August 22, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing series, we asked you for personal stories about cafeteria culture: the sights, smells, rituals and survival tactics of shared mealtime. Our first essay comes from Katherine Krein of Sterling, Virginia, who works in a middle school in the special education department, helping students in math and science classes. She charts the skills one learns to master over time as the cafeteria poses new and more elaborate challenges.
Learning Cafeteria Culture, Grade by Grade
By Katherine Krein
School cafeterias from my youth are first remembered by their artifacts. I can visualize several things: the hard and heavy rectangular trays, the substantial metal silverware, the breakable plates filled with food, the little milk cartons, and the thin plastic straws. Lunch was paid for with change in our pockets or purses. Learning how to carry the heavy tray in order to balance the plate of food, silverware, and milk was a proud accomplishment for me as a young girl.
Social navigation was the next thing that had to be learned. You had to make friends and form a pact that you would sit together day after day. This could be hard at first if you were the new kid in town. My family moved about every two years throughout my elementary schooling, so I had to be brave and friendly. Trying to fit in would sometimes put me in a morally uncomfortable position. I have a recollection of making friends with a group of girls whose leader was a little mean. I remember one day she put potato chips in the seat of an overweight girl. When the girl sat down and flattened the chips everyone, including me, giggled. This memory still haunts me and fills me with shame.
By junior high school everything became smoother. I had grown, and carrying the full heavy tray became easy. My father’s job no longer required us to move, and we settled into our social surroundings. Knowing where to sit in the cafeteria became routine, and it no longer filled me with uncertainty. But social faux pas were still rather common. I remember sitting across the table from my friend Lisa when somehow milk came shooting out from my straw and ended up in Lisa’s face and hair. I’m not sure how this all transpired, but I am sure that I must have been doing something unladylike. Lisa did not speak to me for the rest of the day, and later in the week she got revenge by flinging peas in my hair and face. We remained friends through it all.
In high school, manners and appearances became more important as I began to view boys in a new way, and I began to notice them noticing me in a different way. Keith was a boy my age who I thought was very cute, and we were sitting across the table from one another. He was playing with his ketchup packet as we talked and flirted, and in an instant the packet burst. Ketchup squirted in my hair and on my face. Shock and surprise turned into laughter. What else could I do? We did end up dating for a while until my interest moved on.
I can barely remember specific foods from my K-12 cafeteria days. In California I loved the cafeteria burritos. Fish was frequently served on Fridays. Pizza is remembered from high school because my sister, two years older than me, could count on me to give her half of mine. Last but not least are memories of the mouth-watering, gooey, sugary and aromatic cinnamon buns. Eating them was such a sensory and sensuous experience.
I have a theory about why I don’t remember more about the food. As a student my brain was bombarded with numerous new and nervous social situations, and I was busy trying to analyze and remember new and complex ideas. Eating was a response to being in the cafeteria, and my primary consciousness was busy with socialization and academic learning. Eating did not require much of my thought.
August 8, 2011
Leslie Waugh is a copy editor at the Washington Post and a yoga teacher. She lives in Falls Church, Virginia, she writes, “with my husband, who is a big fan of food TV shows, and two cats, who, like me, are more fond of eating than cooking.”
A Letter to the Kitchen
By Leslie Waugh
I’m sorry we haven’t been getting along lately. We’ve grown apart, I know. But it’s me, really, not you. I’ve become too busy for you, too distracted with other things that are feeding me in different ways. I’ve been cheating on you with easy catches like the Whole Foods buffet. You might think that would be healthy, but I have brought home some unsavory characters. And so many things in the pantry have grown stale, stuffing up the space way past their sell-by dates. My guilt is bottomless, and I am heavy with shame. I know you require more than I have been able to give, so I wouldn’t blame you for abandoning me. Yet you are still there. Unchanging. Stoic. Practically goading me.
To say that I miss you would be a bit of a lie, because our relationship has always been fraught and one-sided. You’ve kept me at a distance, like a chemistry lab whose experiments I will never understand. You haven’t made it easy to understand you, and I feel as if I’ve had to do all the work. I have forced my ineptitude on you, humiliating myself (hello, 4-H contests) in trying to create magic with tools whose power I do not understand. You have not responded to my pleas to cooperate; you won’t yield the secrets of baking or help me figure out when to dig in and redouble my efforts or back off and save a dish from ruination. Perhaps I ask too much. Perhaps it is I who must change.
My impatience has not helped, I admit. And I am fickle. Once I extract a certain dish from you, I’m instantly bored with it. I’m even bored by the time it’s ready to eat, because it’s no longer a surprise. I know what it’s going to taste like, because I’ve smelled and seen its innards the whole way along. But instead of looking for a new thrill, I give in to my laziness and inertia. And, let’s face it, here’s the rub: You are the keeper of a very double-edged substance, food. You are the storehouse of life-sustaining staples but also of those that have become diet-demonized—anything white, for example—and you yourself are fickle about holding on to anything healthy. The clock is always ticking on fresh produce, meat and anything from a cow. The pressure to use these items on deadline becomes too much. But in deserting you, I’ve hurt myself more than you.
Can we make up? Will you take me back? I can change, but it will take time. And I might stray now and then in attempts to find longer-lasting footing with you. Let’s face it, you hardly notice my absence anyway, but for the lonely utensils, pots and pans, and the dust in the countertop corners. A hearth unstoked cannot survive, I know. And a death from neglect, even benign neglect, is still a death.
Can we look at each other with fresh eyes? I’ll try not to ask too much. I’ll try to respect your boundaries if you honor my limitations. After all, relationships thrive on compromise.
August 1, 2011
Relationships can be complicated, sure. But relationships with kitchens? It turns out people have very intense affection, respect and even fear for these rooms. For this month’s Inviting Writing, we’ve read about dorm kitchens, tiny kitchens and kitchen boundary issues, and now Somali Roy tells us about intimidating kitchens. She is a freelance writer based in Singapore.
Making Friends With the Kitchen
By Somali Roy
For a very long time, the kitchen to me was a room where magic happened day and night. I grew up watching my mother, grandmother, aunts and cooks flurry into that tiny space, armed with innocent and naive looking vegetables, meat and fish, and after much chopping, stirring, frying and steaming, transform them into incredibly scented and deliciously attractive concoctions.
I was amazed and forever in awe. I loved food in whatever form or shape, and the humble kitchen delivered it every time. That’s all it was between the kitchen and me, until my folks thought it was time I started thinking about marriage and therefore take the kitchen more seriously. Seriously? Why?
Well, here’s why. In India, prowess in the kitchen has always been considered the most important facet of a woman’s repertoire, and it takes on ultimate importance when your daughter reaches marriageable age. To the prospective mother-in-law, it matters less if you are a rocket scientist or a school dropout. But answers to certain questions—Does she know the five spices that go into making fish curry? Can she made perfectly round, 12-centimeter-diameter chappatis (Indian flatbread)?—can make or break nuptial ties.
Such questions haunt the minds of Indian mothers who have bred their sons on a diet of spicy and unctuous home-cooked meals (repositories of fat and cholesterol, but that’s another story) and shudder at the thought of handing them over to cooking novices.
I wasn’t a shining beacon of hope. I needed assistance to even boil water in the kitchen, and that is after I learned how to turn the gas on. I was well fed, initially by my mother and later by the numerous take-outs around college. “So why do I need to get in the kitchen and move pans and pots, again?” I asked with gay insouciance.
Just when my distraught mother was losing all hope of getting me married, I found the right guy. Since he never mentioned how good a cook his mother was, I married him without a hitch.
It was customary to visit in-laws after marriage and that was when hell broke loose. For the first few days I deviously avoided the kitchen and watched my mother-in-law conjure up dishes and savories faster than a magician. Panic hit me when I saw my husband lapping up every drop of gravy on the plate with utmost pleasure under his mother’s caring gaze. What could I ever feed this man? I mentally cursed whoever said that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I needed to keep him alive first—and to do that, I needed to make friends with the kitchen.
So on the fourth day of my stay, I wandered into the war zone and confessed that I was a novice and needed training. That was five years and countless burned, under-seasoned and over-cooked dishes ago. My love for food, the gift of a good palate and an extremely forbearing mother-in-law helped me reach where I am now. Not only did I keep my husband alive, I now spend countless happy hours in my kitchen, cooking away.
July 25, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked you to share a story about your kitchen. So far we’ve read about dorm kitchens and the importance of kitchen boundaries. Today’s entry, like last week’s, is a reminder that great food can come from lousy kitchens.
Our Semi-Satisfactory Linoleum Playground
By Sarah Wortman
My husband and I relocated halfway across the country a while back and, once again, we found a fabulous place with a lousy kitchen. It’s stunning to me that two gastronomically obsessed, “the-only-time-I’m-not-thinking-about-food-is when-I’m-under-anesthesia” people like us keep finding places to live with small, inadequately appointed rooms for food prep. This one, at least, has a window.
My current kitchen is an antiquated 6-foot-by-8-foot pass-through. The 1940s hand-built cabinets squeak every time you shut them, and the porcelain sink needs reglazing. It sports about four linear feet of beige laminated counter space, a backsplash made of cracking porcelain tile and a floor of dingy, yellow, peeling linoleum tile. Recently a floor board in front of the sink has begun to squeak every time we step on it. We have repurposed a coat closet in the front hall into a pantry and much of our cookware sits on the floor in the dining room. And yet, the most tantalizing, magical, restorative things happen in that bizarre little room.
This closet-sized space is a virtual meditation center for me on Saturday mornings. While my husband slumbers I put on a pot of tea, then pour yeast and honey into warm water in the bowl of my stand mixer. Over the next half hour or so flour dances in the air like fairy dust as I work out a work week’s worth of frustration on a lump of dough, with nothing but the occasional sound of the Food Network in the background. At these times that dumpy little room is my own slice of serenity.
My husband is one of those mad chemists of the culinary world who fling ingredients around with reckless abandon. He will spend a few hours and use almost every pot in the house concocting the most magical meals. After we enjoy them I will spend a half hour swiping the back ends of vegetables into dust pans and sponging spices and olive oil off of every flat surface, vertical and horizontal. The way he cooks, trust me, it’s worth it. I can’t think of a place on earth that he seems more completely himself than in our kitchen.
Once a year we fly to my sister’s house to cook Thanksgiving dinner for her family. She has one of those amazing gourmet kitchens that I often find in the homes of people who hate to cook. The island alone has more square footage than my entire kitchen and she has two, count them two, ovens. We love this annual ritual of spreading out and spending several days cooking a feast for a dozen or more people. Yet, for all the gourmet appointments her kitchen offers, I’m always happy to return to mine.
July 18, 2011
For this month’s writing invitational, we asked you to tell us about your relationship with your kitchen. We got some terrific essays that we’ll post on the next several Mondays. First off is Ashlee Clark’s reminder that, no matter how small or inconvenient or outdated your current kitchen is, chances are you had it worse in college.
Clark is a freelancer writer and editor in Louisville, Kentucky. She writes about local food and frugal eating at her website, Ashlee Eats.
By Ashlee Clark
I traveled through a medley of kitchens befitting of the life of a young adult during my college years. Dormitory kitchens were the worst.
These kitchens were dark and abandoned rooms at the end of the hall outfitted with a stove, sink and little else. The rooms always smelled of stale pizza and popcorn from other students’ half-hearted cooking endeavors.
In the three dorms I lived in during my time as an underclassman, there was usually just one kitchen on each floor. I had the misfortune of always being on the opposite end of the hallway from aforementioned cooking spaces. Every time I got an itch to eat something that required more prep than tuna salad, I would have to gather my meager collection of utensils in a plastic grocery bag, go to the kitchen, make my dish, then take it all back. God forbid you leave your cooking tools in a communal kitchen. It would take only five minutes of your absence for your cookware to end up in the trash or in someone else’s grocery bag.
Making pigs in a blanket, a comfort food that nourished me through many Western Civilization study sessions, was a true test of patience and stealth. I never realized how much it took to make this tasty treat until I had to carry it down a long, The Shining-esque hallway. There was the tube of crescent rolls, the package of hot dogs, the cheese slices. The Pam, the baking sheet, the oven mitts. The knife, the spatula, the plate.
I would spread my supplies across the Formica countertop and assemble my meal by the dim light above the oven. But slicing and stuffing a hot dog with cheese and rolling the creation in dough was simple compared to getting my meal back to my room with the original number of pigs in a blanket in hand.
The scent of processed meat quickly slid under the doors of my neighbors as my meal baked. Hallmates to whom I had never spoken would slide down to the kitchen and create some idle chitchat before finally asking me to share. My hungry belly wanted to yell out, “Make your own, buddy,” but my Southern manners always made me oblige their request.
So to avoid sharing my bounty, I had to cook with ninja-like stealth. As soon as I slipped my baking sheet into the oven, I began covering my tracks. I threw away plastic cheese wrappers. I vigorously washed my utensils. I gathered everything I could back into my grocery bag and waited for the dough to turn a golden brown and the cheese to start dripping down the sides of the meat. At the first sign that my meal was complete, I took the tray in one oven-mitt-covered hand and the grocery bag in the other. I peeked my head out the door and sprinted down the hallway before someone discovered my culinary delight. This task was made difficult by the clanging of the utensils against my aerosol can of cooking spray, but I never stopped. If someone stepped out of their room, I gave them a simple nod without slowing my pace.
I repeated this process a few times each month for much of my college career. All that sneaking around taught me how to cook in an inadequate kitchen under extreme pressure. And I still have a soft spot for pigs in a blanket.