A Saint In My Kitchen

Date October 31, 2005 at 11:00 PM


Here we go, into that darkest, deepest cold winter stillness again, when bone chilling winds and frozen bare landscapes drive us into hibernation, hugging ourselves for warmth. Our kitchens become a warm, comforting refuge, the throbbing heart of our homes, as our priorities hone down to a simple need to connect with something resembling hope, something that kindles our faith that the turning point will in fact come, the balance will shift again, subtly at first, just the tiniest pinprick of light. This is when the membrane between realities is so thin a flame from a single candle can pierce through it, and it's now that we need our kitchen saints as reminders. This has nothing to do with whether you've been naughty or nice-this is because the night belongs to lovers, lovers of passion and hope as we nurture ourselves through the long winter's night.

Back in 1978, when Katharine Kagel first moved to town, there was not a single kitchen in Santa Fe without a saint in it, most often San Pasqual. "I stayed with some friends when I first got here,"€ she says, "and I used to look at Pasqual when I did the dishes. After I moved into my own place, I realized that I'd gotten used to seeing him and now I missed him."€ So the name for her new restaurant-Café Pasqual's-was a no-brainer.

"There's not much written about him,"€ she says. "The two stories I've found are that either he was very bad at his prayers, I mean really rotten, so they put him in the kitchen for punishment, or he was just mentally slow but very competent and that's how he ended up there."€ Either way, she says, he qualified as a patron for her. "I don't talk to him but I think he's a pal in terms of the devotion you really must have to find the magic in the food."€

And she means this quite literally. "Once I halved a red cabbage and saw a wizard in the middle with a tiny head and pointed hat. There's a wizard in every cabbage! To maintain life, we have to celebrate the intrinsic life that's inside every vegetable, fruit and meat."€

Pat Mora, Santa Fe author of Aunt Carmen's Book of Practical Saints and other titles, also relies on Pasqual. Her take on the kitchen saint, however, is a little different. "I love the image of a somewhat bald, chubby saint with magical powers, whose pots miraculously simmer themselves,"€ she says. "I find him humorous, having a bit of a weight problem-like most cooks!"€

For Carmen Blue, owner of the transitioning Blue Moon Books and Videos, inspiration comes from a piece of art she has hanging above her stove, with a photo of an old husband and wife, laughing, the words "Rich In Spirit"€ beneath them and this Sufi quote: "To be always of good cheer is to master all conditions and circumstances. Nothing can defeat you. Cheerfulness is courage. It also makes the life wholesome."€

"The goal,"€ says Carmen, "is to be absolutely clear and present and no matter what happens, no matter how dire or blessed, you respond with the same cheerfulness, the same equanimity and imperturbability."€

"And I love that these guys are old. They've lived, they're the salt of the earth. Their sense of joy in life doesn't come from what's going on around them, it comes from within. And the great thing about this little piece is that it's made out of a tin can! This heart with Rich In Spirit-that is the true wealth, it has nothing to do with what's in your bank account. This is what the real flavor, the essential seasoning, is."€

Erika Wanenmacher, Santa Fe artist, laughs a heh-heh-heh laugh as she admits, "I'm not exactly the chef around here. But-any altars? Yeah, the hot water heater is in the kitchen so my main center-of-the-household altar is on top of that. It's the safest place to leave my seven-day-er candles burning."€

She describes a collection of eclectic artifacts, "but the main thing on this altar is a big faux-Roy Lichtenstein silk screen of Patty Smith. She's the queen mother! I bought this from a guy at the flea market who was this pro-skateboarder and a mega fan. We were bragging about how much she meant to each of us and then he lifts up his shirt and he's got her portrait from the Horses album tattooed to his shoulder, and I was like, OK, you win!"€

"Patty Smith kind of watches over the kitchen,"€ Erika adds. "She's got such an irreverence. I couldn't say how she affects the cooking!"€

"I didn't realize I had a kitchen altar at all till a friend pointed it out to me,"€ says Linda Durham Gallery's namesake. Linda keeps a rotating collection of things she likes to look at or touch in the center of her kitchen table on a round wooden tray-an egg from a rare kind of chicken, a little ceramic rooster, a tiny Japanese tea cup, and, always, fresh cut flowers.

"My favorite item there now is a very small laquerware Burmese cup made from horsehair,"€ Linda says. "You can not believe that someone could make something that beautiful. I've been to Burma five times-it feels more like home to me than anywhere I've ever been."€ On the walls are posters of the First Amendment, a frog reaching for the stars and a quote from Karl, one of the Flying Wallenda Brothers: "Being on a trapeze is living; everything else is waiting."€

Melissa White, graphic artist, says, "My real kitchen saint is my husband Ron, who's been cooking for the whole family for years."€ Ron Strauch (or "Milagro Ron,"€ as the permaculture/farmers' market crowd knows him) has Gruda, the guardian eagle spirit, facing out the kitchen window toward his compost pile. But it's the worms who are his actual saints. He used to chant to them as he turned the compost. "It helped me keep my pace."€ His wife calls it "singing to the worms,"€ and, in fact, Ron now lets the worms do all the work of turning his compost. "They converted me. They do a better job, absolutely!"€ With a background in East Indian studies combined with cooking experience at the Greens all-organic restaurant in San Francisco, Ron sees food as an entire cycle. "I don't use recipes, I just cook with whatever I have."€ He trusts this method to work out; it does, the leftovers go to the worms, "and those worms can take even sawdust and make it like chocolate cake!"€

Artist Ada Medina has her own familiar icon in her kitchen. "I am no Buddhist,"€ she says, "in fact, I'm no "€˜ist' of any kind. I just give this drawing a good home and it houses me well in return."€ She's referring to a seated Buddha, a gift from a friend, black ink on creamy soft handmade rag paper. "Different days I read it different ways. The artist's cursive line turns the drawing into airy flowing writing. Sometimes it's a filigreed map. Other times, it's a crystalline song. And then some days, the drawing is a curvy linear garden with lines rooting downward and rising skyward all at once."€

Ada receives a special lightness of being from the Buddha drawing. "As I cook,"€ she says, "sometimes I laugh with the buoyancy it gives me. Thank goodness for that, especially in these amazing times when human stupidity seems intent on extinguishing light on earth. Kitchen Buddha makes my little kitchen big."€

Nancy Wood, author of the upcoming children's book Mr. And Mrs. God in the Creation Kitchen and over 30 other titles, has a stuffed bear, Anton Chekhov, in his little black suit, tie and specs watching over her kitchen. "He thinks he's real,"€ she laughs. "He's been my cooking muse for 15 years."€ Does he advise that she use a liberal hand with the vodka? "No-but I do make a mean vodka chicken dish with lemon and garlic! "€ And the fact that he's a fellow writer means he's good company for Nancy, who lives alone. "People used to say about me that I was crazy, but I'm old enough now to be called eccentric!"€

And Katharine Kagel leaves us with this memory of a time Julia Child was supposed to come visit Pasqual's. At the last minute, she had to cancel and Katharine's kitchen manager was reluctant to have to relay the news. "One of Julia's cookbooks had just come out and there was a big cut-out of her at one of the local bookstores, so he brought it back and stood it in the kitchen where I'd see it as soon as I walked in. And when I did, I just screamed. I mean, it was bigger than life-maybe seven feet tall."€ Now, that's a kitchen saint.