Posted on August 16th, 2012
Mine was a childhood spent in the kitchen, though I dont want you to get the wrong idea and imagine me peering into a sinkfull of freshly washed vegetables as I helped to prepare a nutritious dinner. No, it wasnt quite like that. I was raised in large part by an elderly aunt who never had kids of her own and who had fully embraced the fifties’ dining model.
As the majority of her small apartment was plastic wrapped and moth balled, we rarely left our tiny kitchen sanctum except to sleep. We did everything in that one little room; played endless games of war and rummy, did crossword puzzles, watched candlepin bowling on Saturday afternoons. She had her short wooden rocking chair, her big bag of knitting, and her roll-y cart television set with the microwave underneath, so we were good. A bomb could go off and we would have everything we needed to ride out the apocalypse in comfort.
This was of course largely due to the fact that almost all of the food in the house had an expiration date ten years in the future. Cans of green beans and pickled beets, cartons of crispy onion pieces, box upon box of spaghetti, Wonder Bread, Twinkies, Saltines, Jello, squeeze cheese, Bisquik, and my personal favorite: Velveeta. I had no idea that Velveeta should, technically speaking, probably not be considered cheese until I was well into my teens. The only ‘fresh food’ that would be found in her house was a bag of celery in her crisper drawer. As I DID NOT LIKE celery I didn’t concern myself with it much.
The majority of my earliest memories involve watching her wrinkled and familiar hands preparing us space age meals with a variety of specific utensils. There were macaroni and cheese afternoons (Big Y brand, which I thought was the best there could ever be) where she would start the water boiling and then prepare all of the ingredients for the cheese sauce. She would take out her thin aluminum measuring cup and fill it to the second line with milk and then spread the foil butter wrapper flat and cut the butter into evenly sized cubes using her pearly handled paring knife.
I loved that knife. It lived in a wooden rack in the pantry. Each knife was labeled and I would sit on the counter and stare up at its title, working to puzzle out the difference between paring and pairing as I gazed at its opaline hilt. When she turned back to the stove to stir in the elbows I would sneak beneath the wooden table and reach my hand up to thieve the cold cubes of butter and deposit them into my mouth, where I would let them melt as I listened to her stirring the pot and humming French songs to herself.
There was the ice cream scoop with the textured handle like a honey dipper that would plop freezy mounds of cookies and cream into my bowl when I returned home from school. Eventually she replaced it with one of those fancy scoops with the little lever on the side that swoops the scoop clean, but I always disliked it. It seemed foreign and insincere. To this day I have a strange disdain for those little swooping levers.
Thursday nights my mom stayed out late at her painting class and we would have thick strands of spaghetti with Velveeta and butter. My aunt never strained her pasta, instead leaving it to drown in the starchy water where she would retrieve it with a goose neck spoon with a toothy edge and one big drainage hole in the center of its cup. Her cheese grater wasn’t like the other ones I had seen, the tapered boxes with handles and different sized holes. It was long and flat with curly edges to place over your plate and we would push the soft velveeta into it like playdoh and watch the bright orange globs melt out the other side.
Around holidays she would make pies filled with strange gray meat. I was afraid of that strange gray meat, but I rather liked her wooden rolling pin, with its butter shined wood grain and red handholds. I would listen to it squeeze and flatten the dough as I ate floury trimmings off of the wax paper.
The best time was when we made hard boiled eggs and I got to use the egg slicer. It had a nest to snuggle the egg into and a grid of fine wires that would flip down and slice the egg into perfect discs, exposing its center, bright yellow against the outer white flesh.
We delighted in those afternoons and evenings together, getting our instruments out of their drawers and cupboards and pulling the perforated tabs off of our dinner boxes. Her expressing her love by feeding me, and me feeling well cared for and adored as we ate our nuclear colored meals side by side. As I got older I started hanging out with friends more, and cooking with my aunt less. As she got older she stopped cooking entirely, and when I was in high school she passed away.
Recently I received a box in the mail from my mother and inside was that heavy, honey-dipper-handled ice cream scoop. Picking it up I was transported right back to that kitchen, with its gray linoleum floor and white metal cabinets. In this day of disposable goods it means a lot to me that something as small and seemingly insignifigant as an ice cream scoop was made well enough that decades later, I could hold it in my hand and feel like I was seven years old again, back in that kitchen, eating ice cream with the person who loved me the most.