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A Kitchen in Rural Missouri

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This morning as I ate my porridge, I listened to Mary Anne Hobbs on Radio 6. She played bits and bobs from an interview with fifth generation baker Tom Herbert. She asked him about music and baking, about music and food. His response reminded me how much I love to listen to music while I’m in the kitchen. Songs like Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it Off’ for washing dishes, Mishka’s album Above the Bones for preparing apple and blackberry crumble. For the past year, I’ve been writing in response to 52, a poetry project by Jo Bell.

Last week, I wrote with a friend at the Well Walk Tea Room. We did a warm up exercise of writing ten things we observed around us in this funky little tea shop (built in the 1740’s!), and then we got to writing on Jo Bell’s 52 ‘Week 41: Food for Thought’. I wrote a story poem about learning to make flour tortillas from my first mother-in-law, who learned how to make them from her mother, a woman who learned from migrant Mexican workers she picked lemons with in California.

Here’s the poem I wrote:

Handmade Flour Tortillas

She taught me to press my own dough
in a kitchen in rural Missouri.
A vent pipe for the mine beneath
her land marked the northwest
corner of her property. My first
child napped on the bed in the back
room. Her son, my husband, hammered
wooden planks next door. Plain
white flour. A teaspoon and a half
of salt. Shortening cut in with a fork
until each small bit is covered. A
measuring cup filled with lukewarm
water from the tap waits on the counter.
She stirs as the water finds its way
to the bottom of the bowl. Not
too much, she says. Don’t overwork
the dough. She sets it on the back
of the stove, warm, to let it rest,
then starts on the enchiladas, the pot
of pinto beans, the rice, the salad.
Wash dishes as you go, she says.
The baby wimpers, I lie next
to him and feed him until he falls
back to sleep. The counters are wet,
wiped clean when I return. She
holds out an apron for me, dries
and dusts the counters as I tie
the strings at the small of my back.
Feel this, she says. The dough
is smooth, like a baby’s bottom.
She begins dividing it into balls
that fit inside the palm of her hand.
Then the rolling pin. The griddle.
The flame. Old reggae on the stereo,
sweet and dandy. She presses a ball
flat, her hands dusted from the pile
of flour near the stovetop. She dusts
the rolling pin, begins to roll outward
from the centre, pulls the tortilla
from the counter, a doily made
of delicate lace, then lets it sizzle
on the griddle. Your turn, she says,
nodding to the dough. I flour my hands,
press, roll. The baby sleeps, the radio
sings. The tortillas, one by one, hiss.

Maybe you want to write your own story or poem about food? About preparing food to music? Here’s the song I mention in my poem, ‘Sweet and Dandy’ by Toots and the Maytals. I first heard this song on a mixtape when I was working on a farm in New Hampshire. My boss John brought it back from Jamaica. But that’s a story for another time.