By Emma Condon (‘20)
The grand, old townhouse loomed before me. In my mind, the threshold between the street and the floor was some metaphorical turning point. The inside was everything I imagined it to be. Darkened by wooden walls, the place was musty. The wallpaper was a creamy white color, covered in orange pineapples. The stairs were just creaky and old enough to be magical.
The smells rising from the kitchen filled the whole house: each room, each floor, each alcove.
The kitchen itself, robust, was swept up in a flurry of activity. The chefs seemed to be doing a kind of marvelous waltz. The music swelled as they danced around one another, opened silver ovens, and twirling with elegant dishes in hand.
Ms. Wojack, a hefty woman, with hair so orange and frizzy that one couldn’t help but stare straight into it, rather than into her eyes. She gave me a tour of the building and introduced me to a tall swarthy man, who spoke with a thick accent. He was a lamb farmer from Scotland. Even while standing perfectly still, he moved with remarkable confidence. His metallic laugh bounded off the walls. He grabbed my hand and smiled with yellow teeth, “The name’s Rory.”
He whipped out a butcher knife and I noticed the handle bore an engraving: RMW. The towering man, with delicate hands, sliced down into the piece of meat in front of him. He gushed, “The interesting thing about this cut, is that it’s actually salted with parmesan. I think it gives it a real edge, no?”
My eyes drifted back to the engraving. Just like an artist might have their own set of brushes, he had this knife. He noted my fascination and whispered, “I’ve had it for some time, I got it for my 16th birthday. From my first dishwashing job to the day I opened my restaurant, this thing has been by my side.”
The whole thing seemed extraordinary at the time but some weeks later, I started to question my feelings. The whole business began in the elevator. Daniel, the elevator man, was squat and warm. We would often exchange pleasantries. On that day, he asked me an innocent question, “What are you doing this summer?”
I grinned, “ I’m working in a kitchen.”
He paused, staring into my eyes from a few inches below, “Oh, so you like domestic work.”
I had never thought of cooking as domestic. It seemed so derivative, so simplistic. Cooking was hardly a chore, hardly a burden. In my experience, it was a lifestyle, a way of flourishing. Was my dream so feminine and basic as to be diminished? Was I giving up? Going back to the most rudimentary womanly instinct: to provide? I never imagined myself cooking for my children or for a husband, but I wondered if that’s what this whole charade was truly about. Maybe I was so scared to pursue something real, something legitimate, that I settled on cooking.
I felt branded by that word. I felt like nothing I had done or would do could erase it. I could make one-hundred perfect pancakes. I could create fifty food pairings. I could have an engraved knife of my own, but it wouldn’t matter. I could never be more than domestic.
But then I thought of my mother. A stay-at-home-mom. She hated cooking. I thought of my father. A journalist and a man. He loved cooking. I thought of my grandmother. She fit every stereotype about large old Italian women. But she also hated cooking. I thought of the engraved knife and the prideful Scotsman. Surely he wasn’t defined by that word: domestic. My experience with food wasn’t domestic at all. It had nothing to do with femininity or providing. I was a boss in the kitchen. I was a boss with a knife. I was a chef.