The Evolution of the Kitchen
In my hometown, back in the early seventies, everything was designed to make my mother’s presence invisible. It was the outcome of her work which mattered, not her. The traditional layout of the houses used to tuck away all the love and joy she put into the cooking process.
Once, on an ordinary working day, my Mom found herself forced to take me to work with her. As my Grandma was sick, there was no one else to babysit me. While this was worry for her, it was an adventure for me. Since I could rarely go out by myself into my own neighborhood, I wanted to see the city that was inaccessible for me alone. It took me years to realize that the city - like many other places - was not designed for us to be seen.
Nowadays, I think that that huge long wall surrounding our neighborhood was there not to protect us, but to hide our poor standards of living. There were houses one on top of the other, with no external rendering, exposing the raw colors of bricks and concrete. They were numerous enough to cover the irregular hills scattered in the heart of the city as well as its outskirts. What Government committed to profitable economic development, in its right mind, would keep that scene as a first sight to welcome the visitors disembarking in a touristy city such as Salvador da Bahia?
So, economic and aesthetic interests protected, there were few options left to us, poor and colored citizens: either to take a long walk around the wall or our chances on a shortcut over the footbridge, being most likely, to get mugged, during the latter.
We took the long walk around the wall. I spent the journey allowing my thoughts to dwell on how proud I was that my Mom would finally be warmly welcomed, like a celebrity being expected for a show. After all, wasn’t that what she was going to do? To show her magical skill in transforming local ingredients like palm oil, seafood and coconut milk into heavenly delights?
After two long hours of walking, we arrived on the doorstep of a beautiful skyscraper in the heart of the city with the most grand, white and shiny entrance I had ever seen. I felt compelled to just follow that luxurious front path, when I was gently halted by my Mom’s hand.
“No son, we use the service entrance, never this one”.
“Why not?” All I got was a pitiful look and weary smile as an answer while she guided me through the back entrance of the building.
We entered through the basement gate that gave access to two lifts. I felt curious and attracted to the beauty of the most sumptuous lift I had ever seen, covered with glass, mirrors and shiny buttons. And again Mom redirected me.
“That is for residents and guests, son. We use the lift for workers”.
We then took a much simpler lift with brown walls and black and white buttons at the back of the basement. This was disappointing for me, as I wanted to see the colors and different shapes of that building.
When we arrived at the penthouse, nobody came to the door to receive Mom. She just entered the back door of the apartment. From there I could only peep at its spaciousness and luxury through the occasional swing of the kitchen door. As soon as she put her bag down in the pantry she looked me in the eyes and very seriously told me:
“Now, you stay quiet, boy. No running through the house, no poking around or making noise, you understand me?”
When Mom talked to me like that, a slight chill would descend into my stomach and a quick nod was all I could manage.
“Great! Be a good boy, I’ll give you a treat later.”
And so, she worked alone in that enormous, secluded kitchen producing delicious mouth-watering smells with no one to witness it but me. What a waste of talent, I thought. What she was doing there was pure magic and no one would give her credit for it. My childlike understanding of the world failed to grasp the priorities of that society at the time.
“Mom, will Mrs. Sonia’s guests know who cooked the dinner?” She kept doing what she was doing.
“Will they know you put your magical ingredients into the sauce?” She just sighed as an answer.
“If they eat up all your food, will you kiss them?” This time, she stopped the chopping, turned around and gave me a silent beaten smile.
“Maybe one day, son, maybe” After finishing her job, on the way back home, Mom looked tired from working and I remember wondering why she was not happy as she was when she cooked for us at home.
Thirty years later, I’m a grown man and my Mom tells me that she is set to prepare the dinner at her boss’ house that night, at Mrs. Sonia’s, and that I am invited. A chill hits my stomach again. I could picture that same scene from my childhood with different meanings now, being aware that posh dinners thrown at rich people’s houses are no place for the work of servants to be praised.
She would be cooking in that isolated kitchen, hidden from any chance of being recognized as the creator of simple wondrous delights. Thinking of her as the shy, respectful and submissive lady that she was, I drew she would never cross the threshold of the kitchen to be seen in the dining room. I had to do something! This time I wouldn’t let my Mom’s work go unrecognized again, with no praise.
I wanted her to feel better about her work. But honestly, what could I actually do? Tell everyone in that dining-room: “Good evening, folks! Have any of you met the person who prepared this magnificent dinner?”
Oh! What a scene I would make of myself. I had to come up with a better plan. A smooth and polished way to introduce Mom onto the scene. Thanks to the slow, chaotic downtown traffic, I would have enough time to form a better plan in my mind.
I was so focused on rehearsing my speech to put Mom’s work into the limelight that I forgot to notice the luxurious entrance of the building that had once caught so much of my attention, not to mention the social lift with its shininess that this time was completely open for me as a guest.
I got to the front door of the apartment, my heart pounding. I was excited; nervous, actually. It was Mrs. Sonia who came to open the door. “You must be, João, Maria’s son. You arrived in perfect time to join us”.
I didn’t recognize the place that I was in. The layout of the kitchen was completely different. Not that dimly-lit cooking room isolated from the social area of the house that I had visited when I was a child. Now, there was only one spacious room connecting kitchen, dining and living rooms into one social space. The space had its own dynamic, people coming and going, drinking, chatting and laughing.
There was nothing to be said or done by me there. My Mom was having a good time at work. Cooking and interacting with guests at the same time. They were curious about her methods and recipes. She was having her work cherished.
After dinner, on our way back home, she was all bubbly and chatty. “For sure, they said they enjoyed the fish...” and she just kept talking. “You know what I most like about cooking, son? I love to be there to see for myself the genuine reaction of the guests when they first taste my food. It is a delight, isn’t it?
'Yes, but... you know, sometimes words can be deceiving, people can compliment you on your food just for sheer politeness. That’s why I like to see people eating. Their body language is always there to outsmart their social skills and give them away. The slightest frown or a quick movement of your eyes at first bite is capable of giving away your honest opinion, and tonight I was there to capture all of this”.
“Oh, I see, Mom, I understand.”
For me, the delight was in seeing Mom satisfied in her job with the dynamics of the dinner and everything. She was having fun at her workplace and enjoying being seen.