Recipe As Tribal Lore – Small Houses Big Tables

My brother’s kitchen is smaller that the walk-in closets of most women living in LA. Two adults can fit in there, but not without becoming intimate. Despite its size he manages to pack his dinner table to over flowing meal after meal. The tribes that have eaten there are so numerous they could populate a small island nation.
At a recent conference on ecology (Bioneers Conference 2009) professor and journalist Michael Pollan said that part of the solution to the energy crisis AND the healthcare crisis is that more of us learn to cook. “The ‘[US] healthcare crisis’ is really a euphemism for the catastrophe of the American diet.” When more of us cook, less processed food is consumed. Processed food requires more crude oil to produce. It also involves more transportation – that frozen entree may have been assembled in three different states before it was shipped across country to find its way to your microwave. Eating less processed food also means less obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Decades ago every calorie of energy we spent growing food yielded two calories of nourishment. Now for every one calorie of food we grow we spend ten calories of energy. In this case energy means crude oil. Commercial farming is really petrol based farming. Cheap food depends on cheap fossil fuel. That double quarter-pounder actually required 24 ounces of crude oil before it started to give you indigestion. Time to think about Slow Food.
Another interesting bit of information from that Bioneers conference was delivered by architect Jason McLennan. A leader in the field of green building, he shared the following fact: though homes have grown more energy efficient over the years, their average square foot per person has grown at a faster rate. A family of roughly four people used to fit into a thousand square foot home, now a family of 2.6 sprawls out in a twenty five hundred square foot mausoleum. Our parents made due with 258 sq ft per person, we need 961. Homes continue to suck more power from the grid than they need despite huge leaps forward in energy efficiency.
For many of us kitchens are foreign lands, somewhat intimidating. Trends in design haven’t helped this much. The housing bubble turned many sane remodeling projects into bizarre loan schemes in which homeowners had to greatly increase the value of their home or risk losing it to their mortgage. “Rather than take out a ten thousand dollar loan for plan A we recommend you take out a forty thousand dollar loan for plan B which will increase the value of your home by one hundred K.” The McKitchens born of these McMansion remodeling projects are rarely inviting.
By contrast my brothers kitchen is the equivalent of an old worn shoe. The smallest area in his modest sized home, its useful counter space is measured in square inches, not feet. His old four burner stove is just far enough from his fridge so the door can open, both doors won’t at the same time. Every drawer and cabinet can be reached by leaning, no need to take a single step.
If you rated the productivity of his kitchen against the McKitchens of America you’d be hard pressed to find one that turned out more food and made more people happy per square inch. He lives in LA where every culture on the planet has its own neighborhood and at least a handful of restaurants and grocery stores reflecting their unique cuisine. He grew up with a Mom who knows how to feed the troupes and his two boys know how to eat. Crepes, Dutch Babies, lasagna, turkey, fish, pizza, sushi – you name it and its been born from that fifteen square feet of culinary heaven.
I sometimes interpret the look on his wife’s face as “Shock and Awe.” She doesn’t really want to know how he managed to get all of that food flying out of that kitchen so quickly, it would probably give her an aneurysm if she ever really understood his chefly machinations. It’s not uncommon to find foods of distinctly different nationality sharing space on his table surrounded by diners of equal diversity.
His is a large table in a small house. It doesn’t matter how many people are there, he always has room for them and food to feed them. Our nation is filled with wastelands of large tract houses with small tables and giant useless kitchens. The tables may reach the full length of grand dining rooms, but they are ultimately tiny, sterile, inhospitable places to eat. When measured by the mouths they feed and the tribes they create and sustain they are dwarfed to insignificance by kitchens like my brothers. Abandon your McKitchen now and find yourself a meal at a table like his with barely enough room to squeeze around, kids toys under foot and fading family photos hanging on the walls. Those are the places where the food you’re served will truly nourish you.
I’ve enjoyed some good meals cooked in McKitchens, but watching the cook at work always looks a little bizarre to me. Dwarfed by their environments our hosts scurry from one steppe habitat to another, pulling out stools and turning on faucets that swoop and loom well over their heads. Every cooking device (do you really need that blow torch to encrust the sugar on the grapefruit!!?) must first be thought about, located on a mental map and then journeyed a great distance to. The double and triple stainless steel sinks are large enough for an adult to bathe in, I even watched one hostess stand on her tiptoes to pull something out of the bottom of her sink.
My brother on the other hand turns and swivels, pulling out
knives, mixing bowls and ingredients without much effort or thought. His kitchen is positioned alongside the space that joins the living room and dining room.It was intentionally bisected in the 60’s because for many years the previous owners were foster parents. The north side of the kitchen is part pantry and part lunch counter – this space was built to roll out the food! He jovially carries on conversations with guests in both rooms while his hands spin through their tasks and the hot grease flies. He never has to raise his voice because nobody is ever that far away. It’s impossible for him to be alone while he cooks unless everyone is fast asleep or out in the yard.
I don’t doubt my brother and his wife are looking forward to a kitchen remodel someday soon. If they combined their living room, kitchen and dining room they might start to approach the square footage of McKitchens. I anticipate that whatever changes they make the kitchen will be central to the floor plan, accessible from many areas of the house and small enough to be useful.
Ultimately we just can’t afford to sell our kitchens souls to Progress. Factories will never feed us the way our family cooks do. Fossil fuel doesn’t taste as good as Mom’s love or my brothers Thanksgiving stuffing. Standing in the kitchen while a good friend puts the finishing touches on a lovingly prepared dish cannot be replaced by takeout in front of a TV. If we all measured our kitchen table by tribal standards the world would be a very different place. If not a little thinner and less polluted, perhaps a little happier.

< – previous posting – A Note About Ingredients –
back to introduction – next posting – Food For The Dying ->

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