Leave the dishes in the sink ma, leave the dishes in the sink, these dirty plates will have to wait, tonight we’re gonna celebrate… Does anyone remember that one? Probably not. Spike Jones, circa 1944, which celebrates Joe coming home from fighting the war.
When I was part of a trilogy of teenage girls, before dishwashing machines, we always had dishes in the sink. By the time we finished arguing about whose turn it was to do what, we had run out of time.
In those days, as well as dishes, stuff littered cupboard counters and table – balls of string, pens, pencils, erasers, power bills, letters to answer, a stray leftover, homework, pots of grease to be used in a fry up. Elastic bands, paper clips and tacks resided in a bowl of fluffy brown dust.
Well – “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” – to call up another famous quote. Certainly the passage of time and the advent of technology have changed kitchens. Dirty dishes can be stashed in the dishwater and kitchens generally have become neat and tidy places with no chance for anything to grow, not even a random thought.
The point is, those memorable kitchens were a veritable hotbed of raw material to feed creativity. Let’s take a run with bacon grease. The smell of bacon frying might lead to a scene around the breakfast table, pancakes and syrup and how that looked on your plate, the butter melting on the stack and the syrup in an amber stream trickling down the sides of the stack. And maybe it’s a winter morning and the January sun coming through the window so different from October or March suns and Granny in her wrapper who has come in from the country for the weekend and the fat-cheeked toddler who always wakes up early and this morning had also woke Granny by jumping on top of her and saying fucking asshole and everyone in shock and disbelief wondering where had the kid learned that kind of talk?
How one thing leads to another as those creative urges vibrate forth and, voila, before you know it you’ve written up a scene.
My mother-in-law’s kitchen added plants to the mix, sprouting from windowsill and cupboard counter, mixing with the salt and sugar and flour and half-eaten sandwich, getting lost under a stack of elementary grade lesson plans and assignments on the table where she kneaded the bread dough. Once, we found a twist tie in a dinner bun.
My sister had an interesting kitchen and five children who were free to burn the popcorn (before microwaves), concoct their own pizza, make up a batch of fudge, pots boiling over and the smell of burned sugar thick in the air, i.e., free to learn. They were allowed to experiment and to fail. All five turned out to be creative and self-sufficient.
Thankfully, the messy kitchen is not relegated to the past. A friend’s kitchen is a monument to liberated urges. Along with jam pots and mustard jars and the ubiquitous sink full of baking pans and such are pots of herbs and other mysterious growths. Sending out tendrils, or is it tentacles, to embrace the piles of books on chairs and table and side shelves, bookmarks of notes to oneself, memos and bits of kleenex. Friends who visit are inspired to approach such a kitchen to add their contribution.
I am impelled to confess to my kitchen, which could be the inspiration for the line, “Out of reluctant matter, what can be gathered?” I’m sure Milosz had something more profound in mind when he wrote that but it could apply equally to this subject. Attractive, colour coordinated, and usually neat, but a source of inspiration my kitchen is not. I never go there in my mind to create. For that, I go to my granny’s kitchen, my mother’s kitchen on the farm, all of the above kitchens.
I compare the situation to a child sitting in the middle of a sterile playroom, the toys neatly put away, a place for everything and everything in its place. The cupboards are brimming with building kits of various types, along with diagrams and boxes of pieces so specialized they can be used only to replicate the picture on the box. The more accurately he can do that the higher the praise from a parent. What happened to the old Lego, simply various shaped pieces which allowed the child to create the picture he has in his own mind?
So here’s to you, messy kitchens, with your invitation to pick through the clutter and find straw that can be spun into gold.