11 June 2006

My Kitchen — and my Grandmother's

What makes my kitchen French?

I did not set out to create a French country kitchen, not the kind featured in home-decorating magazines. Too contrived for my tastes.

Still, my kitchen has a few of the accouterments of what is thought to be a typical French kitchen, including a ceramic rooster and a wire wine rack, the latter tucked away in a cool corner.

But I have no blue-and-white tiles, no copper pots — only one piece of pottery I purchased in France, a colorful serving tray.

A French kitchen is all about food anyway, and the spirit in which it is prepared and consumed. Forget carved cabinet doors and racks of gleaming pots.

If you like to cook, and you like French food, your kitchen can be as French as the most over-decorated room in Architectural Digest (which regrettably really isn’t all that much about architecture).

In my kitchen, bottles of olive oil and spices are within easy reach. A jar of herbes de Proven├že is always nearby. A bowl of tomatoes sits on the counter. Every scrap of food is used, and if it cannot be used, it is carried out to the compost pile.

I think of my grandmother often when I cook. Her kitchen was always tidy, and it was important for her to keep everything in its place. (Not so in my kitchen.)

Grandma Annie lived in Frenchtown in the small Michigan town where her parents settled in the 1880s. The neighborhood included a meat packing plant, an ironworks and a small retail area. Small grocery stores abounded and farmers often came to town peddling eggs and vegetables. Annie’s home, purchased by her father in 1883, once included a small grocery store on its ground floor.

Annie bought her eggs from a German farmer. Neighbors traded produce from their gardens: Green beans, carrots, tomatoes, zucchini and potatoes. Mid-morning or in the early evenings, she would set out, basket on her arm, for the home of a neighbor who had fresh produce to share.

Annie’s kitchen had only one west-facing window, but it was never dark. It was a cheerful red-and-white, very much in the style called “retro” in today’s shelter magazines.

What made Annie’s kitchen French? Her love of food and cooking. It was a love that extended throughout the home, a home the family owned for 125 years.

My memories of Annie include sunny summer mornings when she would sit on her back step and shell peas, or cooler days in late summer when she would bake a cake or a blueberry pudding and her kitchen would be redolent of vanilla and almond.

These are simple activities I have tried to make a part of my own culinary life. Come high summer, I clean corn and shell peas on my deck, within yards of my compost pile. In cool weather or when storm clouds gather, I, too, gravitate to my kitchen to bake an apple crisp with cinnamon. The aroma and the activity provide comfort.

What makes your kitchen French? How does it comfort you?

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