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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

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It Got Hot In Her Kitchen

I have an acquired aunt, now well into her eighth decade, who is arguably the best cook I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. I love to cook, but comparing our results would be a little like comparing a two-year old child's crayon drawings to a Rembrandt or a Jackson Pollock to a Picasso (have you figured out yet that I don't think much of Mr. Pollock's work?). I visit my aunt occasionally, and she always insists on making coffee and preparing something to eat. Of course I don't put up much resistance.

A few weeks ago I sipped coffee and ate some homemade cheese on homemade bread with a special salad she makes that is somewhere between coleslaw and heaven, and watched her baking an incredibly complex multilayered dessert. The culinary prestidigitation was even more fascinating in light of her environs, a kitchen a bit smaller than that of an old travel trailer I had many years ago.

The small stove butts up to the refrigerator (whose door swings the wrong way) and there is a tiny ten inches of counter space to the side. A bare step away (32 inches, to be exact), a small counter runs perpendicularly with a single basin sink in the middle, with about 20 inches of counter space to the left and about 30 inches to the right. Across from the stove, with barely enough room to wedge between them, is a small table that seats two rather tightly, three virtually impossibly. It is in that third seat, wedged between the stove and the table, where my aunt sits while chopping, slicing, and creating deliciousness.

In this tiny space, my aunt can make food that people pay for, that people pray for, that people stop by for in hopes of receiving tiny morsels like penitents receiving blessings. Made-from-scratch soups that the Seinfeld cast would line up for… cabbage, rice, and meat concoctions that have a delightful flavor and a special consistency that make you beg for more… a type of doughnut that with some of her homemade preserves will make you forget any diet… cakes, stews, fish fit for a king… baklava, stuffed peppers, profiterole, tarts, and a crushed walnut and who-knows-what filled phyllo that will bring tears of joy… all made in that tiny, tiny kitchen. She makes her own butter, makes cheese, whips, stirs, slices, and dices, all in a space just barely big enough for the two of us to have coffee and a conversation.

During my last visit I asked her, "How do you make all this wonderful stuff in such a small kitchen?" She lit into me like a parent with an errant child.

"You young folks (well, I am twenty-eight years younger than her) have big kitchens, but you still don't know how to cook," and she continued, "When I learned to cook we had no electricity, we burned wood in the stove, we had to go outside to the well for water, and we kept what little food we had in a cellar." And then she really got me, "Now I have an electric stove, a refrigerator, a sink and running water, lights, heat in the winter, air conditioning in the summer. What more could I possibly need?"

Sometimes I feel so selfish, complaining as I do, about the lack of space in my shop.

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