Monday, February 8, 2010

The Kitchen of the Future: Fire (Part 1 of 3, Grandma’s Hands)

I love this photo. I am kneeling beside my grandmother. I love it because it was our last visit together, I love it because we are standing together in front of my sculpture Terminal, and although I had been making art for years, this was the first time my grandmother understood what I was doing and enjoyed it without reservation. But there is a covert reason I love this photo that might horrify my family: Terminal is my Death Star, and my grandmother was totally Yoda. That is the smile on my face, that’s what I was thinking about in that moment. (But that is not why I am going to hell.)

Please don’t judge me, I understand that this is a blasphemous connection to make to one's grandmother, but for better or worse I have the brain I have and she was tiny, ancient, had super thick Greek accent and was called yaYa.

She was born in 1908, in Tripoli in Greece. Her father was a lawyer, her mother taught her to speak and read French, but they lived in a small city that, at the time, was on the crumbling edge of the modern world. She met my grandfather in 1936. It was an arranged marriage. She had all of 21 days to decide to marry him and move to Chicago, or stay with her family and likely remain an unmarried spinster in her father's household.

I asked her once if she love my grandfather (he died before I was born, but by all accounts he was a really good guy), she told me, “He was very handsome.” That was all. It was a very sly and funny moment. My grandmother was a very smart woman; if she had had her druthers she would have been a lawyer like her father (and later her brother). She didn’t want to leave Greece with my grandfather, but her choices we’re slim. This was the old world, she wasn't going to become a lawyer, and she had had no dowry.

To me, growing up in a Modernist townhouse surrounded with Bauhaus design, she was truly otherworldly. As a boy I was very aware that, like me, my parents made perfect sense within the material world I knew of Danish flatware and modular furniture. But there was nothing that explained my grandmother. She was a singular artifact of the old world in our very modernist household (mom was so stylish).

Every once in a very great while my yaYa (that is how it is pronounced) would allude to that old world; telling the story of her father being paid in yogurt that had been carried into town in cloth sacks on the backs of their donkeys, and how that the trip would force out the water, making the yogurt thick and tasty, almost like cheese. Or she laugh at the memory about a goat-herder who visited for dinner when she was a girl, and how he was so nervous to be in polite company the he made a fool of himself eating soup. (80 years later we were still laughing at his expense.)

Growing up in Chicago during the 1970s, the only place I had ever seen a goat or a donkey was the zoo. ( I still have not seen a goatherd or a peasant as far as I know.) Every thing I touched as a boy was plastic, nickel-plated or lacquered white. My friends thought eating homemade yogurt on EVERYTHING was weird – assholes still do. (Plain yogurt on rice was a part of almost family meal when I was a kid.)

But my grandmother was not a backward woman, she was a modern. She just happen to have been born in the old world. She was E B White’s third urbanite. She was not born to the city; she didn’t take it for granted. She was not a commuter; she didn't descend on the city like a locust to dip into its wallet looking for coins. She made the city her life. She heard its breath, she had the courageous of a true flaneur.

(For those interested in my Grandmother's recipes, a cookbook she wrote for me when I moved out on my own is posted here. For those of you expecting more about the future, please stay tuned - fire is the future, I promise.)

End of Part I, to be continued..


  1. death star.... yoda.... gramdmother. one of the coolest things i have EVER heard.