The Kitchens of Our Lives

Some years ago when setting up small groups in a Christian congregation I asked  members to share answers to four questions: 1) Where did you grow up? 2) What kind of house did you grow up in? 3) Where was the centre of warmth? and 4) When did God become more than just a word. Each of these questions opened up marvellous opportunities for storytelling and helped friends and  strangers alike to become acquainted and for trust to grow. It is the third question, where was the centre of warmth which concerns me in this blog.

Many would identify a person, typically a mother or female figure as the source of warmth and support. Most however would still think of the physical layout of their childhood home, and most would point to the kitchen. Older folks sometimes remembered wood burning stoves, cooking and warming appliances stoked with wood or coal/anthracite. Many would recall family meal preparations and the sharing of daily grub. For many, kitchens were the place of socializing amongst relatives and close friends. From arranging flowers, to creating seating plans, to experimenting with new recipes or repeating old favourites, the kitchen was the place.

Think of famous real or imagined kitchens: Downton Abbey, or Windsor Castle. In the board game, CLUE, Colonel Mustard could have killed someone in the kitchen with the knife (see below). In the Vancouver-based novel Stanley Park (recently in the news) and the Monkey’s Paw Bistro, it was the management of the kitchen which drove the dramatic menu.

As readers of this blog will suspect, the kitchen, and kitchens in general are places of much delight for me personally, lover of food that I am and as one who prepares less than those around me. I am however quite accomplished at breakfasts. (Anything goes with bacon.)

When I think of kitchens and music I recall recent visits to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, most especially to Cape Breton, a place described by tourist boards as “Canada’s musical coast” and the tradition of kitchen parties. I recall an old National Film Board movie showing Stan Rogers and his band singing Barrett’s privateers, accompanied only by spoon and stomping feet, bravado.

From one coast to another, I remember growing up at 2265 Harlow Drive in Victoria, BC. My father worked downtown and my mother raised me during the day. We had an old Mangle sheet ironer set up in the kitchen for the ironing of sheets. (Who irons sheets?) I would sit on the floor as Ethel Merman belted out from the Phillips stereo unit in the living room “anything you can do I can do better, no you can’t, yes I can, no you can’t . . . The call and response banter between us would continue for some time. At other times friends from school would join me on the floor running and playing as mum tried to make supper.

It was in that same kitchen, which once painted green my superstitious seafaring great-uncle George would not enter given the traditions of mariners, that a certain pressure cooker top while cooking beets would shoot off and hit the ceiling requiring a change of paint within a week or two.

I remember another kitchen, this one at 8 Evelyn Gardens in London, England, my first away-from-home kitchen during 1977-8. Twenty male residents shared a 4×12 ft. cooking space with a two-ring coil heating unit, one toaster but no  microwave or oven. I remember photographing my first self-cooked meal—no memory of details apart from a large serving of Brussels Sprouts—no big deal to anyone but myself. I was a proud survivor!

Another amazing meal with a kitchen connection came decades later when my young family and I joined another family for dinner at Katepwa Lake, Saskatchewan. We had little money in those days so the mid-quality restaurant stretched us financially. So we decided, no dessert. There were no other patrons in the quiet restaurant. At one point I responded to a call to nature. Returning to the table I glimpsed a police car in the parking lot. Thinking nothing of it I was surprised when the owner of the restaurant approached our table apologizing for “what had happened.” Well we had noticed or heard nothing. We were told that one chef had stabbed the other with a knife (kitchens with lots of knives are dangerous – just sayin’). All our food was free that night; how I wish we had ordered dessert by that time!

Kathie and I love watching the popular PBS show This Old House. We are constantly amazed how the old can be made new again, though such renovation must require massive amounts of money. Most homeowners appear to be architects, lawyers or engineers. No clergy, therapists or spies have yet been featured. As we have changed communities over the years, we have had occasion to renovate two kitchens. These are typically complex and expensive jobs, inconvenient at the time, but very rewarding once complete. Arguably an upgraded kitchen adds the most value to your home. You spend a lot of time in the kitchen; culinary life can be breezy and fluid as the Colwood renovation proved. Our present kitchen is quite difficult for more than one person. So I stay out.

Canterbury Cathedral Dean Robert recently broadcasted online from his Deanery kitchen, the often-messy place where food is prepared and served amongst intimates. The more formal parlour (living room) is for special guests; the kitchen is for friends. It brought back many good memories especially in earlier and smaller Anglican congregations where most of my pastoral ministry took place around kitchen tables. Yes, people attended church, but the faith was shared and lived in a profound way in and around homes.

I would often be asked where I wanted to visit; when possible, I always said, “the kitchen please.” I was more comfortable and relaxed there. The stories came so easily. The stack of newspapers or magazines on the table are what people actually read, less so what they “say” they read. The pictures stuck on the frig represent the intimate connections of their lives—and sometimes I would find my sermon quotes or bulletins posted there. Who knew?

Kitchens are the engine rooms of the shipping of our daily lives. Next time you sit down in your kitchen, and hopefully you can relax amongst the duties and  delights of daily life. Think of who has entered these courts; consider what stories have been told and how many are true; think of devious plots and delightful dalliances. If you are similar in temperament to me this will all make sense; for I am a “kitchen-guy.”

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