICE
One side of WHAT? The other side of WHAT?
(thought Alice to herself)

SHE

What was THAT voice?

DEEP VOICE

Oh, pardon me, that was from another play.

Being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.

ROOMMATE

That’s ok. You are forgiven.

ALICE

Well, I’ve tried to say “HOW DOTH THE LITTLE BUSY BEE,” but it all came different!’
(Alice replied in a very melancholy voice.)

ROOMMATE

That’s ok, Alice. You are forgiven.

DEEP VOICE

You’re forgiving an awful lot of people around here.

ROOMMATE

That’s ok. I’m forgiven.

DEEP VOICE

Upstart.

THE VISITOR

While I’ve got your ear,

Why IS a raven like a writing desk?

DEEP VOICE

I get that all the time.

THOMAS DOLBY
(sings)
My writing
like an iron fist
in a glove full of vaseline
Dip the fuse in the kerosene
I too became a dissident!

THE VISITOR
Who killed the pork chops?
What price bananas?

DEEP VOICE
Are you my Angel?

SHE

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

ROOMMATE
You are forgiven.

THOMAS DOLBY
(sings)
Courting disaster, we ran through the night.
Wings of an angel, torn in flight.
And the man says: Check it
My writing
Verify it
My writing.

DEEP VOICE
I too became a dissident!

THE VISITOR
Where are we going, Walt Whitman?

The doors close in an hour.

Where does your beard point tonight?

SHE
Became a dissident.

ROOMMATE
Became a dissident!

THE VISITOR
Became?

ALICE
Being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.

THE VISITOR
Became?
Became?

DEEP VOICE
A DISSi
DISSi
DiSsi

VISITOR
D-D-D-D-DENT

(CURTAIN)

Published in: on November 30, 2014 at 12:40 pm  Comments (2)  

Kitchen #6: Not Not Gnocchin’ on Heaven’s Door

the stage is set

Everything I am I owe to pasta.”     —Sophia Loren  

240 East 300 North, Provo, Utah (or thereabouts) 

Overture

Making gnocchi for the first time is like learning Braille. Or as I imagine it might be for a blind person to learn Braille.  Both foreign concepts. Both have everything to do with fingers. Both about stumbling and fumbling, a language known in the hands.

Another thing making gnocchi is like: Learning to play the piano. Scales and scales. A process of major, minor, augmented, diminished. Sheer torture.

I was a music major at BYU for about five minutes. As an adolescent, I practiced for what was supposed to be two hours, every day (as my tiny, totalitarian teacher, Mrs. Toy, taught).

This must have been where I learned to lie. Ok, to bend the truth. Ok, to manipulate one truth into another version of the truth. Just like religion, just like art, just like love.

“Yes, mother, I practiced for two hours.”

“Yes, mother, I played all my scales. Major, minor, diminished, augmented.”

My poor mother.

Major

The basement apartment where I spent the winter of my sophomore year smelled of Pine Sol and mold. The gold shag carpet must have been installed in the Nixon era, as were the harvest gold fridge and dishwasher. But the rent was a clean one hundred dollars a month, so my best friend Amy and I gingerly shared it with millions of mold molecules and two light bulbs.

My sophomore year was about changing majors, spending student loan money, and finding a boyfriend. I was successful at all three endeavors, and most focused on the third. Todd was a clean-cut suburban country type from a small mint-growing town in California, and was going away on a mission soon. We met at a dance, and took evening walks around campus, finding places to steal kisses. We went camping “up the canyon” near Provo, stocked with firewood and hotdogs, and made out by the fire. But sex was out. He was going to Brazil for two years to convert Brazilians to Mormonism, and I was going to do what every good Mormon girl did. Wait. Well, wait and remain a virgin. Both tasks may have seemed Herculean to the general public, but to us, it was just the way it was. When he came home, we’d get married and have at least three children, two boys and a girl. But to seal the deal, since I couldn’t use sex, I’d go the next best route, a proven plan used by all Mormon girls in my situation. I’d make him fall irreversibly in love with me over a romantic Italian dinner.

Amy and I had only recently eaten our first real Italian food – made by real Italian-speaking, Italian-restaurant-owning Italians who moved to Provo from Italy when they joined the church. We were madly in love with the cute waiter, with his wavy black hair and deep brown eyes, in love with the big green, white and red flag above the door, the opera they played on the sound system, the pictures of Firenze on the walls, and most of all, the gnocchi.

We had the our new love interest pronounce it over and over for us. Gnocchi, gnocchi, gnocchi. It sounded like a song and we swooned. When I should have been practicing my scales in a dark, dingy practice room barely big enough to hold a piano, I was in the library scouring the food section for recipes for gnocchi and opera records. I had a plan, and everything was going to be perfect.

Simple Handmade Gnocchi

Boil 2 lbs.russet potatoes, cool and put them through a food mill. Form a mound with the potatoes, and a well in the middle. Sprinkle 2 cups all-purpose flour into the well, and crack two egg and pour 1/4 cup olive oil into the well. Mix until dough forms a semi-sticky ball. Add a bit more flour and knead until dough is springy and smooth (about 3 minutes).

It seemed simple. I was practicing a different sort of exercise, one I knew I’d need as much as the skill to play perfect arpeggios.

Minor

The table was set with the best set of Corelle I could find at DI, (Deseret Industries, the Mormon version of Goodwill). A tomato sauce with good canned tomatoes, lots of chopped garlic (no cut fingers), my mother’s good dried oregano and real extra-virgin olive oil bubbled away on the stove. Twelve vanilla-scented candles were lit to attempt to cover up the piney, algae smell. I put on La Boheme loud for courage. I put on a new vintage dress and a clean apron to stay neat and look like an adorable June Cleaver. Everything was perfect. Now to the gnocchi itself.

Deep breath.

“At the outset,” Mrs. Toy always said, “the fingers may not receive or interpret messages correctly. There may be a time of trial.”

Let dough chill for at least 30 minutes. Place on floured surface and knead into a ball (about 1 minute). Take a fork and cut off a small piece, about the size of a peach pit. Hold in your floured left hand, and roll across your palm with your floured fork in your right hand. Place pretty little perfectly egg-shaped gnocchi onto a floured baking sheet.

Repeat 78 grillion times.

Ack. I couldn’t wait 30 minutes. I hadn’t had a food mill, so I just mashed them, and I worried about that, too. But I figured it would be fine, so I dove into the part of the operation that felt like patting my head with one hand while rubbing my stomach with the other. This is the part that took an hour and resulted in two baking sheets covered with dozens of gooey cat-poop-sized globs. I take that back – cats can usually make more uniformly shaped leavings. I was soon covered in sticky dough and flour, sweating profusely.

A knock at the door.

I panicked, wiped my hands all over something, including the door knob, turned down the opera and tried to compose myself. I opened the door, my heart beating with embarrassment. Todd held a bunch of flowers from the grocery store – carnations, daisies. He peeked out from behind his long, side-swept bangs (a New Wave look – in back, cut short), his yellow plaid button-down set off his piercing blue eyes. He smelled of Drakkar Noir. Me, sweating. He, with his own brand of nervousness. We sensed fear in each other, avoided eye contact, tried to laugh it off. But he was used to rich, pretty girls. I was used to smart, geeky guys, but drawn to sporty, pretty types like him.

He walked into the kitchen with the confidence of a man of the hour, which we both knew he was, looking around at the moderate dusting of flour on every surface. He laughed, lifted the lid of the pot and jumped back, hands up, to avoid the bubbling red sauce landing on his perfect Polo. “Smells good!” he said. As I took the flowers, I tried to imagine him in his missionary suit – not much of a stretch. After a two-month stint at the MTC (Missionary Training Center), where he’d get a crash course in Portuguese language and culture and missionary teaching techniques, he would go door to door, selling our particular brand of salvation to free-loving, heartily Catholic Brazilians. I’d buy.

But here in my mess of a kitchen, thinking about this present and my and our future, would he understand my deep passion for all things Italian and how I wanted to share the world with him? How I saw us as traveling the world together an elegant, cultured couple, walking hand in hand in the Piazza del Something? How our perfect little Mormon children would be different from others – more in the world, but not of the world?

Hell, no. Or as my father would say to my mother, “Dammit to hell, Louise!” No. My Sophia Loren had become a Jersey Girl. I’d messed this perfect evening up, bigtime, and I’d have to fall back on the “ok-looking-smart-girl-with-the-sense-of-humor persona.

Again.

I don’t think he’s into that.

“You like opera?” he said.

“Nyeh,” I said.

Diminished

Bring a large pot of cold water to a rolling boil. Salt the water, add a few drops of olive oil. Drop the gnocchi one by one, loosely into the pot. 

The room was warm. I was warm. My Barely Pre-Mission Missionary was warm. The gnocchi, therefore, got gooier.

He watched me work the fork and my sticky fingers over a dozen more balls of goo, flouring everything in sight as I went.  Still, he was attentive, nodding, and seemed somewhat impressed. He tried to kiss me, at least. His palms were sweating.

We dropped the gnocchi one by one into the roil.

O, Lord, God, forgive me for my lustful thoughts and come to my aid. Let the pasta rise to the top like the lovely Italian man said. 

I stirred. It boiled. I started to sweat more. He sensed by anxiety and touched my hair.  I touched his shoulder. Whether it was from the warmth, the acrid mold,  the vanilla candles, the sexual tension uninterrupted or aided by alcohol, I’m not sure. The gnocchi sat there at the bottom of the pot for what seemed like – as when Mormons marry, not merely “Until Death Do You Part,” but “For Time And All Eternity”  – an eternity.

Let this blessed pasta separate into discrete parts and become what it was destined to be. Let its baptism be pure, and my seduction complete.

Augmented

After what seemed like, uh, forEVER, the two of us leaning over the pot, his pinky finger touching my pinky finger, one by one, the misshapen little dumplings began to rise. Ploop, ploop, ploop. They popped, singular little apricot-pit-sized globs, to the top of the pot-sized Mediterranean Sea.

Domini Patri e Jesu Christo e Spiritus Sancti

I fished them out with a slotted spoon, tossing them into a bowl, waiting to bless them with olive oil and Parmigiano-Reggiano. The red sauce was presented. I turned on the opera low, quietly in the background. We sat and ate quietly in candlelight. It was delicious. We drank sparkling Martinelli’s, clinked glasses.

“You’re good at this,” he said. He smiled. “I’m going to miss the food, I think.”

“What IS Brazilian food?” I said.

“Probably a lot of beans and rice.”

“My brother got tapeworm.” I said.

“Can’t wait.”

He held my hand and led me to the scratchy brown couch. We kissed and weren’t sure where to put our hands, his fingers trying to avoid my breasts, mine trying to avoid his…, well, crotch.  We did ok, our fingers wanting to read the Braille of each others bodies, but knowing what was forbidden. Tongues and lips and teeth. Montserrat Caballé’s voice soaring in the background. A single button undone. Sheer torture. I felt very European.

After a half-hour of this, my offering of Haggen-Dazs Chocolate Chocolate Chip came as a relief. He gulped it down, ice-cream-headache-style. After holding each bite in my mouth as long as I possibly could, I let the cool, melting cream slide luxuriously down my throat.

Thank you Lord, thank you Jesus.  

Knowing this would be the last time we would see each other for two years, we spoke the stilted language of those learning what should be said.

“I’ll miss you,” I said.

“Me, too,” he said.

We knew we’d write many long letters, full of what should be said.

Dal Capo al Coda

Things we practiced: Courting, kissing, conversation. Candlelight, cooking, care.

That’s six.

Eight notes in a scale. No, seven. Then the release of returning to the one.

The ring finger holds the seventh note long, languishing in tension, waiting to return home. Ah, this is how its done. Two notes left.

We knew he would come back and marry a blonde from California. We knew I loved the idea of a boyfriend, not necessarily the boyfriend himself.

In a scale, the seventh, the penultimate note always flutters between Connect and Disconnect (like two birds caged in the mind, in the instrument, between the two, back and forth). I held back a tear and he held me close. And, finally …

Control. He walked out the door. Curtain.

I turned up the opera and did what I didn’t need any practice for. In candlelight, in my new dress and flour-dusted apron, I cleaned every speck of flour, every red dot and splash off every surface of my dingy kitchen.

It took me exactly two hours.

by Shannon Borg
Published in: on April 10, 2012 at 3:33 pm  Comments (6)  

Kitchen #5: White on Rice

fortune cookie

A fortunate cookie

200 North,  300 East, Provo, Utah (or thereabouts)

I like rice. Rice is great if you’re hungry and want 2000 of something.

–Mitch Hedberg 


For part of my sophomore year at BYU, I was the only “white” girl in a rented house full of Latinas. My best friend and housemate, Amy, was half Ojibwai, and although she was white suburban grown, she had an affinity with these girls that was new to me. They were theatre, and we were the audience in a huge rattling white Victorian, where every Sunday, ten Puerto Rican, Brazilian and Venezuelan girls would gather and cook for their boys.

Everything was pork; everything was beef.

In junior high, we had known an exchange student from the Dominican Republic who had the best name we’d ever heard: Jackie Llenas. Oh, we thought that was funny. And she had no idea and never got it. But she was long and lean, blonde and tan, and loved us. And we loved her. We met the same type of girl in our Casa Blanca – Lorena, a tall, voluptuous, life-loving Brazilian girl with long, blonde hair, brown skin and a huge white smile. The other Latinas were short and stout, with big smiles and colorful skirts. And they all were joyful, almost caricatures of what I expected from the women of their countries.

And I was a caricature of mine. They lived life large and loud. I felt smaller, controlled. They filled the kitchen with boisterous noise, lilting Portuguese and chattering Spanish,  rhythmic singing. I sang alone in my room, listening to Joni Mitchell. They cooked peppers. I cooked potatoes. They made tortillas, I made bread. They made salsa, I made Mormon gravy. I cooked noodles, they cooked rice. And rice, and more rice. Spicy rice, dirty rice, rice and beans, beans and rice.

I felt separate, apart from these girls, and Amy was somewhere in the middle. We had both grown up in Mormon families, spending our high school years two blocks from each other. But I was the last of seven, and my parents were in their sixties. When Amy came over for dinner, my mother always made cauliflower with cheese sauce specially for her because she knew Amy loved it. It was always just the four of us at the table, in tempered, quiet conversation.

When I went to her house, at least six of the eight kids would be at the messy kitchen table – like it was when all my siblings were home and I was a toddler, I imagine. Six girls babbling out their personal dramas of wearing each others clothes and stealing each others records, and two boys kicking each other under the table and spitting out Brussels sprouts when their frazzled mother wasn’t looking. Their hilarious, stout Ojibwai father, Ira, sat back with a smirk on his face, poking them once in a while just to see what their mother would do.

At the Casa Blanca, we were all Mormon, yet we felt divided by a common religion. I felt that their cultures made them confident, let them somehow own their womanhood – not in the domestic sense, but as the collective identity of “She Who Must be Obeyed.” The Latinas had joined the Mormon church, like my great grandmothers had, and left their countries, come all this way to study – and to marry. They knew what they wanted.

Boys flocked to our house after church. Missionaries, sophomores, composers, soccer players, saxophonists. Most were short and dark and friendly. Some were gorgeous and  dark and quiet. And they were all excellent dancers. The whole house was redolent of seared slow-braised pork, of cumin and tomatoes and inexplicable peppers. The girls started cooking before church, then set everything to simmer for the three hours. By the time they got back, the roasts and shanks, the ribs or stews were fall-apart luscious. Pots and pots were always bubbling away on the stove, full of colorful liquids. The kitchen counters were at times a Jackson Pollock of red and green and brown sauces, at times a hazy Edward Hopper of chilled Sunday blue afternoon light glancing off countertops and the warm wooden table.

These girls made me jealous. They made me feel that cooking was a way of life in a way that my lonesome, reticent Northern European mother never experienced. I felt I really could have no part of that ritual seduction, but I wanted to learn, where dancing accompanied food, where chopping was as much about laughter and gossip as it was about providing for your family. Where your man came up behind you and grabbed your ass as you stirred a pot of carne de something.

Periodically throughout my childhood, my six-foot-something, blond, blue-eyed Swedish father was to be feared. Once, after he threw a jar of mayonnaise against the wall and stormed out, he returned sheepishly an hour later with a bunch of daisies, because “the fight wasn’t bad enough for roses.” My mother would weep silently and hide in the bedroom while he was gone, and they kissed and joked when he returned. Although they often embraced, that was the extent of the drama and passionate resolution I observed.

My brother was on a mission to Colombia, where he wrote cryptic letters home about a beautiful girl in Cartageña that he was forbidden to love. He wrote of inexplicably delicious food, of passionate partner dancing, of unending wet heat and illness. When he came home after two years, he had acquired a terrible case of tapeworm, wasting away from a blond, red-cheeked, red-bearded Viking boy to a skinny clean-cut man with intensely blue, sunken eyes. Both the parasite and the culture had changed him. His big personality had found a home within the Latin culture, so he packed up his green and white 1965 Rambler and headed out from Spokane to Austin to study South American geography. He had discovered the Tawny-tufted Toucanet and the Blue-knobbed Currasow, handmade tamales and salsa (the dance, not the sauce), and cemented his adoration of beautiful, smart Latinas. He proceeded to study the Latinate tongues and marry his Spanish teacher, a Catholic (what else) Portuguese-American who kept him in line, took him dancing and cooked him back to health.

When I was in junior high, my sister’s travels as a nanny to France and Switzerland also fed my growing insecurity about my own culture. She traveled, she spoke a romantic language, she dated foreign men who took her to Japan and met rugmakers in Iran. How could the bar for international intrigue and romance be set any higher? I felt like my place and my life were wrong, that it was all a big mistake, that I should have been born in Paris in the 1920s or some place and time equally fascinating.

This feeling plagued me in my writing for years. The “write what you know” dictum rang hollow for me. What I knew was suburban ennui and banality. What I knew was a religion few, including myself, understood or wanted to. What I knew was a perfect green lawn, kneeling for prayers by my bed at night and a closet of dark thoughts that could never make it to paper while my parents were still alive. I felt it was a lid on a bubbling pot, a self-obsessed middle-class existence not worth writing about.

*

Who are we? My therapist, for the short period I had one, talked about the process of individuation, of becoming an adult human as having two major steps:

1. Identification with peers: Our youth is all about finding our place, our role in society, of connecting and bonding with the herd for safety and community, so as to say, “I belong. We are we.”

2. Individuation: Becoming one’s self. Here, we create and define our own boundaries, circle the wagons so as to say, “I am not you, and I am not we – I am me!”.

But, he warned, with all the confusion, pain and mystery of life, it is so easy to stop at this point, to stay in the closet, in the harbor, in the corral, in the lines, in the pot, in the comfort zone. If you do this, if you let society decide who you are, you quit growing. The key is to develop a sense of an individual self, within an acceptable social context.

Ah, a conundrum.

Girl, interrupted. Postponement, Moratorium. Your soul is in Foreclosure. You have accepted your Fate. I didn’t want to stay in what I considered to be a constricting and banal society, but change and growth is difficult, too. Should I stay or should I go?

In college, both of these processes were torture, but it was the former that terrified me the most. Finally, after a childhood of being a “good girl,” began to feel rebellious. I wanted out, to be an individual, to slip the leash. I longed for what was Latino, what was French.

What was Other.

Art and poetry became my Bible, and I wanted to stay in this terrified state. Confusion felt like home. Not knowing who I am or where I fit in felt so comforting after a childhood of restriction and surety. I craved this mental and emotional chaos, because it felt like this was where excitement lay, where the Exotic in me, the Poet, the Foreign Correspondent, the Stranger, the Seductress, could thrive. The Capital Lettered Noun, with Punctuation. Me.

And one thing I discovered as I watched the Latinas live their life together in their crazy communal kitchen, but also as adventurous individuals that brought a rich culture with them wherever they went: The Kitchen and the Bedroom were also the rooms for me. Not the Closet, not the Parlor, not the Conservatory, not the Schoolroom.

The Kitchen, the Bedroom. Open and free. Without. Punctuation.

(and yet i secretly wanted to learn to love my own country my own boring culture for what it is my own boring self for what i am to be at peace with it all and yet and yet)

I wanted to find a way to live and write within the world I had been assigned by Fate; to understand it – and yes, change it if I wished, build a life around my self like building a sauce, delicate layer upon spicy layer – layer of fearlessness upon layer of fear – but also to find the joy and beauty and eccentricity within each and every simple grain of what has been put, with love, into my very full bowl.

 

by Shannon Borg

Published in: on February 15, 2012 at 4:17 pm  Comments (3)  
Tags: , ,

Kitchen #4: Doll Parts

Midge in the Kitchen

Midge whips up a pie

Copyright All rights reserved by mawphoto.com

1900 University Street, #4, Provo, Utah, 1985

… toys are usually based on imitation, they are meant to produce children who are users, not creators.

— Roland Barthes, Mythologies

There is something existential about a kitchen shared by four 19-year-old virgins. We are toys made out of ourselves.

The building, born in the dark, artless depths of the early 1970s, is a two-story, 12-unit collection of sky blue shag carpet, brown hollow-core doors, and dusty aluminum windows. The roommates, Mormon sophomores at BYU and all born in the last years of the BabyBoom, are the product of confluence of the forces of our generation. Our mothers were good girls, married no older than 23; we have more than two-dozen siblings between us. Like Barbara Millicent Roberts (Barbie’s real name), we are the crown jewels of our families – attending college for (scandalously) an education.

Two are sisters from a family of 10 girls with names all beginning with J. Their Aristotelian upbringing set them to making lists, playing violin, piano and flute, writing sonnets in iambic pentameter by the time they were twelve. And believing in God. But not just any god. This deity is the type-A borderlord of the netherworld, showering unconditional love on those ladies who find mates early, bear at least seven children, can peaches in season, and cook a pot roast each and every Sunday of their adult lives.  We have accepted our fate. We are their heirs.

We are ready. Shopping lists are posted on the refrigerator: boneless, skinless chicken breasts (but know we can butcher and break down), frozen string beans (but know we can string and snap), canned mushroom soup (but know we can make stock and stew). These, our nourishment, are convenience foods our mothers taught us to be embarrassed of, but taught us to rely on, nonetheless. Still, no Top Ramen, no coffee, no Coke, no beer. Rolled oats, not Quick. Real pudding, not Instant. Our mothers were products of the late fifties, where a box was a godsend, but still a guilty pleasure. They were haggard, and torn between scratch and box. We, the less torn, learned preserves are from jars rather than from our grandmothers jelly bags.

But still, we cook and eat together five nights a week without fail, before four solid hours of study in the library. We have a rotating system of who will shop, who will cook, who will clean up afterwards. Our mothers craved praise for every perfect dinner of meatloaf or pork chops with Mormon gravy, and so we heap it upon each other (praise, that is, not gravy) perhaps unconsciously aware that we will never receive such attention from the men we choose to marry.

Places are set around the table. The eldest, blonde, petite Jennifer the Business major, taking her rightful place at the head, and the lesser of our little family at her sides. She is the perfect culmination of her mother’s goals. She wants to marry and mother, and at almost 20, has, very intentionally preserved herself, and never yet kissed a boy.

Dinner conversation revolves around two topics – calculus and boys. Jennifer’s sister, the Teutonic Jessica, double major in Economics and Math, works problems to relax, so she breaks down each one over tuna noodle casserole for the number-phobic three of us, in an attempt to round out our fragile education. Leslie, majoring in Poly Sci, I think, is the driven lobbyist type, indefatigably following a handsome future real-world politician running for student body president. The lone English major, I always feel like the rogue, having had non-member boyfriends – (French, even), who have driven me in my own 1956 Oldsmobile to hidden spots in Spokane’s alpine outskirts to kiss and grope. But I can still hold my head high at this table; I had the fortitude of my pioneer mothers, and have guarded by virginity as if it were a pie cooling on a windowsill.

We have been wound up to perform, nurture, cook, clean, study, sing, play, serve and generally keep a perfect brightness of hope. That god left the clock ticking at its most perfect hour, and we know it, and so we create the household we all hope for – perfectly tidy, perfectly timed, our tin cans shiny and alphabetized in the cupboards.

Of course we know our Eden can’t last. We’d have to involve the inevitable men eventually. I wonder if I knew then that I was building up defenses. Did I know then that mine is a spongy self-aware soul with a fluffy frosting of self-deception that would sustain me through coming years of depression, sexual frustration, alcohol abuse, infidelity, dark days and divorce? That I wouldn’t be able to – or want to – be the toy version of me? That I would follow both perfection and trouble down their respective alleyways?

But for now we cook each meal for each other as though it is our penultimate. Not as if it is our last meal, which of course, we’ll save for first dates and honeymoons, but this is practice. We know we are on the edge of one world – where our mothers lived as young brides, roasting elaborate roasts and baking Baked Alaska in their chiffon Sunday aprons, admiring themselves in the plate glass window, and watching the cake as it burns, in order to keep the husband stunned and drugged and slightly off-guard – and another, where bra-burning hippies just barely older than us demanded prescriptions for the Pill, donned pantsuits, teased the living hell out of their hair, headed for New York and are now VPs. Or at least VPs of their own lives.

Leslie, who wants to travel, but will end up back in her home state, working in telecommunications, is spaghetti with real hand-rolled meatballs with dried oregano.

Jessica, who doesn’t want to travel but doesn’t really want to marry, and will end up married to a Buddhist first son in Japan, is pork chops and applesauce.

Jennifer, who wants truly to have many children, is meatloaf. Full stop.

And I, who is secretly, and will postpone adulthood to continually be, in search of self, neither here nor there, never makes the same thing twice. Still, I have my comforts, and when asked what I’d like for dinner, the girls know my heart, and chime together – “something warm and creamy with chicken and mushrooms in it!”

This year, we are poised on a brink. Every driving force in our lives is pushing us toward an MRS degree. But at the same time, our parents have dangled the promise of education for its own sake, even if we know it is with the goal of being a well-rounded woman of God, a more-accomplished mother. Our kitchen brings us together in ritual offering. Mount Timpanogos looms outside our condo, over our town – a sleeping Indian princess who died while waiting for her brave to return and became stone.  We are reminded every day by our parents and our professors that our foremothers walked across the Plains in heavy Victorian dresses to this Valley to bear the mothers of the future. We are practicing for our domestic futures and mourn our lost positions as CEOs of Fortune-500 companies. We know our potential, but choose, instead, to whip up a little something warm and creamy with chicken and mushrooms in it  – each and every Wednesday until the Second Coming.

by Shannon Borg

Published in: on January 1, 2012 at 3:16 pm  Comments (7)  

Kitchen #3: Cereal Polygamy

headstones

The second wife buried the first wife across the cemetery

Helaman Hall, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah

… and the moon comes up as the moon
(All its images are in the dump) and you see
As a man (not like an image of a man),
You see the moon rise in the empty sky.

Wallace Stevens, “The Man on the Dump”

The Bowl: Deep, but not too deep. Copious. But not too big so as to make your cereal seem small in the space provided. White. Artificial colors look so much brighter against pure white.

The Conversation in my Head: “Crunchberries fit into a food group.”

“The lunch ladies in the dorm cafeteria won’t mind. They feed us just like Mom would –  roast chicken, meatloaf, broiled fish, green beans, white dinner rolls baked daily. Sunday every day. This is just dessert.”

“Nobody’s mother sends it in care packages, least of all mine.”

The Mise en Place: The dorm rooms are 10- by 16-foot. Two single beds, two small desks, two miniscule closets. Jennifer has her 14-inch television set up in the corner and we sprawl out on the beds with our bowls, sharing. Half Cheerios, half Lucky Charms. Half Count Chocula, half Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch. Whole milk. Two-percent. Non-fat. Each, her bowl. Each, her spoon. It is creative work going on here. A gourmet experimentation free-for-all of the highest order.

“They don’t sell the good stuff on campus. We buy it ourselves, with our allowances, with our government-supplied student loan money.”

“Denying the daughters of women who cook every day a kitchen is like denying a priestess her altar. We can’t pray like we should – cookies, brownies, blackberry pie. No ritual offerings, it’s throwing me off.”

*

We think about it. We talk about it. We shop in packs for it.

We know it is wrong.

*

The Cereal: Pour the cereal in. Well, pour is the understood term, but clank or clunk, tink or shonk is more accurate. Or shuffle. Cap’n Crunch clanks into the bowl. Rice Krispies and Count Chocula – small puffed things – make a shuffling sound. Lucky Charms have the ‘lucky’ – the hard square bits, the ones that tear apart the roof of your mouth, which clink, almost like glass. But the ‘charms’ – the dried marshmallows in shapes and colors of shamrocks and hearts, are a random thomp. Luck Charms is a waterfall of clink and thomp. Cheerios are a clean, healthy sounding shoosh.

You would never hear Wheaties or God forbid, granola, at this gathering.

*

In our dorm, Helaman Hall – named after the Mormon prophet and warrior –  social life starts at 10 p.m. when the library closes. The girls – Jennifer, Jessica, Leslie and I slam Physical Geography or Great Expectations shut as the theme to Hawaii 5-0 rises from the library loudspeaker.  Jocks and thespian jump onto the nearest table and surf – da-da-da-da DAAA DAAA – da- da- da-da DAAAA.

Most girls have care packages to look forward to. Pumped up and starving, we scurry in packs back to our dorms, set up our worlds like dollhouses: Jiffy Pop, Snickers – homemade brownies, homemade fruit leather, homemade zucchini bread.

My Secret: My mother is a good cook and a terrible procrastinator. Which is to say she is an excellent procrastinator. Although she is, from the outside – and in – the picture of a nurturing, relatively organized mother of seven, she stacks bills in unopened piles. For years, she’s said, “When I have time, I’ll sort through those old pictures.” She was often an hour late to pick me up from piano lessons.

She isn’t a care package kind of gal.

And secretly, I’m not so sure she believes in God.

I never understood the draw of late-night life until I went away. Then I discovered a world much like my mother’s. I picture her sitting at the kitchen table at midnight, eating popcorn and reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Louis L’Amour, scratching out crossword puzzles with my brother, a pair of night owls.

Here in my room, with just the grey-green glow of Twin Peaks and my white bowl, I begin to understand her desire for darkness and quiet, for the buzz and focus of addiction to solitude.

I am with my friends, but I am alone.

The Milk: All the girls use nonfat, of course. But I stick with whole, and occasionally bring what I really want – half and half. My father taught me to savor the fatty bits of the stew or steak, and ended each meal with a satisfying slice of homemade wheat bread slathered, slathered, with butter and Adams Old Fashioned Peanut Butter. He taught me about another excellent late-night TV snack, graham crackers crunched into a bowl with half and half.

Late night eating is an act of self-determination.

*

On Sundays, I go to my Aunt Lazell’s in Springville for supper.

My father’s sister is the female version of him. She’s a big woman with a strawberry blonde beehive. She has large hands and keeps her long, pointy fingernails painted coral or salmon, as close to the color of her hair as she can get. She drives a beige late ‘70s Oldsmobile Cutlass. She’s a retired third grade teacher who never married.

Born LaZalia Alta, her Swedish Mormon father named she and her sister, Maureen Montez after the cigars he smoked. I’d sit alone in her pristine one-story duplex living room, everything monochromatic beige, trying to not touch anything, because she would throw me a look, or tell me to pick something up or wipe my feet or wash my hands.

She cooked dinner in her pristine kitchen, like it was a china shop and I was the bull. Cooking and her kitchen shouldn’t go together. But cook she did, and as she did, she talked. Not to me, but at me:

“Well, I don’t know why your father never comes to visit.”

“That bum uncle of yours just abandoned your mother.”

“Well, those cousins of yours don’t respect their mother.”

She was making a fruit salad, cranking cans open with her fingers sprawled out so as not to break her fingernails, dumping can after can into a huge bowl. A whole container of Cool Whip. The more and faster and louder she talked, the more she dumped and stirred.

“That poor child. How that devil of a doctor could do that to my sister, I’ll never know.”

Chopping a whole head of iceberg lettuce, three large tomatoes.

“He can go to hell as far as I’m concerned.”

A pile of steak, a huge mashed potatoes with sour cream and butter and bacon bits on my plate.

“Grandmother was the first wife,” she said. “And she died first. Her sister was the second wife, and buried Grandmother all the way across the cemetery.”

A massive coffin of torn pale green leaves studded with red. A sea of white peaks covering pineapple chunks. Her coral fingernails blotched with Cool Whip.

“Grandpa spent nine months in prison, you know,” she grumbled. “He made saddles for every mucky muck in Salt Lake City.”

Slamming the bottle of bleu cheese dressing down on the table. Fingers greasy. Beehive perfect.

“Well, aren’t you going to eat?”

My plate clean, she fills it again.

“I spent all day cooking, you know.”

I eat and I nod.

“I’ll be left with all this food.”

I chew and chew.

*

The Process: At first, the cereal is fruitily, frightfully itself. Terrifyingly, mouth-ripping, eardrum popping crunchy. This, for two bites. The pain that must be endured. Soon, each bit, whether it be square and brickish or marshmallowy and soft, begins to soak in the liquid.

I want to see, no, to have Kyle MacLachlan, the perfect hero in his suit –  but still a bit of a bad boy, drinking that coffee.  He looks the Mormon missionary, and we all have ours – boys we will make out a dozen times our freshman year, but never more. We’ll send them off to Belgium or Brazil for two years. We’ll write and wait, then marry them when they return. We’ll live down the street from each other and although the others will have at least six children, I’ll have just three. We’ll cook together and bake and feed each other’s broods. Happily, laughingly and without grumbling.

The The: This is when most of the cereal eating should happen, in the sweet spot between crunch and sog. The moment of utter bliss, of the childhood we just left, regained momentarily. Control of self and the world we knew we could not control. The dorm room is dark but we know there’s brightness in our bowls. The first few melancholic measures of the Twin Peaks theme swell, rising in our hearts as we lay on our bellies, bowls in front of us like pets. Each quietly chewing the personal perfection we each have created. The light of the television glowing warmly on our moist, pudgy faces.

 

by Shannon Borg

Published in: on December 31, 2011 at 1:00 am  Comments (1)  

Kitchen #2: Memory’s Core

Main Street Manti, 1974

Main Street Manti, 1974 

(photo courtesy of Viewliner Ltd.)

10 Depot Street, Manti, Utah

My grandmother could remove the peel from an apple in one piece. Over and over, her thumb and forefinger would push the blade to the perfect position, taking away what wasn’t the pie.

This story is an apple peeled, skin broken. I was eight when she fell and broke her hip in the hundred-year-old pink sandstone house her grandfather built. I’m not even sure that is the address, but it is the one in my memory. She was 77, born in 1897. She had been a widow for 10 years, and had had Type II diabetes since her thirties, so she came to live with us, much to the chagrin of my father – and my grandmother.

A tiny woman, barely 5-feet-tall, she had a little round Welsh nose and cheeks, and with the curmudgeonly attitude of a Scottish fisherman twice her size. By the time I was 8, I’d escort her each Saturday to get her short, soft, snow white hair ‘done’ at the Shadle Park Shopping Center Cut ‘n’ Curl. I’d sit in a chair swinging my legs and watch as the ladies washed and combed, gossiped while they settled her under a huge hairdryer like an egg poaching away.

“I remember when the first car came to my town,” she’d say. “We thought it was some kind of wagon.”

“I remember when I would go to dinner parties and the only thing I could eat was the lettuce under my cottage cheese salad,” she’d say.

Almost every summer, the seven of us (my brother Greg was on a mission, and my sister Susan had moved out) would pile into my father’s 1970 or so Oldsmobile Cutlass and drive from Spokane to see my grandmother in Manti, Utah. My father drove nonstop, as fast as he possibly could south through Oregon’s treeless east and over White Bird Pass, what I remember my father calling “the most treacherous pass in Idaho,” and down into Utah. We would inevitably almost run out of gas getting to the top, and more than once we cruised down that mountain on fumes, my father white knuckled and crumpled into a tense ball as we coasted into the first gas station for a hundred miles.

When he wasn’t around any other cars – according to him, all driven by assholes and seen as wrecks that would happen any second, I would sit in the back seat behind my father, and sometimes rub his shoulders while he sang and whistled old western songs for hours. I think he felt like a cowboy again, as he had felt as a child growing up in the dust and red hills of Salina, Utah.

As I walked out in the streets of Laredo,

As I walked out in Laredo one day,

I spied a poor cowboy all wrapped in white linen,

All wrapped in white linen and as cold as the clay.

Let’s just say my father had a penchant for the maudlin.

At night I tucked myself into the back window, as there were four kids in the back seat, and my mother, brother and father in the front. Staring up through the glass at a clear, starry sky, the radio set to whatever waves of country songs we were rolling through Spanish Fork and Santaquin, down through Fountain Green and Freedom. My father hunched over the wheel, singing softly:

Oh, Little Joe the Wrangler, he’s wrangle nevermore,

For his days with the remuda they are o’er.

It was long about last April he rode into our camp

Just a little Texas stray and all alone

Said he’d try to do the best he could if we’d only give him work

Though he didn’t know straight up about a cow

So the boss he cut him out a mount and kindly put him on

And we knew he liked our little stray somehow

Needless to say, things didn’t turn out so great for Little Joe.

There were six or seven long verses to that song, and my dad knew them all. The car rumbled and tossed beneath me, and I was six and not strapped into anything, but I felt safe, with my brothers snoring below me, my mother asleep and sometimes my father would whistle a verse in his trilling whistle just for effect.

*

Like I said, this story is an apple, cut into and peeled. The skin broken, browning, not perfect. Me at an age when I began to be self aware, and aware of death. These things take time.

Sometimes my father would stay in my grandmother’s house with us, but often he would fly off somewhere for work for long periods of time and we were left for most of the summer at alone to run around the town with our cousins and friends. We had a full summer schedule of playing hide and seek, searching for worms in the irrigation ditches for the older boys to fish with, having match fights after dark. You’d take a pack of matches and strike one and throw it at the same time. Once, my long blonde hair caught on fire and burned a good two-inch section out of it. I slunk home smelling of burnt hair, terrified I’d get in huge trouble. Luckily, that was a summer neither my father nor my mother were around.

Other than that, I’d spend they days with the older kids in the pool in the City Park across the street from my grandmother’s house, trying to avoid drowning.

Being the youngest, I was often left at home with just my grandmother, underfoot in the kitchen. A vast labyrinth of entrances and exits, her house was mysterious to me from top to bottom.  Door beside door, some swinging, some with high knobs, led to room after room. Everything smelled musty.

From the kitchen alone, doorways led everywhere, one to a formal dining room, one to a long narrow hallway, one to the basement with a dirt-floored root cellar, and one to the backyard where a crabapple tree leaned over the back porch, dropping bright red apples in late summer; where a ramshackle washhouse was packed with obsolete household items, an old hand-crank washing machine and old working ironing machine, the kind you rolled tablecloths and sheets through.

With 13-foot ceilings, the kitchen was cold and bright in winter, and cool and dark in the heat of Utah summer, with a palpable cool breeze rising up from the unlit basement, where you could still find chunks of black rock in the original coal cellar and the root cellar, lined in wooden shelved, still housed the summer’s bounty, glowing in jars.

Even then I felt I was getting insight into another century. She’d shuffle around the kitchen or sit at the kitchen table and peel apples for apple sauce, or grind oats for cookies. I was my grandmother’s best audience for story after story of sleigh rides and dances, dresses and beaux.

“I remember when my sister was the town operator,” she’d say. “She used to listen in on everyone’s conversations.”

Although charmed by her tales, I started to see her as infantile, as a simple product of her times that had settled very comfortably into the life that was provided for her. She grew up in a relatively large house in a tiny town, in relative comfort. She married a plumber, who, despite his dirty hands and gruff demeanor (which everyone seemed to have in those days), provided well for their two children, one of whom, my uncle, ran off to Saudi Arabia in the 1940s to shoot gazelle, collect women and bum around Swiss Ski towns, never to return. No one ever talked about it. I never met him nor my grandfather, and it was just something no one ever talked about, and I got the impression the not talking about anything was what made him go.

“I remember when the rams got loose in town and we all had to climb trees to get away,” my grandmother would say. “I got cornered once and almost died.”

Not everyone’s grandmother is the essence of wisdom and charm. Of hazy romantic summer kitchens glowing with love and nurturing and lessons learned.

“I wasn’t supposed to have candy as a child. I remember when I thought lemon drops didn’t count as candy because they were sour,” she’d say. “I snuck them behind Mother’s back.”

“Come in if you’re white, stay out if you’re black,” she’d say.

Yes, she really said that.

This, through the crack in the door when I’d forgotten my key, coming home after third grade, back in Spokane. By this time, she was almost . We’d sit on her bed in the lavender bedroom and watch General Hospital, play gin rummy. She kept boxes of sugar cubes hidden in her drawers that smelled of old kid gloves, baby powder and musty apple cores.

And so after leaving a home her family had lived in for three generations, she did the only thing she could do, stuck in a small suburban house with seven grandchildren and a dour son-in-law.

She baked cookies.

She grumbled about being taken away from her home, she grumbled about being old and deaf, she grumbled about doing dishes, and she baked cookies. She ground her oats. She ground her raisins. I helped by cranking the long handle as she pushed the raisins into the top of the grinder. She chose the biggest, darkest chocolate chips she could find. She pickled and preserved – sweet grape jelly, tender half peaches, bread-and-butter pickles, sour dills.

After she moved in, I’d come home to the oatmeal cookies of the century, to the aromas of vinegar and apricots, strawberry jam and lemon curd. This must have coincided with  my growing up, coming of age somehow, but that vinegar smell must have acted like Victorian smelling salts. It most certainly pulled my 8-year-old mind away and out of my imaginary backyard kitchens and into this real one. The clay-blood smell of mud and leaves masquerading as stew transmuted into the rich, deep scent of fresh peaches blanching in a huge pot on the real stove. The vinegar/chocolate scent of my EZ-Bake Crazy Cake transformed into the real blessings of a house redolent of vinegar, dill and garlic as cucumbers stewed in their jars.

And after she came, I was schooled in the art of remembering and of not forgetting. They are different; remembering is about recalling the past, peeling back layers of aroma and memory, becoming a child again:

“My sister played the organ for the silent films,” she’d say. “I can still see the lights flickering. She had so many beaux she couldn’t keep them all straight.”

Not forgetting is about the lack of the ability to forgive, eating the apple to the core and continuing to nibble on the bitter pith.

“Someone saw my father once after he left us,” she said. “Getting off a streetcar in Chicago.” That’s the first I’d heard of that.

“The crumb bum.”

After she came, summer nights were often spent in our house with all the windows and doors open because of the heat, the kitchen smelling like her old, huge, lost kitchen did, of stewing grape jelly or raspberry jam, dill, fennel and vinegar. And me – remembering and not forgetting both her memories and mine – I sat at my father’s feet as he watched Gunsmoke, listening to the gunshots and the cowboy music rise, and behind that, the thut, thut of wide-mouth Mason jar lids as they popped one by one, completing their final seal.

 

by Shannon Borg

Published in: on December 30, 2011 at 1:01 am  Leave a Comment  

Kitchen #1: Fridgid-Airelines

5923 Drumheller, Spokane, Washington

The handle of our pink dishwasher has a long silver bar that spins around and around like a steering wheel, just at eye-level. A row of square silver buttons to the right promises flight and control. It hums and clanks, and gives off the comforting aroma of Cascade. I scoot a heavy wooden chair across the brown speckled linoleum, open lower cabinet doors on each side, close myself into the cockpit. I push button after button hard, and my fingers don’t seem strong enough, still, the rumbling shifts and starts; growling and gurgling steam warming my face from around its edges.

No matter. My airplane is pink, and it rumbles down the runway, it takes off over the houses into the valley below our house, and I turn back to rise above trees, to dive and swoop over our teardrop-shaped linden in the front, over the sprawling sycamore in the back, over patio and plum trees, and out again over the river.

Destination: Pots ‘N Pans, destination Dry. I am four and the boys taught me to read on the Cheerios box. I can take care of myself.

The afternoon is hot, the back screen door open. No one home, it seems. My little red and blue vinyl Pan Am bag is packed: white square plate with the Pan Am globe in blue, perfect little metal fork and knife my father brought home from Chicago. I am flying after my blonde, blue-eyed sister to Switzerland. She is a nanny; she speaks French.  Her letter said she met an Iranian rugmaker, who flew her to Tehran, where she, no doubt is his girlfriend. My father is not happy. I imagine a room full of colorful scarves, of spices and wailing music. I’m flying there to bring her back. At night, her bed is empty in our room. There is a man in my closet.

Out the back door is the scent of June, an immense row of lilac walling the castle in. And arbor vitae. My father calls them thatthe tree of life. Tall evergreens with pretty gold fingertips, and woody, rooted places to bury things at the base. But also, spiderwebs, and the strong scent of fertilizer the fathers spray over their yards. The smells of summer. Across the grass, cool breeze curving around and down onto the lower patio and rock garden, summer abundance, the provisions needed. Almost every day, I steal a blue milk glass bowl from the warm dishwasher and pad down the redwood steps, down the stone path, ending at a small concrete island at the foot of two plum trees. Still hard and green, the ones I can reach I pull down, gather flat green and gold fronds of soft and piney tree of life, frowsy blossoms of sweet melissa growing among the rocks.

The Widow lives here. My brother caught her one year, kept her in a jar for weeks so we could see her red hourglass, her shiny belly. I stay away, even in winter, but today my desire feels so strong, I gingerly pull the little white flowers from the edges of the rock garden, so as not to disturb her. So as not to die.

Long Ponderosa needles, chopped. Brown grass, and green. Mud and a few dead leaves left from winter keeps the leaves together. I stir, I let it bake in the sun. This one is for my little plastic me, and for her plastic daughter to make, waiting for the man to return from safari. Tomorrow they may get to ride my next door neighbors beautiful brown horses, to gallop across the Sahara and find him beneath the prickly muhgo pine.

The summer goes like this. I cook, I fly. I fly, I cook. By late August, by own rations have shifted from slices of gravelly bread to an abundance of dusty plums – Italian prunes – my mother calls them, the only thing in the yard I should eat, even though she knows I disobey. Those little perfect eggs, that shine deep violet when you polish off the must, that glow from inside when pulled apart with dirty fingers, deep green-gold. And smell of absolute deep heaven.

The summers go like this: When my brothers are around, home for a while to eat four peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches and drink a gallon of milk, to watch the Munsters, they are drawn like dogs to the smell of the miniscule red velvet cake I bake in my tiny turquoise blue oven. Each cake is no more than four-inches across, but I follow the recipes – vinegar and cocoa powder – with utter focused care. Each tiny triangle of sour, chocolaty cake is worth – and will, under no circumstances be parted with – for less than five cents.

As the summers go, only my luggage changes: A whole sack of plums and a ragged-eared book hauled as high into the sycamore branches as I can climb, scraping off the pearl grey bark to reveal patches of pale green skin beneath, climbing up into the solid, wrinkled arms with its huge, hand-shaped leaves, their backs furred with white fuzz. I get high enough to look out over the valley of houses that reaches down to the small saltbox houses build just after the war, down to the fields of the Stadium. And beyond, the small and dark Spokane River, just this side of the far bank covered with acres of pine.

This atrium over the kitchen, this place of solace and sadness – where I sit and watch the sunset the summer we don’t have a television and every kid in the neighborhood is watching The Wizard of Oz. I am too proud to ask to go over. Where I sit and watch the far bank of the river burn in long, glowing rows of flame, gripped with fear because my father had says if the fire jumps the river it could fly right up our hill and flutter me out of this tree.

The summers go. Like this: the smell of smoldering pine blending with the sickly-sweet cent of charred meat and fertilizer, with the hopeful aroma of newly cut grass from the backyards of other neighborhood ramblers with other trees, other kitchens just like mine.

 

by Shannon Borg

Published in: on December 29, 2011 at 1:09 pm  Comments (4)  

Why Kitchens?

Grandmother's Fork

Aged Cheese, Aged Fork

People say that a kitchen is the heart of the home. But I think it is also the head.

Sure, the warmth of the oven, the smells of good things bubbling and baking, the tug of good memories of conversations around a table are an umbilical cord to the past. Here nurturing happens. But in the act of nurturing, our brain grows, too. In my father’s kitchen, I learned why bread dough rises. In my mother’s kitchen I learned why onions caramelize. The heart, the head.

Oh, yes, and the hands. In my seventh kitchen (1015 Harrison), I almost sliced my finger off while chopping basil, and still have the dead nerve cells to prove it. But I also made semi-successful gnocchi for the first time in my fourth kitchen (555 1st North), awkwardly forming – with my fingers and a fork – sticky little dumplings into globby, messy balls that, nevertheless, rose to the top of the boiling pot when done and held a sauce well.

The heart, the head, the hands. Trace the history of your kitchens, and you will find the thread that sews your life together, or pulls it apart. When I started remembering the details of these places, really remembering, I felt as if I were remembering not for only myself, but for a whole generation of women – and men, for that matter – who were born after World War II, and grew up during and after the Viet Nam War. I may well be one of the last Baby Boomers – I was born December 31, 1964, the last day of the last year of the Baby Boom. My mother grew up in an old house in a small town in Utah, which may as well have been in the 19th century.

But my oldest sister, Susan – born in the early years of the Baby Boom, 1948 – was on the cusp of Future Shock. In the ’50s and early ’60s, food was all about convenience. The kitchen seemed more like a laboratory for new ways of cooking – or not cooking – than a place where soups simmered slowly. Still, while the crazy political and economic change happening in the United States swirled outside, the kitchen was still a haven. And I realized that as I wrote about each one, that they have more than a sink, a stove and a table in common. The kitchen is the place where all our senses are involved in the construction of our truest self.

Some people keep a list of boyfriends. I keep a list of kitchens.

So I counted them up. The number of kitchens in which I’ve lived. And I thought about each one, each address where a kitchen was the center of the house and of my life. Each has its own story, its own memories and its own food.

As I talked to my girlfriends – and boyfriends – about the kitchens they’ve lived in, everyone was so willing to talk about their first loves, their first kitchens – what they cooked and what they learned there. I realized that this experiment isn’t just about myself, my memories and the way my history fits into the cultural history of America, but it is about all of us that are attempting to navigate a culture that is obsessed with cooking shows yet never cooks; a food system that is overproductive and under-nutritious; a world that is losing its battle with both obesity and hunger. I felt that somehow the trajectory of the marks I’d made on the world, the emotional and culinary archaology of where I’d been might help me figure some things out. Or at least connect with others who are mulling over the same ideas.

So I started to catalogue all my kitchens. I started by listing the addresses, and writing a short memory of each place. They came out either fully formed and surprisingly complete, or totally stilted and chunky and boring. Still, the stock pot boiled.

But after I had written several kitchens, my computer got stolen, and the first few kitchens are now floating out there, in the hands of a heroin addict or an identity thief. So here I am. A blog seems like the best place to keep the kitchens safe, to keep them all together, and to let them languish until my memory can do its thing and something bubbles to the top.

So this is my plan, to write as honestly as I can about each of my kitchens and see what happens. I hope someday I can share all of these with you…and that you will share your kitchens with me.

 

by Shannon Borg

Published in: on December 28, 2011 at 8:25 pm  Comments (4)