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.
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.”
I look. Her hands are those of a farmer with protruding veins, thick calloused fingers, and dirt etched into the lines of her palms. In one of her hands she holds an okra pod, in the other a cheap metal knife. Firmly but lithely, she removes the stem end of the okra without cutting into the flesh. I do the same, and she nods. And so from Mariam, an illiterate sister-wife, I learn my first food preparation technique.
I continue to look as she dices homegrown tomatoes and onions, cubes the lamb, and grinds the cumin in an improvised mortar and pestle (no more than a deep metal bowl and smooth oblong stone from the farm). Since she has no indoor oven, all of her cooking takes place in a weathered cast iron pan on the hot plate.
We spread a large tattered blanket on the floor of the other room. Mariam removes a bowl of homemade sheep’s milk yogurt from under the only piece of furniture, a saggy metal-framed bed. Family and friends sit on the blanket, each takes a mismatched bowl and spoon, and we pass around the bamya (lamb and okra stew), thick tangy yogurt, thyme-scented olives and rice.
There, sitting on the tattered blanket with a towel serving as a communal napkin, I savor a most delectable meal.
Since that day, I’ve enjoyed meals in countless restaurants and homes. Most have been decent, some have approached superb. Yet few, despite having been prepared with much more elaborate tools, have come close to Mariam’s spread.
The average American home kitchen contains a microwave oven, toaster oven, gas or electric stove, running water, working refrigerator, dishwasher, and a surfeit of dishes, cups, utensils, pots and pans. Its more upscale counterpart may include as well a food processor, garbage disposal, ice cube maker, stainless steel appliances, and single-function gadgets for hulling strawberries, let’s say, or standing asparagus up in a pot.
I understand the pleasure – and sometimes even the necessity – of having the right tool for the job. Some years ago, I took a culinary knife skills course in which the teacher-chef emphasized the importance of good knives not only for efficiency, but for safety as well. And to be honest, I’d rather chop onions with a sharp-bladed chef knife than with the bendable metal Mariam used. (Given the choice, I imagine she would have as well.)
As a mindful homesteader, I ask myself which tools are necessary, and which merely a waste. Can I prepare simple meals without a certain gadget or will its lack prevent me from doing so safely and well?
The kitchen I prefer (and have) exists somewhere on the spectrum between that of Mariam and the average American home. I’m grateful for potable running water, for instance, and for the infrastructure of water treatment plants and pipes that permits it. As romantic as an image may be of a woman carrying water from the stream in an urn, I know there is only so much I can do or am willing to do, and fetching water on a regular basis is not a task I want.
Yet, I shun many labor-saving devices because of expense or environmental impact or the human conditions in which they were made. But there’s more. Even if I could afford certain gadgets or buy them used, I would still reject them. The fact is I do not always want to “save labor.” I enjoy my body in action. I take pleasure in the sensory – and sensual – process of chopping fruit and vegetables by hand, grinding spices with a mortar and pestle, washing dishes as I look out the window at laundry hanging on the line.
I think of Mariam stooping to pick peppers, okra and beans, lifting heavy boxes of guavas into a cart, sitting cross-legged on the concrete floor. No doubt, she could accomplish these tasks in her sixties because she had always done them. She continued to do them until she died sometime in her mid-to-late eighties. Given the choice, would she have opted for labor-saving devices? Some, I imagine, though I don’t know for certain.
It’s May now some thirty years after that day. Our northern Utah homestead is alive with asparagus, rhubarb, radishes, lettuces, arugula and herbs. Yesterday we had asparagus (steamed lying down) with eggs from our hens. Today’s breakfast included stewed rhubarb and berries. As I stood by the sink hulling the berries with an ordinary teaspoon, I thought of Mariam’s kitchen with its few simple tools. And once again I was reminded of what matters most in preparing good food: healthful ingredients grown or raised well, adequate skill, and love. Would that I could say “thank you” to Mariam for showing me this path.
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