The Lost Kitchen
There’s an Alzheimer’s joke that goes like this:
Joan and Stan are watching TV on the couch in the living room. Joan gets up.
“I’m going to the kitchen to get some ice cream. Do you want some?” she asks.
“Sure,” says Stan. “I’d also like some strawberries on top. And sprinkles.”
“Ok,” says Joan. She starts to walk away.
“Are you going to remember that?” asks Stan. “Do you want to write it down?”
“I can remember that,” says Joan, “I’ve still got half a brain.”
Joan leaves and is gone for about 20 minutes. When she returns, her hands are empty.
“Where’s my tea?” asks Stan.
“Where’s the kitchen?” asks Joan.
I attended a seminar this week at my alma matter, Bar Ilan University, on writing imaginatively about the past. One of the exercises that author Robin Hemley gave us was to close our eyes and imagine a kitchen from our childhood. After a few minutes of walking through the room in our minds, he asked us to write down our observations.
How easy it was to slip into the kitchen in the house where I grew up, an “L”-shaped room with yellow linoleum and large windows that faced the street. The side door, which was our primary entrance and exit to the house, was located at one end, near the passage to the dining room. A pale wood table was crammed next to the wall at the other end with two chairs along the side and one at either end. My chair was the one below the green telephone. I spent hours wedged in there with my back to the wall, feet propped up, reading books and watching Mom cook.
Of all the dinners that Mom used to make, my favorite was “Leftovers Supreme,” which consisted of stir-fried chicken and vegetables, often with an Asian or tomato-based sauce that used everything and anything she could find in the fridge. I would stand on the chair under the window that looked over the quiet residential street and wait impatiently for my dad’s car to pull into the driveway—we always waited for him to return from work before we started eating. He’d march in, and in finest form, growl with mock seriousness, “Where’s my dinner?” It became our family joke that pegged him as a pampered husband while Mom was the happy homemaker. That and the fact that Mom served him breakfast in bed for many years.
Mom’s cooking days are long gone. The kitchen has become a confusing place for her. She wants to go through the motions of cooking and cleaning, but she can’t remember how. She can’t tell the difference between a tomato, a red apple and a pepper. She doesn’t remember how to use the appliances. The microwave is a mystery; the oven is just plain complicated. We’ve started turning off the gas on the burners and covering them when they are not in use so that Mom won’t turn them on by accident. Even making tea has become difficult. She has tried several times to heat water in the plastic electric kettle by placing it on a burner rather than on its electric cradle.
Daddy has learned to cook out of necessity, and he’s not half bad. He has perfected pasta dishes, tried his hand at baked salmon, even made stir-fry just like Mom used to make. His chemistry background gives him a creative, experimental edge that allows him to be flexible in the kitchen, a prerequisite for any cook.
What struck me during my time with Mom today is how much she wants to still be in the game. When we decided to make tuna for lunch, she opened the fridge, pulled out a packaged cake, and said, “Here it is.” When we finished our sandwiches, Mom took her plate to the trash can and with her fingers started removing every bit of food left on it. I finally convinced her to put it in the sink and wash her hands.
We juggle the constant dilemma of keeping her occupied with easy tasks and making sure those tasks are completed competently by others. Once in a while, though, I’d like to live in a world where cake is a main course and dishes magically wash themselves.
Every time we make Mom’s “Leftovers Supreme,” it turns out different. It’s all in the quality of what you’ve got to put in it. Sort of like our lives.
Here are general instructions for making this dish. Be creative. Try strange combinations and wow yourself with how well they combine. Tonight I used a ¼ cabbage sliced thin, some rather limp celery, a large over-ripe tomato, two carrots, an abandoned half pepper, 1½ Tbsp salsa (that’s all that was left), and chickpeas.
Fry some garlic and onion then add your choice of vegetables. Cook about 10 minutes on a medium flame until vegetables are cooked through. Toss in about one pre-cooked chicken piece per person deboned and cut into strips. Lower flame and simmer for another 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Here’s where it get’s interesting. To add flavor to your dish, you may want to use either cumin, or soy sauce, a cup of crushed tomatoes, or sweet and sour chili sauce. The sky’s the limit.