The first kitchen of my memory was in a ranch house in Azusa, California in the 1950’s. I remember two things that my mother prepared, fried rice with scrambled eggs, and cinnamon toast. I called these two dishes, “rice and soy sauce” and “bread and butter”. I was three and a half, so I really didn’t know that specific language would yield specific results, and the shorthand of our home was not spoken outside of it.
That kitchen in Azusa had a oven up in the wall. That’s how I remember it from my vantage point of being three feet tall. I remember that and the bright California sun. I remember walking through a room on a late afternoon and seeing how the sun left tracks in the room and filled the room with golden light.
Then, we moved to Baguio and I met another kitchen. This kitchen at our old house in Baguio was under the reign of my grandmother, Lola Mercy. It was a restaurant kitchen on the floor that had a huge hearth and a curved banister. This was the kitchen in that era of entertaining large numbers of people. It was always a beehive of activity. I never got to feel at ease in that kitchen. My memories make my eyes go wide, because that is probably how my eyes were in those days whenever I entered the kitchen. I remember going in and finding a kitchen full of chickens who were going to be turned into dinner. I didn’t quite know how it was going to happen. Such are the veils over the minds of children.
There was a main cook named Luis, and a certain bureaucracy to getting a snack. Snacks either appeared in front of us (fried bananas, pan de sal and Star Margarine and sugar). When I asked for “bread and butter”, I got pan de sal and Star margarine, and was baffled. But I didn’t know how to make my needs known and the sheer volume of that household on so many levels; the numbers of inhabitants in the house, the amount of food the kitchen had to make was intimidating for quiet, sensitive children.
The presence of a cousin who had moved to the States permeated that household, and I knew her well, even at that young age. My cousin Desa had been raised from babyhood in my grandparents house, and then had vanished across the ocean. She loves to cook in her own house today, and I wonder if she remembers her first kitchen long ago.
The next kitchen I remember was our little kitchen in Angeles City, Pampanga. This kitchen had a shallow bureaucracy. I didn’t realize that a kitchen under my mother’s control would yield faster benefits to me, her child. So once again, rice and soy sauce yielded fried rice with scrambled eggs, and bread and butter yielded cinnamon toast. That kitchen was small, but had some things a child could get to, like tins of biscuits and Tang. So I began to help myself.
The next kitchen was on base at Clark Air Force Base, on Wint Avenue. By then we had inherited a cook named Julie who became my friend. I sat around the kitchen and listened to Julie’s stories of the War. That kitchen had a pantry room and Julie had the key. She baked in that kitchen, which overlooked on one side, the yard with the mango and acacia tree, and on the other, had a little stoop that overlooked a swing set. I was happy in that kitchen.
The next kitchen was a kitchen of toil in Albuquerque. My father was posted to Kirtland Air Force Base, and we lived in an old hospital building. The kitchen was large, but the work was larger. Coming from the Philippines were we didn’t lift a finger, we were thrown into American life with all its chores. My sister and I did dishes night after night for a family of 11 and dreamed about a dishwasher. The dishwasher arrived when we were about to move to Hawaii.
The kitchen in Hawaii opened up onto a lanai. I still don’t know how I feel about that kitchen.
Then we moved back to the Philippines and the kitchen was the restaurant kitchen of my grandparent’s resort, Cresta Ola. My grandmother had died, but her spirit was carried on in that kitchen with it’s wild flaming burners, big table, and once again, Luis and Julie. I was a bit more forthright by then, actually so grateful to be back in the Philippines. When I asked for a snack I got pan de sal and coco jam. Dinners were great.
We’d spend long evenings in the restaurant, which was our dining room. From our long table the evening’s characters would come and go. The band would play and sometimes we’d dance. Sometimes there would be declamation rehearsal. My cousin Desa was back with us, and on school vacations my cousins would come from Manila and we would all reign in the kingdom of children. The family baby then, was my cousin Carissa, whose young mother carried her duties with such grace and spirit. I watched the grownups live their lives and considered my own adulthood which was now looming around the bend.
Then, back to Baguio and into the main part of the big house, which had a little kitchen. A small kitchen which never seemed to have leftovers, but always had basic ingredients. I watched, but did not learn how to cook yet. I tried to make cookies twice, and a cake once but didn’t know about precision. My older sister had claimed the crown of baker, and I found it useless to push to allow myself to have my own crown. All mistakes were played out very publicly, and it was not fun, so I didn’t even try.
Then, a series of kitchens I didn’t care about, Manila and Hawaii In New York I had a fabulous kitchen in the gargoyle building and cooked my way through Irene Kuo’s, The Key to Chinese Cooking. I cooked for company and was amazed at the array of cuisines that New York offered.
In Philadelphia, in the first student apartment, I cooked pancit once, and it was a success. Then I somehow had a reputation for being a good cook and then I just accepted it and it was true. I never questioned it, it just happened because I internally declared it to be true.
Then I was widowed and everything I cooked tasted like dust, but then I was invited to live with friends and my life changed again.
I moved into the Madhouse. The six bedroom house had a long kitchen. Simple but magical. The lens of grief sharpened every encounter with the stove. I had house mates that cooked from their countries and so I watched. Roasted Potatoes, gravy, torta de patata, chicken tikka, fettuccine carbonara. I provided adobo, curry and so many things that bubbled up from years of tangential observation.
Then I met Bud and we made lasagna. Like our relationship, it just clicked. We had never made lasagna before, yet everything about that dish worked. From the shopping trip, where we, poor as church mice, walked along the bumpy West Philadelphia sidewalks, to the putting of the ingredients in the cart, felt the way it does now, six children later, a task of complete comfort . We made lasagna for our wedding day, and brought a veritable cookbook of dishes from our courtship into our kitchen in Cambridge.
Cambridge had a lovely kitchen, a toy kitchen with two electric elements, and a microwave. With a crockpot, a rice cooker and a toaster oven we churned out 4 years of love and baby food.
Then we had such a kitchen to behold in San Francisco that had a vegetable closet with a screen bottom and a door that swung into a formal dining room. In that neighborhood there were fish markets and Middle Eastern markets and we cooked like we were on borrowed time. I made my own pasta and cooked from Kathy Hoshijo’s vegetarian books until it was time to move to San Diego.
And what a kitchen we had there. Triple collisions of cuisine with my vegetarian brother, meat eating father, and lots of little kids that loved macaroni and cheese, ramen, and french fries.
The kids ate outside often, with a trampoline as a table. And then year sped by until we landed back in Massachusetts once again.
And now we have a kitchen very much the way it was in 1911 when the house was built. There is a metal table in the middle of the room, and a slate sink. There is a butler’s pantry and a mud room.
This is the kitchen my children will remember with fondness.
In this kitchen my daughters and sons, one by one took a spoon from my hands and took over. Today the only meal I prepare is dinner, because they all cook for themselves.
So my oldest has moved into her own apartment in a big city and she is turning out curries and bread. And my youngest has taken up baking with a passion. And I have to say that I love this kitchen most of all.