The first kitchen I remember is the one on Agnes Place, the house, built in 1912, where we lived from my toddler years until I started first grade. I remember five very specific things about this kitchen.
The first memory is visual: The window above the sink looked out onto the back yard, where we had a swing set.
The second memory is a story short enough, almost, to be a haiku: Mama made strawberry jam, topped each jar with paraffin, said botulism kills. (To this day I’m wary of home-canned fruits and vegetables.)
The third memory is less direct recollection and more family folklore: The baby aspirin was kept an upper cabinet next to the sink, and one day, while my mother wasn’t looking, I figured out how to climb up onto the counter and reach the cabinet, seeking that delectable orange sweetness. I ate the entire bottle of tablets. Also in that cabinet? Syrup of ipecac. I’ll spare the remaining details.
Fourth: Kiki and my mother smoking Winstons and drinking coffee. Kiki was our babysitter, and she was in college (I think), and she loved my mother, and my mother loved her. “Young women need the friendship of older women who aren’t their mothers,” Mama said, years later, after Kiki came to visit us in a different house, different kitchen.
The fifth memory is the richest: The kitchen on Agnes Place is where my mother and I first made sugar cookies together, baptizing ourselves and everything in sight with a holy mess of green sanding sugar. It was the start of a tradition that would last most of a decade.
When I was six we moved to a rambling, East Memphis, ranch-style house that was built in the mid 1950s. The kitchen had metal cabinets, a pull-out electric cook-top, and room for the washer/dryer set, right there, in the kitchen. Designed as an eat-in kitchen, it also had room for a table and chairs and a cased opening (window sized, window height) that looked into the adjacent den.
I learned to make pancakes and, later, crepes in this kitchen. I watched my mother make her signature chocolate roll for dinner parties and holiday gatherings. By the time I was 10 I’d picked up enough skills to make and serve breakfast in bed for Mother’s Day, albeit with an avalanche of flour in my wake.
While junior-high pals went to Forty Carrots for classes, I studied at the elbow of my mother, who never once measured milk for the béchamel that magically became cheese soufflé. It was not a forced education. The notion that I would require cooking skills for later married life never crossed her lips, or her mind. She enjoyed cooking, and I enjoyed being with her in the kitchen. It was that simple.
She used a wire whip, never an electric beater, because she insisted one needed to feel the exact moment egg whites or cream hit the right consistency for whatever came next in a recipe. Her pots were all Revere Ware, a set given as a wedding gift. Once when she was making crepes the skillet handle got too close to the next burner, and it melted and then cracked to pieces when it cooled. Instead of replacing it, Mama just used a pot holder when cooking, saying it did the job just fine, just like the rest of that kitchen, the place where I learned to cook, to sort sets and subsets, to answer the phone, and, of course, to use good table manners.
Our Christmas cookies got an upgrade with the addition of a cooky press, beloved by both my sister and me. We made stars and circles and trees. With the help of the press, and some guidance from my mother, we expanded our skills to include savory cheese straws, too, always with Worcestershire sauce, extra-sharp cheddar, and cayenne.
When my parents separated in 1980, we lived for a short time in a small apartment that had an even smaller kitchen, memorable only because it’s primary function was as a dog kennel. In the upheaval prior to our move, the dog, who wasn’t spayed, had gotten loose, gotten knocked up, and delivered a litter of puppies not long after we changed address.
After a few months in that transitional space we moved into a house on Walnut Grove, near Galloway golf course. It was a rental with the promise of being lease-purchase, and my mother thought it would be our home until my sister and I finished high school, if not longer.
That house, built in the 1930s, had a kitchen, breakfast room/butler’s pantry, and dining room – all three connected, but each its own separate space. The kitchen had a freestanding gas range and stainless counters around the sink. If I cooked in this kitchen, I don’t remember it.
But my mother cooked, every day. We sat for dinner every night in the dining room, table properly set, food served family style. Looking back, I don’t know how she managed to pull this off. She owned a children’s clothing store and worked six days a week. My sister and I came home after school and did homework. Our mother got home every day around 5:30 and went straight into dinner mode, striving for the stability and normalcy of a familiar routine.
The landlord sold the house not to my mother but to someone else, and we moved a few blocks away to a very similar house on Poplar Avenue. We lived there long enough to unpack cookbooks and feel almost settled. There, too, my mother came home from work and prepared dinner every day. If I had late play practice or other after school activity, she had dinner waiting, still warm, when I got home. Creamed spinach, moussaka, roast chicken.
We lived in that house until my sophomore year of college, when a Christmas Eve fire in the attic sent us scattering again.
This post is part of a series about our renovation of a house built in 1905 that we bought in 2003 from the woman who lived in it for 91 years. The first post in this series is “Jackie’s House.”