Assault and Battery
COME IN, COME IN. I’ve just made coffee and it smells, as good coffee should, of bitter chocolate.
Don’t mind the mess. It’s always this way, because a kitchen is in the middle of things, in the middle of life, as I’m living it now, this moment, the detritus of the past heaped like a midden everywhere you look. That squat brown bean pot we got in 1949 for our first kitchen, in a Boston slum, when I didn’t know beans about cooking. That tarnished copper bowl I bought at Dehillerin in Paris in 1960, used heavily for souffles during my Julia decade, which I haven’t used since for anything at all.
I like food because it’s in the middle of the mess. I like thinking about what I ate yesterday, what I’ll eat tonight, what we’re eating now–this hot crumbly shortbread full of butter and toasted pecans. So delicious. So tangible, sensuous, real. I can hold it in my hand, in my mouth, on my tongue. I can turn it over in my mind. I can count on it. The next bite will bring the same intense pleasure the last bite did, and the same pleasure tomorrow, if there are any bites left.
Do you take milk, and would you like it frothed? This little glass jar has a plunger fitted with a wire-mesh screen, and when I pump it up and down, the hot milk thickens into a blanket of foam. It’s the little things that count, and everything in my kitchen counts heavily. Look at this olive pitter that I use maybe twice a year, this shrimp deveiner which removes that telltale line of gut in a trice, this avocado skinner, ingeniously fiddle-shaped to allow me to separate soft flesh from shell in a single motion. When I try to explain to my grown children, to friends, to myself, why I still live a kitchen life, I begin with the naming of kitchen parts. Well-made implements, well chosen and well used, turn labor into art, routine into joy.
And yet the French got it right when they christened the kitchen arsenal the batterie de cuisine. Hunger, like lust in action, is savage, extreme, rude, cruel. To satisfy it is to do battle, deploying a full range of artillery–crushers, scrapers, beaters, roasters, gougers, grinders, to name but a few of the thousand and two implements that line my walls and cram my drawers–in the daily struggle to turn ingredients into edibles for devouring mouths. Life eats life, and if we are to live, others must die–just as if we are to love, we must die a little ourselves.
I’ve spent most of my life doing kitchen battle, feeding others and myself, torn between the desire to escape and the impulse to entrench myself further. When social revolutions hustled women out of the kitchen and into the boardroom, I seemed to be caught in flagrante, with a pot holder in my hand. I knew that the position of women like myself was of strategic importance in the war between the sexes. But if you could stand the heat, did you have to get out of the kitchen? For even as I chafed at kitchen confinement, cooking had begun its long conquest of me. Food had infiltrated my heart, seduced my brain, and ravished my senses. Peeling the layers of an onion, spooning out the marrow of a beef bone, laying bare the skeleton of a salmon were acts very like the act of sex, ecstatically fusing body and mind.
While cooking is a brutal business, in which knives cut, whisks whip, forks prick, mortars mash, and stoves burn, still it is our most civilized act. Within its cardinal points–pots, a fan, a sink, a stove–my kitchen encompasses earth, air, water, and fire. These are the elements of nature that cooking transforms to make the raw materials of food, and the murderous acts of cooking and eating it, human. Cooking connects every hearth fire to the sun and smokes out whatever gods there be–along with the ghosts of all our kitchens past, and all the people who have fed us with love and hate and fear and comfort, and whom we in turn have fed. A kitchen condenses the universe.
Food, far more than sex, is the great leveler. Just as every king, prophet, warrior, and saint has a mother, so every Napoleon, every Einstein, every Jesus has to eat. Eating is an in-body experience, a lowest common denominator, by nature funny, like the banana peel or the pie-in-the-face of slapstick. The subversive comedy of food is incremental. Little laughs add up to big ones, big enough to poke a hole in our delusions of star-wars domination and bring us down to earth. The gut, like the bum, makes the whole world one.
That’s why I write about food. It keeps me grounded in small pleasures that add up to big ones, that kill time by savoring it, in memory and anticipation. Food conjugates my past and future and keeps me centered in the present, in my body, my animal self. It keeps my gut and brain connected to each other as well as to the realities of the world outside, to all those other forms of being–animal, vegetable, mineral–of which I am a part. Food keeps me humble and reminds me that I’m as kin to a cabbage or a clam as to a Bengal tiger on the prowl.
That’s why I decline the epic view from the battlements in favor of the view from my kitchen window, fogged by steam from the soup in the pot. When I chop onions and carrots, crush garlic, and hunt out meaty bones for my soup, I’m doing what I’ve done for decades and what women before me have done from the beginning of time, when they used stones instead of knives and ashes instead of pots. There’s comfort in this, in the need, in the craft, in the communion of hands and of hungers. A wooden spoon links me to my grandmother in her apron and to the woman who taught Jacob to stir a mess of pottage. History can turn on a spoon, on a soup.
And so of arms and the woman I sing, while we drink our coffee, you and I. The singer is an “old stove,” as they say in San Francisco of a woman who’s done time at the burners. But the songs of an old stove, no matter how darkly they glitter, are gay.