When I was in elementary school, my dad drove me to school every morning. I attended St. Vincent's Academy on Market Street in Newark....it was near (right across the street) St. Joseph's R.C. Church and a fire house. I could sit in my third grade classroom and look out the window at Martland Medical Center which later became UMDNJ (my sister graduated med school from there hundreds of years later). But, I digress.
I have come to the conclusion that apparently the kitchen was not always the heart of the home. It was not the gathering place, the warm fuzzy place, the 'just grab a chair and sit at the table' place that it is today. When I think of my grandparents' homes, and even the homes of other relatives and friends, the kitchen was typically tucked away in the back of the house, non-descript, and basically a room where 'work' (women's work) was accomplished. When I was very young, the 'living room' was where everyone gathered.
Whatever was going on in the kitchen was for the cook to be involved with, and probably no one else.
What follows is possibly how that all changed. I am guessing that after many incidents similar to what I am writing about below, it was decided that if a wife or husband or grandmother or great-aunt was cooking something/anything, they were not to even think about venturing out of the kitchen proper. It's not difficult to imagine that THIS is how the kitchen then evolved to become the heart of the home -- it was just safer this way!
My dad didn't talk alot while we were driving. The first part of the ride he prayed, and when he was finished, he would turn on the radio. Once in awhile, we would notice something....a printed sign, or some such thing, and either I would ask a question, or he would comment, but we were both rather quiet otherwise. Comfortably quiet, mind you.
I was in third grade when my father told me this story which means I was eight years old at the time.
One morning we driving down Springfield Avenue in Newark, NJ toward school, and on the window of a Fresh Seafood store was a really large paper sign with the word 'EELS' on it. We both saw it at precidely the same time.
"Eels?" I exclaimed. "Eels? Why would they sell eels?"
"People eat them," my dad replied.
Calmly. But starting to smile....which was odd at that hour of the morning.
"What's so funny?" I asked.
A smile at 7:00am could certainly be construed as 'funny.' We were usually rather quiet together.
And, then my dad told me the "EEL STORY."
He told me that when he was six years old, his father, my grandfather, was standing at the stove in the kitchen. The big stock pot was on the stove, the gas was turned on under it, and the lid was on the pot.
My dad had just entered the kitchen, and Grandpa was turning to leave the kitchen.
My dad continued: "Grandpa said to me, 'Leave the lid on the pot. Don't open the pot.' "
I knew for a fact (perfectly obedient, first-born child that I was) that at six years of age, being told 'not' to open something was as good as receiving an engraved invitation to get one's grimy little hands all over it and totally open it to see what was inside.
I knew that at six years of age that being told not to open something wasn't even going to register....a six year old's brain wasn't even going to process those words.
A typical six year old never imagines that THIS will happen:
A typical six year old is told "Don't open that pot!" and sees and hears this:
You get the idea. The six year old, or five year old, or seven year old is going to open the pot, sack, bag, box, door, jar, window, whatever it is. The key word here is OPEN. But, you knew that!
My dad continued: "Grandpa walked out of the kitchen"
I was only eight years old, and even I knew that Grandpa should not have walked out of the kitchen.; or at least he should not have gone far.
My dad continues. "So I dragged a stool next to the stove and climbed up."
Those 'household accident statistics' have apparently been recorded for a very long time.
I was on the edge of my seat. Seat belts weren't invented yet. My father hadn't said this much to me on our morning rides in two years. I was enthralled. I had to hear what happened next.
"I climbed on the stool," my dad says, "And I lifted the lid off the pot."
He's laughing now. "The lid was barely off the top of the pot, and I began to scream and shout: SNAKES! SNAKES!"
My eyes, normally big as saucers, grew twice that size.
"Snakes?" I practically shouted.
My dad is laughing and shaking his head no.
"Eels!" he tells me. "Eels!"
"They came out of that pot as soon as I lifted the lid. They slithered out of the pot, onto the stove top, and then were on the floor all over the place. Slithering all over the place."
Okay, that was a visual I didn't need, but it clearly had stuck with him through the years!
"I'm screaming, 'Snakes!' and Grandpa comes running into the kitchen.'
"There are eels all over the place," my dad is laughing.
"Grandpa picks up a skillet that was on the stove, and he starts hitting the eels with the skillet. He is going all over the kitchen hitting eels. He is on his hands and knees on the floor hitting eels."
My dad tells me that at the same time Grandpa is exterminating eels, he is yelling at my dad:
'I told you not to open the pot.'
My dad said he was running around the room in tears screaming 'Snakes!'
When grandpa had finally finished doing whatever it is one does to eels with what was probably a cast iron skillet (no flimsy Farberware in those days), he looked at my father and started laughing.
And, he says to my father, smiling: 'Scared ya, huh?'
For sure, Grandpa. Any individual who can remember in perfect detail something that happened probably 25 years earlier, well, they were probably scared.
And, in my opinion, the prospect of things slithering around one's kitchen is in part responsible for a school of thought which developed...that being that no small child should be left alone in a room with a pot of something that could exit said pot in a slithering fashion.
Hence, the kitchen became the heart of the home.
And, that, Mimi, is the EEL STORY!