Armen Bacon: My mother's kitchen – a feast for the soul

May 3, 2014 

"The kitchen. La cucina, the true mother country, this warm cave of the good witch deep in the desolate land of loneliness, with pots of sweet potions bubbling over the fire, a cavern of magic herbs, rosemary and thyme and sage and oregano, balm of lotus that brought sanity to lunatics, peace to the troubled, joy to the joyless, this small twenty-by-twenty world, the altar a kitchen range, the magic circle a checkered tablecloth where the children fed, the old children, lured back to their beginnings, the taste of mother's milk still haunting their memories, fragrance in the nostrils, eyes brightening, the wicked world receding as the old mother witch sheltered her brood from the wolves outside."

Excerpt from "The Brotherhood of the Grape," John Fante (1977)

I adore this passage. Aside from its poetic prose, it reminds me of my mother's kitchen, the center of the universe, a place where time and worries come to a screeching halt, remedied by the aroma of her baked breads, delicious stews, and as she often confesses, "leftover vegetables quietly wilting on their deathbed" but somehow miraculously resuscitated by simmering chicken broth, a handful of secret spices, a few squeezes of lemon and, of course, her magic touch.

Because May is the month we pay homage to mothers, my own mother is front and center on my mind. At the ripening age of 88, she continues to lure me in, well aware I cannot refuse an invitation to sample a batch of her fresh-out-of-the-oven gata, Armenian sweetbread filled with khoriz, a harmonious blend of butter, sugar and flour.

Like her mother and her mother's mother, there is no exacting recipe — they are baked by achkachap (translation: "eye measure"), although I did once stand over her shoulder with paper and pencil in hand, a voyeur to her delicious witchcraft, trying to discreetly measure how much of this (or that) was being scooped into her palm — watching as she grabbed and caressed ground lamb and parsley, chopped onions and peppers, her artistry undeniable. The primitive notes, forever covered with stains from my ill-fated attempts, are no match for her culinary gifts. I especially enjoy watching her knead the dough, feeling its texture and consistency, inhaling the scent while it bakes — just long enough until her nose signals a 3-minute warning that it's almost ready to make its debut from oven to cooling rack.

Her kitchen is an island unto itself, a land of pure perfection, except maybe the time she left a pot holder in the oven and had to call firemen to douse the flames. Even then, she insisted on feeding the entire crew before allowing them to leave, threatening they would insult her ancestors if they didn't at least sample the fruits of her labor.

Her pies bring joy to the heart-broken. Her chicken soup cures common colds, the heartier lentil rendition a sundry for stubborn viruses. The simplicity of her buttered noodles brings calm to the beautiful chaos and calamity of great-grandchildren entering the front door. Scattering like ants, they await her summons to the tiny table where she dishes out love-infused pasta and then surprises them with warm tapioca pudding. The sight of this ritual, handed down through generations, makes both mouth and eyes water.

Even her cat wants a piece of this action and rarely misses the opportunity to jump up, hopeful for a few scraps, despite his animosity towards rambunctious toddlers. Everyone — including the fearless feline, leaves the table in a visible and improved state of happy.

I can't recall a time I've left her house empty-handed. She scavenges cardboard boxes and has a pantry full of containers — the Cool Whip, Ziploc, Pyrex varieties. Sending me off with at least a trio, she's quick to remind me to return them. Alas, she has many mouths to feed — her maternal instincts as strong today as they were when we were young. Thanks to a Sharpie pen, each is carefully inscribed with one word: "Mom."

If I've had a good day of writing, there's nothing better than the drive to my mother's house where I am safe to barge in, open the refrigerator door, knowing with certainty I will find a stray serving of lemon meringue pie or fresh apple cake, the perfect reward.

If I'm plagued with a bad case of writer's block, the affliction often prompts me to take the exact same course of action — heading straight to her house, maybe even calling in advance so she can whip something up to comfort my writing woes and break the curse. No matter what the mood or occasion, the tiny altar of her kitchen table, the sanctuary of a mother's gentle heart, offers comfort, respite and soothing second to none.

Mothers nurture our souls. They feed our hopes and hurts. This morning, Fante's words remind me how fortunate I am to have been raised in a house where no matter what the crisis or concern, the kitchen table, anchored by the woman who brought me into this world, remains a perfect sanctuary, and indeed, protection from "the wolves outside."

 

Armen Bacon is a writer and co-author of "Griefland — an Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss and Unlikely Friendship" (Globe Pequot Press, 2012). She is working on a new collection of essays titled, "My Name is Armen — a Life in Column Inches." Reach her by email at armenbacon@gmail.com or on Twitter @ArmenBacon.

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