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  • Leela Kirloskar

Doing Kitchen Work

If you don’t know the kind of person I am

and I don’t know the kind of person you are

a pattern that others made may prevail in the

world

and following the wrong god home we may miss

our star.

~ William E. Strafford

I was 11 years old when I first learned how to bake. The glossy photograph of a luscious almond butter cake oozing out of the pages of my mother’s monthly Ladies Home Journal was an irresistible invitation to my restless young creativity. Recruiting the help of my enthusiastic aunt who was visiting us in Nasik, I spent an entire afternoon measuring ingredients, grinding almonds and mixing (by hand) what ended up as rather lumpy cake batter. Disappointingly, it emerged as a heavy, tough textured cake that I had managed to burn in parts in an oven that was too hot; it looked nothing at all like the gorgeous photograph in the magazine. Even so, at tea time that day, while I sulked for not offering up golden perfection, my aunt made reassuring noises and my brothers joyfully ate most of that awful cloyingly sweet, very hard cake. So I kept at it, immersing in vanilla, chocolate, butter and sugar every moment I could. Time in the kitchen began to mean spells of intense focus and inspiration as I learned the joy of browsing recipes, discovering the shape and texture (and fragrance!) of ingredients and appreciating the magical process of baking and cooking. I didn’t know then that doing kitchen work was to be a metaphor for a very different lesson I was to learn later in life.

Anyone who’s spent any time in their kitchen will agree that it can be hot, messy, tiring and often, frustrating. You’re usually in for a long process once you’ve committed to the task, from picking the freshest produce and ingredients to washing, cleaning and prepping them for your pot or oven. If you’re fortunate you have some support, if not, you learn to get your hands dirty; to cut, chop, slice or scoop and to discard what doesn’t work for the recipe (or keep peels, bones and other bits of vegetable waste to convert into fragrant stock and healthy chutneys). The right amount of heat, the skillet or pot and the cooking process you choose are important too. Only then can you carefully transform your ingredients into an offering that entertains all your senses, finally plating your culinary creation for others in the way you’d like them to experience it.

Life is a bit like cooking, isn’t it? It takes time and effort for your inner MasterChef to emerge. And then of course, every now and then, there’s the washing up to do! You simply can’t get away from the process and the choices, no matter how hard you try, and you can’t take short cuts either or the soufflé will collapse, the cake will crack and the sauce will curdle, just like in life when we ignore or bypass what asks for our attention. To be nourished and renewed in our own essence, to experience the fullness of our own flavour and fragrance, we need to do our own kitchen work, by engaging in the process – in life – fully. Let’s see what that means.

In the classic Iron John (based on a Grimm’s fairy tale of the same name), Robert Bly describes kitchen work as a necessary and intense process of descent, experienced as a conscious, sometimes humiliating fall due to a difficult life event (through divorce, death, accident, breakdown, illness, loss of job, etc.). In the story, the descent or drop to the kitchen (which was usually found underground or in the basement) is the place from which a man’s soul work begins. It is the place he learns to shudder (to feel the frailty of human life, to feel grief, love, sadness, shame, guilt – all those difficult emotions that are hard to acknowledge and express); to confront his ashes (what is dead or has disintegrated in his life); and to move to the father’s house from the mother’s house (a rite of initiation which is often a long, difficult journey and something only he can do for himself). While it is a deeply insightful book that talks of men and masculinity, there’s a wealth of wisdom in it for women as well.

A few weeks ago, I was in the midst of some coaching sessions, listening to the breadth and depth of people’s life stories, to how much was held within them, unshared, unspoken, unacknowledged and often unseen, even as they talked of their hopes, longings, plans and goals. Noticing how the shape of their lives was visible in the shape of their bodies and in the way that they spoke and breathed. As one gentle-eyed woman’s unexpressed grief for the sudden loss of her father eight years ago suddenly poured out, her relief at doing so made the air in the room a little brighter and lighter. She knew too, in a felt sort of way, that her way forward was eased somehow in a manner that she’d never thought possible before.

Masking pain, hurt and sadness in a constant show of positivity to the world rarely works for long. It becomes heavy for the heart and body to hold, tiring out your soul. Honouring your deepest truths means acknowledging what you’re holding in, what needs expression, what seeks a safe space to share and be held, what asks to be faced and what wants your compassion. Doing kitchen work then is your own process of discovering the beauty of your aliveness. In your kitchen you may include a meditation practice, art, craft, music, writing, gardening, reading or just slowing down to notice your own breath and to listen to your heart. Do the soul work, take your time, it’s worth it.

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