The Crooked Lake Review

Spring 2001

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Grandmother's Kitchen Cupboard


Stephen S. Lewandowski

There were two ways of entering Grandmother's house. Through the front door, you were ushered into the parlor through the wooden doors which slid into the frame, as the visiting Methodist minister entered on many Sunday afternoons.

Most everybody else and certainly all family entered through the back door, off the back porch and into the kitchen. Wipe your feet-there's the mat right there. On your left entering, a big heavy enameled cast iron sink hung from the wall. Wash you hands if you need to.

On your right entering, was the kitchen cupboard occupying the whole northeast corner of the room, between the doors to the pantry and the dining room.

I remember the cupboard as some combination of cream and green, of painted wooden cabinet and enameled metal counter. I'm sure it came with a tag with "sanitary" written in a confident script. When I first saw it, it held its ground as if it had always inhabited that corner and wasn't to be lightly shunted aside, and I was just a little guy.

The kitchen cupboard was organized into a number of zones, including the top, which was a safety zone. Small hands couldn't reach the kitchen matches if they were put up top. You could also hide a key behind the top's woodwork.

Facing it, the left front, upper compartment contained a flour bin and sifter behind a single wooden door, caught as they all were, by a nickel-plated, nicely-fitted latch which would click firmly into place. By the time I came along, store-bought bread was the norm, so the bread-making equipment of this compartment sat largely unused. Usually a box of baking soda and a can of baking powder stood below the bin. Other things accumulated in the space under the sifter-odds and ends that drifted into the kitchen from the porch and even from beyond, the plumber's shop out back. Some much-thumbed cookbooks were also stored there (Whose thumbs were those? I don't remember ever seeing a consultation). A clump of rubber bands hung from the sifter's handle.

The upper right compartment was closed by two wooden doors, one with a slightly weakened latch that would sometimes swing open. This shelved compartment was beyond my reach at first, but it was a repository of smells. Grandmother's large brown bottle of B-12 was stored here. She took a tablespoonful twice a day. Only much later did I glimpse B-12's label and recognize it as not only vitamins but as a dram of alcoholic tonic taken as "medicine," the only way available to Methodist teetotalers. There may have even been a special tablespoon residing there, reserved for the application of B-12. Grandmother's spices contributed to the compartment's sweet breath: cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg, sage and paprika. I raided the boxes of raisins and prunes once I could reach them.

Below the enameled shelf on the right was a shallow drawer that held small kitchen utensils. Wooden-handled, three-tined cooking forks and much sharpened paring knives were in such quantity that just sticking your hand in, you'd almost certainly come up with one or the other. There were singular instruments too, such as the ice pick, left over from the days of the block in the ice box, plus can openers, bread knives, spatulas, flippers, nutcrackers and picks, large and slotted spoons and ladles.

Beneath the shallow drawer were two deeper drawers. One lined with tin, was intended for bread storage. Both were filled with pots. There was one mysterious double boiler.

Another shallow drawer was on the left hand side beneath the metal shelf. A collection of worn, singed and highly washed potholders filled this drawer, tightly packed so that friction would pop one out when it was opened. Stained sheets of recipes both printed and hand-written, kitchen shears, a ball of string, pencils and paper, a baster and an egg-slicer vied for room with the potholders.

On the lower left, the largest closed space in the cupboard was shelved and contained large quantities of cooking pots, dishes and pans, mostly metal and some covered with colored enamel. They were stained dark and lived in a dark hole where you had to hunker down to see in. The one pan you wanted would often be accompanied by several more rolling out on the floor with a great racket. A wire rack mounted on the door contained assorted lids and covers.

A white enameled metal shelf occupied the whole center of the cupboard, and the front was kept clear for cooking-action, but odds and ends accumulated toward the back. The front had some scrapes and scars in the enamel, where a knife slipped or some repair project went awry. All family messages were left in this space. On the far right hand side sat a heavy-duty mixer sometimes equipped with a bread hook. I only saw it pressed into use to mash potatoes for two dozen on the holidays. A four-minute timer, we always called it an "hour glass" because of its shape, was either at the back of the shelf or put away beneath the flour sifter. If it was sitting out and in reach, I was always fascinated by it, and always g ave it a turn. Sometimes one turn wasn't enough, and who knows how many four-minutes I whiled away. The timer also contributed to my firm opinion that the four-minute, soft-boiled egg was the only one worth having.

So it was that the kitchen cupboard filled its corner and role, serving my grandmother and our family as a sort of penates, or god of the food-store, where the ingredients could be mixed before their introduction to the vesta, or hearth god. The family stepped over the limen, or threshold, into the protection of the laris, the household gods, where they would be warmed, fed, and comforted.

2001, Stephen S. Lewandowski
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