Illustrations by Hugo Yoshikawa

 
She follows me around the kitchen, tracing my steps but offering me enough space to move about. I like that she follows me, it instills my actions with purpose and Margot has the look of someone who is impressed. I rinse the rice, scrubbing with my hands until the water goes from milk-white (Margot’s skin!) to clear. The color of bathwater before my mother bathes. I cut loudly, chop, chop, careful to keep my fingers clawed so I don’t slice any extremities and embarrass myself. Then I whisk the salad dressing, and I beat until I feel the work and heat in my shoulders. The dressing looks like mayonnaise. The cooked fish is dry and hard under my thumb. No, who cares! Mother not here to scold me, parents on their getaway.
 
We are sixteen, but there’s no age for this. All men should tend to kitchen matters!
 

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Illustrations by Joana Avillez
 
If I could I would spend my days perusing cookbooks, buying cookbooks, cooking from cookbooks, inhabiting them in any and every possible way. I like to think that in a few years I’ll have a mighty collection of colorful cookbooks, in many languages, filling my very spacious and imaginary kitchen. I return to books over and over again, and it’s no different with cookbooks. There’s the first look, when I’m rushing through the pages as though ravenous, eating the recipes with my eyes, one by one. Then I return, perhaps the next day over breakfast, pausing at the recipes that intrigue me. Later I will read them, reread them. Then I will begin to cook. It’s a loving relationship, the one you establish with a cookbook, the way you carry it through the kitchen and the way your fingers oil the pages with grey specks. These books weather kitchen storms, they grow wiser as one tenderly batters, folds, and stains their thick pages. I’m always throwing the salt bowl to weigh down one side, to keep the pages open while I’m whisking, shaking, stirring…
 
I have to stop here for a moment to celebrate a beautiful cookbook I received this year: Oma & Bella by Alexa Karolinski. Last year I went to see Alexa’s documentary, also named Oma & Bella, filmed in Berlin and based on the life of her grandmother, Oma, and her close friend, Bella. Oma and Bella, both widows, have lived together for six years and spend their days cooking. The documentary is a beautiful celebration of food and the relationship between these two women. We see them walking around West Berlin, shopping for ingredients, shaving calves feet with disposable razors (everything has to be clean in their kitchen), chopping vegetables for soups, choosing clothes from their wardrobes… Both survived the war, though they lost their families in the Holocaust. They cook the best kind of Jewish comfort food: Pickled herring, boiled tongue, red borscht, potato pierogi, rugelach…
 

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If he’s not sending dozens of emails out to our family, you’ll find my grandfather in his dark basement, late at night, stewing jams. My grandpa never stopped working, even when he retired and sold his cider company he continued to move and toil, spending hours in his large vegetable and fruit garden, harvesting the most delicious produce to be gobbled up by my aunt, uncle, cousins, and myself. Every evening my grandparents eat at least one item that is from the garden, whether it’s the carrots and potatoes in their soup during wintertime, or the strawberries with yogurt for dessert, there’s always an ingredient from the Breton earth. On my French side most of my family were farmers. The Lemoines haven’t moved more than twenty-kilometers in centuries. My great-aunt still lives on my grandmother’s family farm where she feeds the chickens, slaughters the geese once a year, grows brilliant green beans, and gathers feisty cats in her garden. But I’m most astonished by my grandpa who knows every crack and tree and hill of this land so intimately that I can feel him itching to get out there when he stays indoors for too long. He also loves his computer, his thick and rough fingers have a hard time typing on a keyboard and clicking the mouse, but he’s become adept at photoshop and the internet, sending us images, links, stories, at least once a day.
 
Whenever I visit my grandparents the first order I’m given is: Go choose jams in the basement! Downstairs my grandpa hides a gargantuan production of his homemade jams. The fruity and rich insides are enclosed in mismatched jars, all carefully labeled in his slanted handwriting—the ingredients, the full date and the ratio of sugar to fruit. They’re stacked one on top of the other, rows and rows of them, neatly organized. Next to the jams are dozens of larger jars containing cherries preserved in eau de vie (the fiery high-content alcohols), and various fruit liquors, which he distills in the garage. I like to watch him at work, big rubber gloves on his hands, his proud stocky chest, legs a little bent from swollen knees, and his face focused on the task at hand as he cooks away. He’ll often ask my grandma to take photos of him while he makes the jams.
 

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We have stories about extravagant dinner parties, the hole-in-the-wall place, the elaborate meal served at 11pm, after hours of sweat and blood, or the meal our grandmother cooked in her kitchen far off from the city we now live in. But then there is breakfast. My father is one of those people who would rather enjoy a meal at his favorite restaurant than go on a hike or spend the night in a fancy hotel. Nothing makes him happier than delicious, good, simple food. And yet, I’ve never seen his eyes light up as they do when he tells me about breakfast with his grandmother, Mémé.
 
He grew up in Janzé, a small village twenty kilometers from Rennes, the capital in the northwest region of Brittany. His parents were busy with their cider company and my father often spent his weekends or holidays with his maternal grandmother, Mémé. She owned a minuscule storefront where she sold galettes, savory buckwheat crepes, by the dozen, just as one would sell bread. Mémé lived on a farm with her husband until the 1960s, before she bought a small store in Rennes, and moved to the city. She became a marchande de galettes, selling her hot, thin galettes to hundreds of customers. Some customers were so hungry that they ran next door to the café, borrowed a plate and an egg, and ate the galette on the street with a cooked egg cracked on top.
 

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A contribution by Sarah Sahel
 
Many a time have I woken up to the exhilarating odor of the “crêpe beurre-sucre,” or butter-sugar crepe. In the absolute darkness of my Breton house’s first floor, I could faintly hear the clinking and clanking of dishes from the ground floor, where my grandmother was dancing around the stove. When I finally decided to wander out of my comforter, I braved both the tiled floor’s glacial cold and the general feeling of idleness that shrouded me, as if the oh-so-sweet and familiar aroma were guiding my steps. My grandmother smiled when she saw me, a little girl still half-asleep. She had me sit at the old oak-tree table and placed in front of me a circular plate with three crepes delicately folded into perfectly symmetrical triangles. It only took me a minute to devour them, following an order that my little mind thought strategic, keeping the best one for last. Everything had to be well melted and the butter-sugar balance perfectly in check. Sitting by my side, she looked at me appreciating her cooking with an air of bliss.
 

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My mother at age 27, in Rio de Janeiro, in 1973. Photo credit: Alejandro Milberg

 
My father has a library of cookbooks. He has collected them ever since I can remember, organizing the books by food regions on dark wooden shelves in his bedroom. The collection grows bigger over the years, an unwieldy monster of recipes, alongside cultural anthropology books, his other passion. There is the Larousse dictionary of chocolate, the Australian book on strange foods (prominently featuring insects), and the Joël Robuchon tome that weighs as heavy as a small child and is more of an art book than a recipe finder. Among these is a Clairefontaine faded red notebook, similar to the ones I used in school.This is my mother’s handmade cookbook.
 
The way we eat and cook is shaped by where we come from and where we’ve been. Leafing through these falling-apart pages, most of them loose, felt like turning the chapters of my mother’s life. I followed her eclectic culinary progression. The gefilte fish recipe from our neighbors in Melbourne who invited us to Shabbat dinner most Fridays evenings; Kimchi from my mother’s Korean friend; the fish coconut stew which was a staple at many dinners when we lived in France; pasta recipes from a cooking class we took together in Florence, Italy; a Seitan recipe from her macrobiotic and vegetarian years; and the list continues. The recipes are in English, French, Spanish, and occasionally Japanese.
 

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