Last Thursday, I spent some time in the kitchen preparing our Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a much less demanding process these days. There were only two of us at the table and Hy-Vee did the basic work. My job was simply to heat and serve.
That’s pretty much what meals are like these days. Give me a well-stocked freezer, an oven, and a timer, and I am the Broadway District’s Auguste Escoffier.
It did require some waiting, however, and it gave me time to fiddle around in the kitchen and think once more of how much time I seem to spend in this room.
Compared to the rest of the house, it is a rather simple space. My home was built over a hundred years ago for Arthur and Etta Duvon. He was manager of the Rock Island Lumber and Manufacturing Co. and his occupation is expressed through the house.
The floors are hardwood and the fairly extensive wooden frames and beams — and the lower six feet of the dining room wall — are all quarter-sawn oak. Delicate, stained-glass windows fill the first floor. The stucco exterior is an inch thick and the rooms spacious. I am still somewhat surprised to find myself living in such an impressive and comfortable space.
The kitchen is on a slightly reduced scale, which was usual in those days, since it would be occupied primarily by servants. Yet, in many ways, it is the center of the building. In the 60 years of our marriage, it is where Bernadette seemed to spend most of her time.
I guess that’s to be expected when you have five children to feed and a husband who might trail anywhere from one to a dozen people into the house. As a dutiful mother and gracious hostess, that meant food and drink were in almost constant demand.
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Saturday nights required an ability to adapt. It started with some priests — friends from seminary days — coming over for some downtime. Soon, friends and students joined in. Anywhere from five to 30 people might show up. We stocked up on beverages — mostly Pepsi. If folks were hungry, a collection was taken up for pizza.
It seemed to me in those days that Bernadette was seldom out of the kitchen. Even at meals, she was more often on her feet in the kitchen than seated at the table. She had some help, for the family tradition was that those who cook don’t clean up afterward; but it was hard to keep her from the sink.
Not only is the kitchen where things are to be done, but it is also a magnet for guests; at least, that’s what I found on Saturdays and in the days when we had New Year’s Eve parties. With food in the dining room and comfortable chairs in the living room, friends would drift into the kitchen and linger, standing, for hours.
I finally figured out that they gathered there because that was where Bernadette was stationed, monitoring the steady supply of food and drink. I have often commented that people came to our home for the first time to see me; they returned to talk to Bernadette.
Now, left in charge of culinary duties, I find myself more often in the kitchen than anywhere else. Once you walk in to prepare a meal, something draws your attention: something to be cleaned, something out of place, some chore overlooked that might as well be done while you’re in there.
It dawned on me that I am continuing the tasks and procedures that Bernadette instituted when she commanded the room. Glasses are kept in the same cabinet; plates, cutlery, spices, etc. are stored where they belong. I have made almost no impression on the place; I am still, in a sense, following orders never spoken, but silently stated in example.
And, I can’t get out of the kitchen once I begin something, whether it’s preparing breakfast, making gallons of industrial-strength iced tea, or just checking the fridge and freezer to remind myself what’s available for dinner. I’ll spot something out of place, or a counter that needs cleaning, a floor to be swept, or something that Bernadette might think needs to be done.
It may be hard to escape once you’re drawn in, but it’s actually a pleasant place to be. The views from the window are worth pausing over and the subtle scents evoke scenes of the past. I guess it’s true that “The kitchen is the heart of every home.” That’s something that actress Debi Mazar said. Something that Bernadette lived.
Don Wooten of Rock Island is a former state senator and veteran broadcaster. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.