Culinary Inheritances

We made shortbread this evening -our grandmother’s recipe -in a bowl beloved by a great-great-grandmother, repaired by our father when we were in hospital years ago. We stir our tea with apostle teaspoons that came by way of a great-great-grandmother, whose crucifix we also have; no one else was quite catholic enough for these, apparently. There’s a tea cozy quilted by our aunt to see if she could, and the long-handled teaspoon, a gift from our academic daughter when we moved house to the Scotland flat years ago. She gave it us with tea towels and some tea, wee mindings all, but the long-handled teaspoon is the best thing we have for measuring tea, and we still use the tea towels. The tea we used up long ago.

There’s the lavender-stamp china that came to us early when our other grandmother, who uses a different shortbread recipe -one with salted butter -moved from Guelph to Toronto, and it only gets an airing at Christmas. There’s our jumble of everyday china too, Dresden plate (a birthday gift) knocks elbows with Cloudough (now too cracked for practical use) and Gladstone Blue Ribbon, to name a handful.

Most of this is now in boxes, but the kitchen is still the beating heart of a house to us. We’re mulling it over while contemplating a cup of Cream of Earl Grey, smoother than usual, but to paraphrase Dr Johnson on Edinburgh, about which not a lot can be said that hasn’t been said already. Naturally there’s no poem for Earl Grey along those lines, but imagine our surprise, and delight when we found this one on the familial histories kitchens tell.

When I Am In the Kitchen

Jeanne Marie Beaumont

I think about the past. I empty the ice-cube trays
crack crack cracking like bones, and I think
of decades of ice cubes and of John Cheever,
of Anne Sexton making cocktails, of decades
of cocktail parties, and it feels suddenly far
too lonely at my counter. Although I have on hooks
nearby the embroidered apron of my friend’s
grandmother and one my mother made for me
for Christmas 30 years ago with gingham I had
coveted through my childhood. In my kitchen
I wield my great aunt’s sturdy black-handled
soup ladle and spatula, and when I pull out
the drawer, like one in a morgue, I visit
the silverware of my husband’s grandparents.
We never met, but I place this in my mouth
every day and keep it polished out of duty.
In the cabinets I find my godmother’s
teapot, my mother’s Cambridge glass goblets,
my mother-in-law’s Franciscan plates, and here
is the cutting board my first husband parqueted
and two potholders I wove in grade school.
Oh the past is too much with me in the kitchen,
where I open the vintage metal recipe box,
robin’s egg blue in its interior, to uncover
the card for Waffles, writ in my father’s hand
reaching out from the grave to guide me
from the beginning, “sift and mix dry ingredients”
with his note that this makes “3 waffles in our
large pan” and around that our an unbearable
round stain—of egg yolk or melted butter?—
that once defined a world.

 

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