Mariam's Kitchen Reflections on Culinary Tools and Food Preparation


View from kitchen window

In memory, I return to a summer day in a Mediterranean village. I’m sitting on a concrete floor in the kitchen of a two-room stone house. It’s a narrow kitchen, wide enough to contain a small porcelain basin, electric hot plate, and counter space for a dish drain or pan. Above the basin is a window, which looks onto a courtyard, and beyond that onto other houses also built of sand-colored stone. From where I’m sitting, I cannot see out the window. But I can see a rusty refrigerator, which stands, not in the kitchen, but just past the doorway in the hall. I happen to know that the refrigerator doesn’t work, perhaps has never properly worked, and that it serves as a closet for shoes.

Mariam, a full-figured woman in her mid-to-late 60s (no one knows for certain) wearing a long dark dress and diaphanous headscarf, is sitting across from me on the floor. Between us lies a woven straw mat, which holds a mountain of okra. We spent the morning on the farm picking the pods, and then conveying them to the house in a mule cart.

Now, the early noon sun is streaming through the window casting light on what memory has shaped into a still life entitled Okra on Mat. Our task is to remove the stems from the pods. A naïf in the kitchen, I pick up a paring knife and cut deep into the flesh of each one.

Lessons on Food

At the age of 19, I know little about working with food. Mother seldom cooked except if one counts such activities as rehydrating potato flakes, and then mixing them with margarine and salt. Meals in our Brooklyn apartment consisted of that or else of store-brand hot dogs with canned peas and carrots or grilled American cheese on white. My first two years of college, I worked in the cafeteria as a short-order cook. There I learned how to open ten-pound bags of French fries, dump the fries into huge vats of oil, and then lift them out when they browned.

Now, for my third year of college, I’m studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and dating Mariam’s son. I’m also, without quite grasping it yet, getting an education in what will become a lifelong interest in food. I don’t mean by this statement that before then I didn’t like to eat and now I do or that I’ve since become a foodie, a gourmet, or heaven forbid, a gourmand. What I mean is that that day on the farm and in the kitchen marked the beginning of my desire to understand the relationship between agriculture, food, and the good life.

“Shufi,” Mariam says. I speak few words of Arabic and she, despite living in what is now Israel, speaks even fewer of Hebrew, which I do know. In English she can say only “thank you.”

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