Some years ago, I read a new author’s book titled “White Oleander” – and so I was immediately captivated to find this author, Janet Fitch, the author of a Los Angeles Times Food section in their December 22, 2011 issue. The title of Janet’s article was My Mother’s Kitchen Kingdom and I was immediately hooked. So much so that I kept the article with my folder of clipping from magazines and newspapers, for future reference.
Janet’s description of her parents rambling old home in Wilshire Park filled me with longing. Her parents bought the house—already an old house—in 1961. She says it was an old fashioned house** with a dining room and a library, and closets you could walk into, “a million hiding places,” she writes, with even a tiny door for Janet’s imaginary friends. That summer, in 2011, her mother moved into a senior residence near the Beverly Center and it was Janet’s job to help her mother fold up her tent, packing and clearing and giving away the remains of her long residence.
“Nowhere in the house was my mother more in evidence than in the kitchen. Part of that bittersweet summer was clearing its Mondrian-inspired linoleum counters and cabinets, finding good homes for an astonishing collection of pots and pans, knives and woks, and gizmos for pitting cherries and serving escargot, zesting lemons and injecting strawberries with Cointreau…”
“My mother” writes Janet “never met a gadget she didn’t like. There were tube pans for baking the angel food cakes my father could have after his first heart attack and Bundt pans and loaf pans and baking pans and grilling pans. There were individual casseroles for baking macaroni and cheese and bread warmers and a real 60s Chemex coffee maker….”
She says she gave away most of the cookbooks from her mother’s vast library.
Janet goes on to write in greater detail about her mother’s kitchen—but what struck me, first and foremost—and everyone out there who knows me personally will testify to it—is that Janet’s mother’s kitchen could have been MY kitchen until Bob & I moved to the Antelope Valley and I was forced to do some major downsizing in my kitchen.
I gave away sets of bowls (out of the thirty something sets of bowls I had before I downsized); I gave my sister one of my sets of china leaving myself with only two sets of china plus my Fiesta Ware dishes for every day—I still have far more kitchen gadgets in the kitchen than anyone can imagine—and Bob and I bought these Rubbermaid cupboards that take up the entire right wall of the garage – a cupboard for Tupperware, a cupboard for Bundt pans and angel food cake pans and cupcake tins, two cupboards for the overflow of small kitchen accessories (steamer, crock pots in different sizes, a lot of baking sheets, several big baking pans for a large batch of Brownies, cooling racks—and half a dozen restaurant size trays that our friend Roger found for me—back in the 1960s, I think, when we were making shishkabobs for the grill at least once a week.
I have a collection of Wilton shaped cake pans that anyone can make as long as you have the color directions and some Wilton decorating tips in different sized flower shapes. I have a large collection of Wilton decorating tips—enough duplicates to be able to give some away to my sister. I gave away several Kitchen Aid mixers and still have two. My collection of cookie cutters, divided by holidays or events and kept in plastic baskets—fills an entire Rubbermaid cupboard.
Janet writes about brandied fruit that we were making in the 1970s – you used a cup and then replaced it with more fruit and sugar every time you used it; when we drove to Ohio one summer in the 1970s, I took a container of the brandied fruit to my mother who kept it going for a long time.
As for cookbooks—I began actively collecting cookbooks in 1965. Over the years I gave away hundreds of booklets and cookbooks, especially when we moved and I was downsizing – now the collection of cookbooks overflows the house and extends into the garage where Bob built me a library in 2010 before he became sick with esophageal cancer. (I no longer have any idea how many cookbooks there are but I have the Julia Childs Mastering the Art of French Cooking although I gave most of my French cookbooks to my niece who lives in Seattle and loves French cooking; My collection of foreign cookbooks overflows two bookcases.
I sighed heavily reading about Janet’s mother’s collection of leather-and-gilt bound issues of Gourmet—I had a large collection of early Gourmet magazines that I gave to a used book store before we moved to Florida—and had to start all over again. The “Love and Knishes” cookbook that Janet kept—is one I have with my Jewish cookbooks.
I could go on and on—I fear that my vast collections of kitchen culinary gadgets and other odds and ends – may end up in a yard sale when I am no longer around. MY kitchen kingdom was never the size of Janet’s mother—and my own mother’s collection of kitchen utensils was never extensive; she made bread twice a week when I was a child—and baked the loaves in large black speckled roasting pans. My sister has the small bowls my mother served vegetables in to a family of seven, back in the days before my youngest brother and sister were born. It’s unimaginable that there was ever enough in one of those bowls to serve seven people.
Along similar lines would be Chef Louis Szathmary’s gargantuan collection of over 200,000 items now in the culinary archives at Johnson & Wales University—and despite all the collectibles that Chef Szathmary donated to the university –he started NEW collections as soon as he finished donating many of his treasures.
How do I know this? Because a young woman who bid on boxes of Szathmary culinary treasures had no idea who he was—until she found my articles about the Chef on my blog. She sold several items to me, just to have them in MY collection—but I put her in touch with the University of Iowa which had its own collection of Chef Szathmary culinary treasures – and they bought the rest of it from her.
I think the bushy bearded Szathmary was smiling over me when I began writing about him. I never MET Chef Szathmary—but people who did know him, or met him at one of his restaurants – continue to find my blog articles and have written to share their experiences meeting him.
So if you are ever in Providence Rhode Island you may want to visit the Johnson & Wales University’s Culinary Archives and Museum – or if you are in Iowa, visit the University of Iowa to see their collection of Szathmary…
Or, if you collect cookbooks, or cookie cutters, or other kitchen culinary treasures – feel free to write and tell me about your collection.
*Janet Fitch’s article MY MOTHER’S KITCHEN KINGDOM was published in the L.A. Times December 22, 2011.
**The house that Janet describes sounds eerily familiar to me—in Northside, a suburb of Cincinnati, in the 1950s there were many large old three-story houses with gingerbread trim and both front and back stairs—one of the boys in my roller skating group—lived in such a house and a lot of us often spent weekends there, girls on the second floor and boys on the third floor. It was such a wonderful experience.
–Sandra Lee Smith