Mentors and Influences Aplenty

When talk turns to food–gardening and cooking as well as eating–even shy and quiet people have something to say. In my storytelling work, food has proven a terrific topic for a community to start from as it engages across cultural, political and social divides.

My Childhood Kitchen in Maine

One of my favorite such recent moments occurred during a story circle in rural Idaho, when a young woman from one group marveled aloud at the story shared by an older woman from another group about how she routinely baked some forty loaves of bread for her family every week.  The next morning when she headed out to work, the young woman found a warm loaf of bread on her driver’s seat, a gift.   Food thus holds not only ties to our own past but teaches us about the worlds of others.

I can follow the threads of style, taste, tradition and the food worlds of my family through the notes of my paternal grandmother on making fruitcake, the marginalia left in cookbooks by my mother-in-law, and the memoir writing by my mother about her Swedish, English and German grandparents.  The stories about her childhood memories reveal bits that certainly worked their way down through the genes.  Take this excerpt, for example, from a piece she wrote for her memoirs group:

Into My Kitchen

“Great-grandma’s kitchen was in reality what I would concoct if I needed to dream up a perfect old-fashioned farm kitchen. Opposite the back door, so that it was the first thing you saw when coming in from outside, was the huge black wood-burning range. There was always something cooking on or in it. That room had aromas, at any time, like a Christmas dream come true. To the immediate right of the door was the sink which fascinated me because it was iron, very long and had a pump which gushed forth water while I energetically pumped.  Above the sink was a big window with pots of flowers and herbs. Opposite the sink, across the room, was a door to the pantry, which was really a small room, two walls of shelves to the ceiling above counters over cabinets. On the shelves were jars full of canned vegetables, sauces, pickles, relishes, jams and jellies, pickled eggs. It made a beautiful sight with many colors and shapes, contained in glittering glass jars. On the long counter that ran below a double window was a large piece of marble about an inch or so thick and perhaps a yard wide. On that counter were racks where my great-grandma would cool whatever she baked. There were many things hanging from ceiling hooks: baskets, dried herbs, onion braids, pots and pans, utensils. This domain was guarded with an ascerbic crispness that certainly contained any notions I might have to nibble.”

This could almost describe my kitchen, or my kitchen several generations ago.  Would my great-great grandmother be pleased by my kitchen, surprised, or confused?  Which part of my cooking and gardening self comes from her and which from my father’s mother–these sensible women who preserved the foods they grew? What I ate as a child- from my mother’s kitchen and the dining hall of the boys boarding school where I grew up and at my relatives’ and friends’, and in the fields where I’d pick wild berries–clearly has had an impact on my food views and palate.  No question.  That’s to be expected.

And my travels, as well as living in Ireland, France and England.

Inside the Potager

In my youth, food was the province of women mostly, older women, though my dad was a great vegetable gardener. Even now, with the exception of friends such as Alan and Bryan who regularly blog and tweet about their gardening/cooking adventures and memories, I have yet to spend many hours in garden or kitchen learning from men.

Or–younger women.

Until recently.  My daughters and my former students– young people in their twenties and thirties–are influencing my cooking and my understanding of food.  Several students shared with me their reading and writing on food anthropology and on important food issues such as the critical impact of the honeybee on food production (more on bees in an upcoming post). I have long been accustomed to learning from my students within the idea realms of art and science. But in the kitchen itself? Not so likely.

Ah, but such lessons if only we let them take over the kitchen and garden and teach (hmmm.. sounds like what I used to say about the classroom…).  Indeed, I am learning more from them than teaching them. Ofelia, who brought us packs of tamales and chile rellenos from her mother in Los Angeles, taught us how to cook in her Mexican idiom.  Stacie, who in the middle of making fresh ravioli in my kitchen would call her Italian grandmother to confer about the dough, has shared many treasures and tips from the great kitchens where she has worked.  Stephanie, who is my private tutor-via-email in Middle Eastern cooking (just yesterday I received an email from her extolling home curing of olives, last week she urged me to plant purslane, the week before she shared snippets about za’atar), has agreed to write a guest post here at some point.  Maddie keeps a food blog out in California.  My daughters call and write about all kinds of food adventures in the kitchen (the recipe included in my next post was inspired by a meal they described to me). They are all passionate about food, have something to say about it, and aren’t afraid to share their culinary and/or gardening expertise; they speak out about eating organic, local foods; they see the relationship between food and the economy, politics and power.

Open View Gardens Logo by Emilio Vavarella

And so I am excited to have some young voices here, responding to posts, agreeing to guest-write some, taking us into the future of food.  Even my new (fabulous if I do say so) logo was designed by a young artist, Emilio Vavarella–in Italy (we corresponded through my daughter as he speaks little English and I even less Italian).  He immediately understood what I was looking for, what this website and new work of mine mean.  It has taken me a lot longer to explain my aims to people of my generation–friends and colleagues in my storytelling world think I’ve left, checked out on some level, headed for the hills.  But not so.  Working within the world of food just may be the most community-centered, inter-generational, inter-cultural, connected open-learning project I’ve yet explored.  And the younger generation has as much to contribute as do the “experts,” our memories, our family traditions and our own experiences.  Looking forward to seeing how the generations flanking mine interact with one another around this crucial issue–I hope it’s as much in the garden and in the kitchen as anywhere.  And I hope more men of my generation will swap cooking stories and ask, as Alan did recently on Twitter :

Categories: Garden, inspiration, kitchen

5 Comments on “Mentors and Influences Aplenty”

  1. Zack Lee
    June 7, 2010 at 6:18 pm #

    Great post! It reminded me why I prefer reading the introductions in cookbooks more than the recipes themselves. I love reading the why’s of an ingredient from a cuisine or the influences that affected cultures and food traditions.

    This is also the reason why of all the travel shows, I like watching Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservation. He doesn’t present places as this wildly exotic other, not the “you have to try this because it’s not normal”. He goes there and lets people share their own stories.

    Ah Barbara, you’ve inspired me again! Maybe I should start my own food blog. =)

    • June 8, 2010 at 7:16 pm #

      Thanks, Zack, for sharing your connections to food as avenue into deep culture. I will have to check out “No Reservation” for I, too, find far too much travel writing and media focused on self or “exotic,” instead of just what is.

      Do let me know if start a food blog–would love to see it!

  2. eganleyroper
    June 8, 2010 at 7:10 am #

    I really enjoyed the excerpt on”Great-grandma’s kitchen” and hearing how you’ve learned from all different generations. I think guest blogging is a great idea and so look forward to reading more of your, and others, stories.

    P.s. Emilio was very happy to be included in your post. The logo looks great!

    • June 8, 2010 at 7:21 pm #

      You are one of my great teachers.

      And I thought you might like that excerpt from your grandmother about your great great great grandmother’s kitchen! Perhaps we’ll get her to write a guest post. And you–you have a food blog; you write a food column for an Italian magazine; next year you will be writing a food memoir. Would you consider writing some guest posts here? Perhaps we’ll get Emilio to chime in about growing up with an incredible Sicilian cook for a mother!

  3. eganleyroper
    June 9, 2010 at 5:45 am #

    Of course, I’d love to write a guest post! I’m so inspired by your work and check your website every day for new posts!

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