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The Kitchen Table
A story of love, food and finding our way home
In the five years since Anna and I started a school called HOME, we’ve often spoken of it as a school that grows out of the conversations that happen around our kitchen table. When my old colleagues at Dark Mountain put out a call for a ‘Dark Kitchen’ special issue, this seemed like the occasion to tell the story of our kitchen table and why the chairs around it don’t match. It’s a story of love, food and how we came to start a school.
The Dark Kitchen issue of Dark Mountain is available for order here.
Two weeks before we met, Anna had bought an apartment. One floor up in a 1920s block on a side street on Stockholm’s south island. A statue on the corner of a building opposite marked the site of Greta Garbo’s childhood home. The apartment was a ‘one room and kitchen’, as the Swedish property adverts describe these things: small enough for one inhabitant, it was tiny for two, but when I moved to Sweden the following spring, we shared that room, and for 15 months it was the place we called home.
The first thing Anna had done when she moved in was to take down part of the wall between the bedroom and the kitchen so as to fit in a dining table. She found the table second-hand. It had no chairs to go with it, so the invitation to her housewarming party said, ‘Bring a chair’. It’s no small feat to seat twelve around the table in an apartment that size. It says something about what you choose to put at the centre of your life.
The two of us met around a shared sense of the virtues of hospitality and conviviality. Not just a liking for these things, but an intuition that they matter in ways that have been poorly marked on the maps of the societies into which we were born, and that a good deal of harm and suffering results from this. The art of invitation, the roles of host and guest: these go a long way back in the story of what it is to be human, they have been practised in hard times, held as sacred obligations, woven into myths. Yet the logic of scarcity that runs beneath the seeming abundance of our modern ways of living has robbed many of us of that inheritance, breeding loneliness and a restless, unsatisfying consumption.
If I had some skill at putting this intuition into words, Anna has always been the one who knew how to act on it: to take down walls and gather friends and strangers around the table. It starts with a relationship to food that was part of how she grew up, in a neighbourhood of modest bungalows on the edge of the small town of Sigtuna. On Friday afternoons, her mum would throw open the kitchen window and shout, ‘The bar is open!’ Neighbours would gather to cook and eat together at each other’s homes. Her brother grew up to be a chef. A kid from two doors down went on to win Sweden’s Master Chef.
Along with the practical skills you absorb, growing up like this there’s an attention to the ingredients that never get written down in a recipe. Although, as those who have sat around our table soon learn, there is rarely any following of recipes in this kitchen.
It’s fair to say that not following recipes works better for Anna than it does for me. I’m thinking of a weekday afternoon, a year or two before the pandemic, when our friend Roni dropped by. Roni and I met in Swedish For Immigrants classes and he became part of the gang that met most Saturdays at our house for fika, the custom of coffee and snacks that forms a clearly demarcated enclave of conviviality in the efficient structure of Swedish modernity.
On this particular afternoon, I was in the kitchen and Anna answered the door.
‘What’s cooking?’ Roni asked as he came in.
‘Food!’ I called back, stirring the unpromising contents of the pan I had going on the stove. ‘That’s about as much as I can say for it.’ And I thought of Brian Eno’s definition of culture.
‘Culture,’ Eno says, ‘is everything we don’t have to do.’ We have to eat, but we don’t have to eat cheeseburgers or koshari or palak paneer.
There are two ways of reading this definition. We can take it to mark the line between two categories of food: one that is simple and basic and necessary, the other that is cultured and complex and unnecessary. Or we can notice that the former, pre-cultural kind of food is surprisingly hard to find. Wherever you find people eating, what they are eating is woven through with culture – the things we eat and the things we don’t eat, the way my grandmother taught me to make it, the famine foods you’re taught to fall back on, the feast that marks the return of the salmon to the river. This goes so wide and so far back, it’s not even a uniquely human business: different communities of the same biological species develop different eating preferences, based not only on what is available but on shared custom and taste. The same goes for individuals of many species, of course, as anyone who has lived with cats knows well.
The unnecessary is surprisingly hard to dispense with. You can’t order ‘food’ in a restaurant, you won’t find ‘food’ in a recipe book. Walk into any kitchen in the world and – my culinary misdeeds notwithstanding – what’s cooking is never simply ‘food’. The necessary always shows up entangled with the unnecessary. You can’t get aback of culture.
The year I moved to Stockholm, Anna had a job working with grassroots women’s organisations in Israel and Palestine. One of the Palestinian organisations was a peer support network started by mothers in the West Bank who had lost husbands or sons to the occupation, killed or imprisoned by Israeli forces. They came up with a simple metric to track the results of this work: the surest mark of a breakthrough, these women said, is the point at which a mother begins to cook her children’s favourite dish again. Meanwhile, on the other side of this frozen conflict, a group of Israeli women was organising a campaign for ‘Gun-Free Kitchen Tables’: in a heavily militarised and traumatised society, a first step towards reducing the number of women killed by the men they live with is to create a norm that means the weapons are out of arm’s reach when tempers flare.
These were the stories Anna brought back to our kitchen table in Stockholm, when she returned from visits to the field. My work, too, was taking me away from home that year, and in December, Anna came out to join me in Mexico, where I had been filming the conversations with Gustavo Esteva whose transcripts were published in the fourth issue of Dark Mountain. We spent three weeks together in Oaxaca, developing an addiction to guacamole and the hot green sauce made from tomatillos. In the last days before our return, I remember buying ridiculous quantities of dried smoky chillies in the indoor market to stuff into our suitcases. And I remember a conversation, one afternoon at a rooftop café, when we worked out that this three weeks had been the longest stretch of time we had spent together since we met, and we weren’t even on the right continent. That was the day we decided to come home.
In his marvellous, wandering book, Stumbling Towards Justice, Lee Hoinacki arrives at the thought that friendship is the only good reason to travel further than you can get back by nightfall. Despite the larger explanations we could have given for the work we were doing, it was friendship that had led us to these long-distance lives.
In Anna’s case, as much as she believed in the work of the local organisations she was supporting, the pull to the West Bank came above all from her relationship to Youmna, the Palestinian woman she had worked with in an earlier project setting up children’s libraries around the Middle East, and who adopted her as a daughter. When I travelled to the village outside Ramallah to meet Youmna for the first time, the stakes felt higher than when I had met Anna’s actual Finnish mother.
Still today, among all the kinds of food she cooks, there is something special about a weekend morning when Anna decides to make a Palestinian breakfast: the eggs fried in olive oil with sumac and whole cloves of garlic, the table spread with bowls of olives, zaatar, hummus, labneh and baba ghanoush. You can taste the love in this food. There are ingredients that get left out when recipes are put in writing, yet if love is one of them, then so is longing. For you can tear your heart open, loving two countries without knowing which to call home. You can care deeply about a struggle and know that it is not your own. That was where Anna had got to, by the time we sat on that roof terrace in Oaxaca.
As for me, I had left London nine months earlier, but I had hardly begun to arrive in Stockholm. So we made decisions that afternoon. I said I would turn down work that took me out of Sweden and start studying the language. Anna would look for a job in local government and bring her skills back to the country where she had grown up, a country that had no shortage of problems of its own. We both admitted to each other that we were ready to leave the city for somewhere smaller, and we began to dream about what it might look like to create a place where we could bring together our gifts and the weave of friendships and collaborations each of us had been part of creating.
Years went by. We left Stockholm for a smaller city. I learned Swedish. We became parents. The table and its motley collection of chairs came with us, taking its place in various rented flats and then in the rowhouse that we owned for a while. Not till the autumn I turned 40 did we begin to act on the dream we had begun to word that afternoon in Oaxaca, but when we did, I was taken straight back to something Anna had said in that conversation.
‘It can’t be a centre or an institution that we create,’ she said. ‘It has to be our home – and whatever else it becomes grows out of that.’
That’s how we came to start a school called HOME. When people ask us what kind of school it is, the first answer has always been, ‘It’s a school that starts from the conversations that happen around our kitchen table.’ It matters that it’s the kitchen table, because these are the conversations that happen in the room where the cooking and the washing up get done. ‘When people start to wake up to the assumption of separability,’ I remember Vanessa Machado de Oliveira telling us one time around that table, ‘there’s this desire to rush out the door of the house modernity built, into the garden, to feel connected to all the beauty of the living world.’ But there’s something missing here, she went on: a willingness to feel our connection with what is going on in all the other rooms of the house of modernity; not least where the dirty work is being done, who is doing it, and the ways it has been kept out of sight.
For the past two years, since we found a long-term home in the old shoe shop in Östervåla, the kitchen has also been the room where baskets full of newly unearthed vegetables and freshly picked fruit get turned into pickles and preserves and sauces to last through the northern winter, as the lawn we inherited is returned to its earlier use as a food garden. The brother of the man we bought the house from told us, ‘Our parents got through the war years living on potatoes and apples from the garden.’ The apple trees remain and guests who visit in early autumn are liable to get drawn into cider-making.
There’s also a pair of supermarkets five minutes’ walk away, in the centre of this little town, as well as the Reko Ring where local food producers show up at the car park opposite the church for half an hour on a Thursday night and we pick up sacks of flour, trays of eggs, and cheeses made on a small dairy farm nearby. All offers and orders are placed in advance via a Facebook group. So I don’t want to paint a picture of off-grid self-sufficiency here, or even to pretend we have that as a goal. As Vanessa writes in Hospicing Modernity, there’s a dream of ‘divesting’ from modernity by unplugging from all the ways our lives are connected to it, but if we get anywhere close to something that looks like this, it tends to be a reflection of our privilege as modernity’s winners. The wiser move, she suggests, is to ‘disinvest’: to stop believing in its promises, while staying with its troubles and starting the gradual work of reorienting our desires.
There’s another answer we often give, when people ask what kind of school this is: ‘It’s a gathering place and a learning community for those who are drawn to the work of regrowing a living culture.’ It’s clumsy work, foolish, learning to do what our ancestors grew up doing as second nature. A necessary humbling, a coming down to earth.
And as I write this, I think again of Eno’s definition of culture and see it from another angle. For in some sense, all human cultures are riffs on the same theme: living and dying, eating and getting eaten, the feast and the funeral. Comedy and tragedy cycling like night and day. For a while, we rolled out street lamps and sat in front of screens at all hours and the stars hid themselves, like animals retreating into the forest from our noise. We outsourced the growing and making of food and kept the dying out of sight lest any of these things spoil our appetites. But when the street lamps start to go out – as they did in many European cities this winter – we find the old rhythm still there, however much damage we have inherited, and so we have to find a way of adding our variations to all the others that humans have come up with in all the times and places where we have been human together.
Later this spring, we’ll be making an invitation to the new core programme at a school called HOME, a chance to head deeper into the territory we’ve been exploring over the past five years. If you’re subscribed to this Substack, you can be sure I’ll share the details as soon as we’re ready to make an announcement.
Meanwhile, there are still places available for our online series, The Work in the Ruins, which starts on Wednesday and Thursday next week. Join me on Zoom over five sessions to explore the themes of At Work in the Ruins and meet other readers.
Thanks again to the Dark Mountain editors for publishing this piece and letting me share it with you. The Dark Kitchen issue is full of amazing writing and it’s available for order here.