On Sharing the Kitchen

I am continually relearning how to share my kitchen.

I had my first lesson the second year that my wife and I were married. We had baked Christmas goodies together every year since Grade 11, when I used to make her skip class to come and cook with me. The tradition was important to me, and I thought to her also, so I was surprised two years into our marriage when she told me that she would rather not do Christmas baking that year. When I asked her why, she pointed out, quite rightly, that we did not really bake together. I baked. She came along for the ride. I chose the recipes, bought the ingredients, set the schedule, and, mostly, took the credit. Her contribution was almost entirely restricted to helping me mix this thing or peel the other one. I had assumed that I was sharing my kitchen because we were occupying it at the same time, but I had not really learned to let anyone else cook in it, so I had not really learned how to share it at all.

That year, and every year since, we have each chosen recipes, alternating in the kitchen between the baker and the assistant from moment to moment. It was a difficult transition for me, but the tradition of our baking together has grown richer because of it, and we are looking forward this year to having our eldest son take a more active role himself, letting him choose a favourite treat to make and to share with the family.

I have had similar lessons repeatedly over the years. When a family came to stay with us several years ago, I had to adjust to having two others in the kitchen with me on a daily basis, putting things in different places, cooking in different rhythms, even decorating the space in different ways. Yet, when we get together with these friends now, I look forward to being in the kitchen with them again, to share the kitchen again in the ways that we learned to share it before.

A Congolese woman and her two sons were living with us until very recently. The differences in our kitchen practices could only be described as extreme. Even her basic ideas about when meals should be served and how they should be eaten were culturally very different. She made dishes with ingredients that I had never seen before. Even so, only a few months since she has found her own apartment, I find myself wishing for some of the dishes that she used to make, and my own cooking has been expanded by what I learned from her.

I am experiencing much the same thing again, as my mother-in-law has come to live with us. I am relearning that sharing a kitchen means, as sharing anything means, being able to relinquish control of it. It means accepting how other people work in the kitchen, and accepting that working alongside them will involve adapting my own rhythms to theirs. This is not always easy for me. I am fairly obsessive about the things that are important to me, and the kitchen is among the most important.

All of which brings me to the experience of having to share the kitchen with my eldest son this morning. We often cook together, but I have been finding lately that he wants to assert himself in that space in ways that are, in themselves, perfectly acceptable, but perhaps different than I would prefer. I am finding myself asking more often the question of how to let him safely and usefully share in the kitchen rather than just help in it.

This morning we were making cookies. The picture of the hickory nut cookies caught his eye, and he would be satisfied by nothing else. He was entirely uninterested in my explanation that these cookies are usually made for Christmas. Well, I thought, should he not be able to choose the recipe himself, and why should his choice be limited by some convention about what cookies should be made when. So, under his direction, the hickory nut cookies were made. They had slightly more salt than the recipe indicated and that the heart and Stroke Foundation would recommend. They had green food dye in them, quite apart from anything I could find in the recipe at all. I was unaware that he even knew where the food dye was. They were partly his and partly mine, the product of sharing the kitchen.

We were not sharing the kitchen in the way that I share it with my wife or with a friend, of course, but we were certainly finding places in it that could be shared, even if the results were sometimes chaotic. The first batch of dough actually ended on the floor, which was my youngest son’s fault. Several of the cookies tumbled into the oven, which was by own fault. Many more were mashed to bits as they were being dredged in icing sugar, which was my eldest son’s fault, again and again. None of this, however, detracted from what we were able to make and share together.

As we finished, I found myself reflecting on how this kind of sharing differs from what happens in the ideal kitchens that are portrayed on most cooking shows. On television, kitchens are not shared. There is always someone in charge, either explaining cooking simplistically and hygienically in a kitchen that is too immaculate to be a kitchen at all, or screaming at some poor cooking contestants in a kitchen that is too industrial to be a kitchen that I recognize. There is no space in those kitchens for spouses or friends or mothers-in-law or children.

I think this is why so many people are afraid of cooking and of the kitchen. The ideals that have been presented to them do not reflect a functional family kitchen. They may be functional studio spaces, or they may be functional restaurant spaces, but they do not show people how to cook and share in the kinds of kitchens that they know. They do not show how cooking happens in the family and the community and the home. This kind of cooking can only be shared by inviting people into our kitchens and by sharing our kitchens with them.

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