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A spoon, a taste, a world: The story that our everyday objects tell

Marcus Vinícius Barbosa

I want to invite you to conduct an experiment. It will be a simple yet illuminating experience. We will not manipulate radioactive elements, but we will still handle powerful objects. Like nitroglycerin, the contain within them a force capable of generating great energy. And because of its nature, this energy has the potential to move many things.

Go into your kitchen and examine your spices. Mine are stored on the upper left-hand shelf, next to the stove. That is how Jaci, my paternal grandmother, stores them. If we were at my mom’s, the spices and other condiments would be on the lower shelf, under the kitchen sink, just like my mom’s mom – my grandma Vera, stores them. Yours may be stored in a can, in a little bag, in jars or in little bottles. Mine will be on the first shelf, right under the baking ingredients. Exactly like my grandma Vera would have them. I wonder who taught her to store her condiments like that, because my great grandmother Olinda used to store her baking ingredients in a little room off to the side of the house. Come to think of it, I think that room was both the pantry and the laundry room at the same time.

Among my spices you will find nutmeg and oregano. At my grandma Jaci’s you’ll find urucum and rosemary. At my grandma Vera’s you’ll find black pepper and chicken bouillon. Clearly, I have other condiments and other tastes on that shelf, but these are the must-haves. Nutmeg comes from my parents; from the white sauce that my mom makes, and from my dad’s roasted pork. The oregano comes more from my dad, from the chicken hearts he grills on the churrasquera every Sunday at noon. But it also comes from my mom: from the pizzas we used to bake every Thursday, with the weekend almost upon us.

It should be obvious that I have urucum in my kitchen. Even here, in the United States. I learned to use it because my grandma Jaci has a tree on the patio at the back of her house. And rosemary, which is imperative when preparing pork, because that’s how my grandma Jaci likes it. The chicken bouillon is for the rice, even though my husband doesn’t like it. And the black pepper makes broths tastier: that’s how my mom likes them. In that smallest of spaces which is my kitchen shelf, you will find my family’s history. The story of lunches, and dinners, and other family celebrations. You will find my relationship with my parents and grandparents, and you will get to know me better. If you observe the baking ingredients, you will notice that I was raised by my grandmothers. If you were to visit during vacation time, you would probably get to eat my pão de ló, because it’s what we used to bake in my grandma Vera’s kitchen during school vacation.

Now I want you to look at your own spice cabinet. Think about everything it says. Think about the meaning of every condiment, about the moments it brings back to your memory, about the memories with your grandparents, your parents, your children, your siblings. Observe the rest of your kitchen: it will also have things to tell you. Your kitchen will speak to you about the people who raised you, and about how you learned to cook. It will tell you if you used to eat with your family or if you ate alone. Whether you all sat around the table, or if everyone ate at different times. Your house, your objects, the position of your photos, and the colors you choose have a lot to say about your family. Maybe more than you think. Far from being just a reflection of your personal choices, the objects and dynamics in your household reveal aspects that go beyond the present moment, and that reach far back to a past beyond your parents’ and grandparents’ generation. We often think about tradition as something external. We overlook its presence in our day-to-day life. We fail to notice the ways in which these rituals make our life ours.

I always place the tea bag in the cup before adding the water. That’s how my mom does it. She taught me that in that order, the tea is stronger. After observing my grandma Vera, I discovered that she does the same thing. Therefore, in my head, the mechanics of tea infusion are always the same: cup, teabag, boiling water. Any alteration to that order and the result will be a watery, insipid mess.

Going a little further, I want to share with you another example about how the collective interferes in our personal habits. I’ve already told you that I’m married, and marriage is the palace of negotiation. It is above all, the kingdom of linguistic negotiation. For example, in my family, any cake that is undercooked is embatumado. In my husband’s family the same cake is abatumado. Therefore, our house is the conjunction of two different traditions.

The objects in this collection highlight the many negotiations that took place inside a Mexican American family whose life was an accumulation of different experiences, traditions and practices. Their greatest value resides not in their singularity, but in their power to reflect the experience of the person who manipulates them.

And you, where do you store your spices?

Read this essay in Portuguese