Chopstick Cinema

Celeste Heiter's Adventures in Asian Food & Film

Dandelion Wine...In Grandmother's Kitchen

One of my favorite works of literature is Ray Bradbury's magical coming-of-age story, Dandelion Wine. First published in 1957, the story focuses on the life of a boy named Douglas Spaulding in the summer of 1928 in Green Town, Illinois. His world is filled with a cast of lively characters, including his younger brother Tom, his parents and grandparents, a pair of spinster sisters named Miss Fern and Miss Roberta who have a misadventure with a car nicknamed 'The Green Machine', a pipe-dreaming inventor named Mr. Jonas, and a dreadful phantom known only as 'The Lonely One' who lurks in the ravine.

Why, you may ask, would I mention Dandelion Wine in a weblog on Asian food and film? Well...my favorite chapter is the one that describes his Grandmother's kitchen. Having recently deconstructed my own kitchen for the move to our new home, amid the process of restoring order once again, I am fondly reminded of many passages from that chapter of Dandelion Wine.

In the first few paragraphs, Douglas muses, "Is this where the world began? For surely it had begun in no other than a place like this. The kitchen, without doubt, was the center of creation, all things revolved about it; it was the pediment that sustained the temple."

But pediment to the temple though it be, Grandmother's kitchen is the epitome of chaos; her failing eyesight is dubiously enhanced by a badly chipped and smudged pair of spectacles; and what's more, Grandmother Spaulding never uses a cookbook.

"In all the years not one single dish resembled another. Was this one from the deep green sea? Had that one been shot from blue summer air? Was it a swimming food or a flying food, had it pumped blood or chlorophyll, had it walked or leaned after the sun? No one knew. No one asked. No one cared.

...The food was self-explanatory, wasn't it? It was its own philosophy, it asked and answered its own questions. Wasn't it enough that your blood and your body asked no more than this moment of ritual and rare incense?"

Each evening, Grandmother laid a out a sumptuous banquet for the Spaulding family, a half-dozen boarders who rented the rooms upstairs, and Aunt Rose, who had come for an extended visit.

"Trailing veils of steam, Grandma came and went and came again with covered dishes from kitchen to table while the assembled company waited in silence. No one lifted the lids to peer in at the hidden victuals. At last Grandma sat down. Grandpa said grace, and immediately thereafter the silverware flew up like a plague of locusts on the air. When everyone's mouths were absolutely crammed full of miracles, Grandmother sat back and said, 'Well, how do you like it?'

And the relatives, including Aunt Rose, and the boarders, their teeth deliciously mortared together at this moment, faced a terrible dilemma. Speak and break the spell, or continue allowing this honey-syrup food of the gods to dissolve and melt away to glory in their mouths? They looked as if they might sit there forever, untouched by fire or earthquake, a shooting in the street, a massacre of innocents in the yard, overwhelmed with effluviums and promises of immortality. All villians were innocent in this moment of tender herbs, sweet celeries, luscious roots. The eye sped over a snow field where lay fricassees, salmagundis, gumbos, freshly invented succotashes, chowders, ragouts. The only sound was a primeval bubbling from the kitchen and the clocklike chiming of fork-on-plate announcing the seconds instead of the hours."

One afternoon, Aunt Rose made the well-meaning mistake of suggesting that she help Grandmother clean and organize her kitchen.

"Grandma," said Aunt Rose, down again. "Oh what a kitchen you keep. It's really a mess, now, you must admit. Bottles and dishes and boxes all over, the labels off most everything, so how do you tell what you're using? I'd feel guilty if you didn't let me help you set things to rights while I'm visiting here. Let me roll up my sleeves."

Aunt Rose would not be denied, and before it was all over, the kitchen had been overhauled and organized from top to bottom, including a larder of fresh groceries, new glasses and a hairdo for Grandmother, and...much to her horror...a cookbook! But despite Aunt Rose's best intentions, suppertime that evening was a joyless occasion.

"Smiling people stopped smiling. Douglas chewed one bit of food for three minutes, and then, pretending to wipe his mouth, lumped it in his napkin. He saw Tom and Dad do the same. People swashed the food together, making roads and patterns, drawing pictures in the gravy, forming castles of the potatoes, secretly passing meat chunks to the dog. Grandfather excused himself early. 'I'm full,' he said."

The following afternoon, Grandfather took up a collection from the boarders to buy a train ticket for Aunt Rose, and had Douglas distract her while they packed her bags. When they returned to find Aunt Rose's luggage on the steps of the front porch, Grandfather announced, 'Rose,' 'I have something to say to you...Goodbye.'

That evening, with Aunt Rose out of the picture, Douglas crept downstairs at midnight and restored Grandmother's kitchen to its original state of chaos.

"He took the baking powder out of its fine new tin and put it in an old flour sack the way it had always been. He dusted the white flour into an old cookie crock. He removed the sugar from the metal bin marked sugar and sifted it into a familiar series of smaller bins marked spices, cutlery, string. He put the cloves where they had lain for years, littering the bottom of a half a dozen drawers. He brought the dishes and the knives and forks and spoons back out on top of the tables.

He found Grandma's new eyeglasses on the parlor mantel and hid them in the cellar. He kindled a great fire in the old wood-burning stove, using pages from the new cookbook. By one o'clock in the still morning a huge husking roar shot up in the black stovepipe, such a wild roar that the house, if it had ever slept at all, awoke. He heard the rustle of Grandma's slippers down the hall stairs. She stood in the kitchen, blinking at the chaos. Douglas was hidden behind the pantry door.

At one-thirty in the deep dark summer morning, the cooking odors blew up through the windy corridors of the house. Down the stairs, one by one, came women in curlers, men in bathrobes, to tiptoe and peer into the kitchen -- lit only by fitful gusts of red fire from the hissing stove. And there in the black kitchen at two of a warm summer morning, Grandma floated like an apparition, amidst bangings and clatterings, half blind once more, her fingers groping instinctively in the dimness, shaking out spice clouds over bubbling pots and simmering kettles, her face in the firelight red, magical, and enchanted as she seized and stirred and poured the sublime foods.

Quiet, quiet, the boarders laid the best linens and gleaming silver and lit candles rather than switch on electric lights and snap the spell. Grandfather, arriving home from a late evening's work at the printing office, was startled to hear grace being said in the candlelit dining room.

As for the food? The meats were devilled, the sauces curried, the greens mounded with sweet butter, the biscuits splashed with jeweled honey; everything toothsome, luscious, and so miraculously refreshing that a gentle lowing broke out as from a pasturage of beasts gone wild in clover. One and all cried out their gratitude for their loose-fitting night clothes."

Of course, by the time I prepare my 'Seven Years in Tibet' dinner, I hope to have achieved a somewhat more orderly arrangement than Grandma Spaulding's in my new kitchen, which is still a work in progress. But even in the most orderly kitchen, I will always subscribe to her philosophy of food, asking no more than this moment of ritual and rare incense.