When it comes to memories of being in my grandmothers’ kitchens as a child, I can draw upon clear, salty chicken noodle soup, crumbly cinnamon sugar cookies and Rankin Bass cartoons in my great-grandmom Ann’s kitchen in Philadelphia; German chocolate cake, egg bagels and Yuban coffee in my Grandmom Arden’s kitchen in Ardmore; and chicken fricassee, cheese pies and coupon-clipping in my Grandmom Ai’s kitchen in Miami.
But, other than tasty predilections and recollections, what else do we get out of the time spent with family matriarchs in their dominion? That was the question asked at “In My Grandmother’s Kitchen,” an evening of observations about the importance of our hearths in our hearts that took place at the National Museum of American Jewish History on Dec. 12. The event, which brought together culturally diverse storytellers, was the result of a partnership between the museum, First Person Arts and Temple University’s Feinstein Center for American Jewish History.
“One of the very first programs we did at the museum when we opened in 2011 was a small, intimate program with a chef,” said Emily August, the museum’s director of programs. “One of the attendees, an older gentleman, said during it: ‘This reminds me of being in my grandmother’s kitchen, sitting at her elbow.’ We have had his voice in our heads ever since as we thought about food programming.”
August’s quest to create an event that would speak to the primacy of the family elder’s kitchen led her to embark on a two-year collaboration with First Person Arts, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization dedicated to the art of storytelling.
“One of our goals at the museum is to create opportunities for people to find connections with each other, and food is such a universal thing — it literally brings people together,” August explained. She added that involving First Person Arts was a crucial part of the process because of the group’s access to storytellers.
“We talked to the museum and got their commitment to produce a diverse lineup – that was important to them,” James Claiborne, the program manager for First Person Arts, said. “We looked for people who could use their story, their art, their voice, to move people and get them to think about their worlds.”
Indeed, regardless of their age, place or cultural background, each participant drew on experiences that, judging by the murmurs of recognition from the 50 or so audience members who braved the frigid temperatures and wind tunnels of Market Street, resonated on an elemental level.
One of the panelists, Bryan Collier, a noted children’s book illustrator and artist, spoke movingly of helping his grandmother in her Maryland kitchen by starting the fire in her wood-burning stove and helping with her jams. Recalling her work with food and textiles — she also made quilts — he said, “She was a conductor — all of that heat and color and timing” imprinting itself so subtly upon him that he didn't realize until years later that it was her work with those colors and her allowing him to participate that helped him form his path. “She planted a seed in me that ignited in high school,” he recalled onstage.
For Denice Frohman, the part Jewish/part Puerto Rican program director at The Philly Youth Poetry Movement and 2012 Women of the World Poetry Slam champion, her grandmothers’ kitchens were not so much about cooking as connections made and lost. “For me, cooking is just a representation of how we connect to each other, how we communicate through the experiences of an offering to the table.” Although her Jewish grandmother didn’t cook, her Puerto Rican abuela did — so much so, Frohman said, that “the moment she stopped cooking, we knew things were taking a turn for the worse” with her health.
Delilah Winder, the local chef/cookbook author who shot to national fame after Oprah Winfrey declared her macaroni and cheese the best she had ever eaten, also shared memories of knowing that her grandmother was not long for this earth when she stopped cooking. Winder, who devoted an entire chapter of her cookbook, Delilah’s Soul: Southern Cooking With Style, to her grandmother’s sense of style in cooking and entertaining, recounted at length how she lives “every day to have the character and strength that my grandmother taught me to have.”
The evening’s most celebrated storyteller, Mount Airy resident Marjorie Winther, the winner of the 2012 First Person Arts Grand Slam, summed up what it can mean for the rest of our lives when we are the beneficiaries of a benevolent familial presence as children. “My grandmother couldn’t cook, and she didn’t have an easy life, but she managed to have a lot of fun,” she recounted. “She only made four things: chicken soup, Latvian pancakes, boiled eggs and tongue. But we didn’t go there to eat; we went to talk. I don’t have any grandchildren, but if I did, I would be with them just like my grandmother was with me.”