The Kitchen of the Future of the Past


Because I love to cook, kitchen design naturally interests me. Show me a big, beautiful kitchen with dark wood cabinets and gleaming granite countertops and I can picture myself right there, sauteeing garlic and slicing tomatoes and boiling pasta.

Recently, though, I discovered this booklet advertising the Whitehead Work Saving Kitchen of 1937–and I was tickled by it, both for how dated its language is and for how surprisingly “modern” a lot of its features still seem.

“The nearest approach to perfection that science knows.”

The copywriters certainly didn’t stint on hyperbole; they assure the housewife of the thirties that in their kitchens filled with steel cabinets and Monel countertops (Monel was an alloy of mainly nickel and copper), “kitchen chores, as you know them today, are practically abolished.” They assure the little woman that these sanitary, efficient rooms represent “the nearest approach to perfection that science knows.” But my favorite assertion was that the doors and drawers “work with the noiselessness of falling snow.” Cabinets that might inspire you to write haiku about them; how splendid.

The copy is certainly aimed at the lady of the house; the booklet, the copywriters tell us, is “a story that every woman ought to read.” And she can rest easy knowing that the designers have taken pains to ensure that the cabinets harbor “no jutting hinges to catch your dress.”


But despite all these dated, overblown, and mildly sexist claims, I was surprised at the variety of options one could include in a kitchen more than 75 years ago: A towel-dryer? A bulk-foods drawer? A plate warmer? An electric dishwasher? Special vegetable drawers with louvers to encourage air circulation? And dividers for your cutlery drawer, “step” shelves for your small cans, an under-sink trash can…


I didn’t expect all that from a pre-war kitchen. These rooms and their accoutrements seem to have been thoughtfully designed, with a genuine goal of making life in the kitchen easier for the American housewife of the 1930s. Granted, the prices for all this culinary luxury weren’t listed–you needed to work with a designer who would create a custom plan and price to suit your needs–but these kitchens, with their designers’ talk of placing the refrigerator “as near the delivery entrance as possible” were clearly intended for higher income households.

So after chuckling-slash-marveling at these kitchens of the past, it might occur to us to ask a pertinent question: How do we fare today in terms of saving steps and effort when it comes not just to cooking, but to taking care of a house? Funny, that. The University of Houston’s Digital History site includes a section on housework; according to this resource, the average housewife in 1924 spent 52 hours each week cooking and cleaning. Half a century later, in 1974, she spent 55 hours doing the same tasks.

No, that’s not a typo. Fifty years later, women were spending more time running their households–not less.

Today? The site claims that cooking and cleaning up after meals takes less time than it did in the past, but housecleaning takes the same amount of time as when our great-grandmothers did it–while shopping, household management, laundry, and childcare take even longer than they did in the early part of the last century.

How can this be? The site quotes an article from a 1930s-era issue of that quintessential women’s magazine, Ladies Home Journal, to provide an explanation:

Because we housewives of today have the tools to reach it, we dig every day after the dust that grandmother left to spring cataclysm. If few of us have nine children for a weekly bath, we have two or three for a daily immersion. If our consciences don’t prick us over vacant pie shelves or empty cookie jars, they do over meals in which a vitamin may be omitted or a calorie lacking.

So it takes us longer to get things done because we actually have more things to get done…and also because we obsess over the quality and completion of those tasks. I suppose the upside is that apparently, our houses and our children are cleaner than they ever were, and our meals are ever more delectable.

Is this true? And if it’s true, is it worth it? The latter is a question that I suppose every housewife and househusband has to answer for her or himself…assuming they have the time to ponder such things, what with all the cleaning and cooking and household-running using up most of their prime hours every single day, same as it ever was, here in the 21st century.

In Japan, God Isn’t Dead–But He Might Be Cold

Haruki Murakami writes strange tales about parallel universes, towns filled with talking cats, entrances to other worlds hidden at the bottoms of wells, and dark rooms populated by creatures that you MUST NOT look at. He also references the militarized Japan of the early 20th century and the devastating aftermaths of the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway the same year. And he writes about jazz. And classical music. And running.

And sometimes all these things are in one book.

Murakami is a superstar author in Japan, with midnight launch parties for his novels filling Japanese bookstores with hordes of fans panting to snap up his latest work. Here in the West, I and the rest of his devoted non-Japanese fans are forced to cool our jets while we wait months–or years–for the translations of his newest books to hit the shelves.

The mysterious nature of Murakami’s narratives attracts me in a powerful way–I enjoy stories that take place in liminal spaces, in places that can’t be found on a map, but that are quite real to the characters wandering around in them. So it’s very intriguing that the most recent English translation of a Murakami novel contains a small mystery of a different kind, involving wordplay, a fairly famous quotation, and Carl Jung.


Murakami’s giant novel 1Q84–published in Japanese in 3 volumes between 2009 and 2010 and in a single English volume in 2011–moves its characters in and out of two parallel timelines–one taking place in the Tokyo of 1984 and the other unfolding, amidst mysterious “Little People,” disturbing sex and violence, and beings split into two physical entities, in a place/time that the protagonist calls 1Q84; the Q, she says, stands for “question.” And she–and we, the readers–do have many questions about that alternate world. (The title itself is a bit of bilingual wordplay: the Japanese word for “nine” is pronounced “kyu”–like the letter “Q.” In Japanese, the title is pronounced ichi kyu hachi yon–“one nine eight four.”)

Near the story’s end (don’t worry, no spoilers here), a trained killer is philosophizing with the person he is about to assassinate, and he tells a story that invokes Carl Jung, whose theories and archetypes Murakami frequently references in his books. The killer explains that Jung, with his own hands, built a small stone castle on his property in Switzerland. And over the door to this structure, the renowned analyst inscribed the following quotation: COLD OR NOT, GOD IS PRESENT. The killer continues:

“I don’t know much about God. I was raised in a Catholic orphanage and had some awful experiences there so I don’t have a good impression of God. And it was always cold there, even in the summer. It was either really cold or outrageously cold. One or the other. If there is a God, I can’t say he treated me very well. Despite all this, those words of Jung’s quietly sank deep into the folds of my soul. Sometimes I close my eyes and repeat them over and over, and they make me strangely calm. ‘Cold or Not, God is Present.’”

Touching words, perhaps, coming from a hardened fellow who finds meaning in a quotation from a long-dead man of science.

But here’s the thing: The quotation is wrong.

I’ve always loved the story of Jung erecting that castle–Bollingen Tower, it’s called. He inscribed its outer walls with a number of quotations, and the one chiseled over the door is in Latin; it reads:



It means “Bidden or not bidden, the god is present.” Another way to translate it is “Called or not, God is present.”

Called. Not Cold.

Jung's Bollingen Tower, where the Latin quotation is inscribed above the door

Jung’s Bollingen Tower, where the Latin quotation is inscribed above the door

I was understandably startled when I read the passage, and its mistranslation of the Latin quotation, in 1Q84. I kept turning pages, thinking that at some point, the character would learn of his error, and it might prove to be a poignant moment when he would have to revisit his fondness for the altered line. But that never happened. The book ended; the mystery remained unexplained.

I was mystified. Murakami is an erudite, worldly author. Could the mistake have been made by his translator? I discussed it over dinner with my Japanese friend Toshimi, who had introduced me to her favorite author in the first place. She fetched the English and Japanese versions of the novel and looked up the passage in the Japanese volume. “It’s not a mistranslation from the Japanese,” she reported. “Murakami uses the word tsumetai–‘cold.'”

Huh. Could the writer have misheard the quotation at some point and thought that “cold” was the correct word? Not likely, we decided. Given the author’s fascination with Jung and his theories and archetypes–and given also Murakami’s mastery of English (he has translated The Great Gatsby, among other books, into Japanese), it’s just not possible that the famous writer doesn’t know the correct translation of the Vocatus line.

So we have a small, real-life mystery, courtesy of the author who writes large, mysterious novels. I’ve searched for an explanation in online reviews and articles, but I’ve come up emptyhanded. A couple of sites mention the mystery, but offer no explanation except to assume that it was a mistranslation from the Japanese. And I haven’t found any comments from the author on why he did what he did.

My theory: I think Murakami read or heard the quotation translated into English at some point and noticed the resemblance between the words “called” and “cold,” especially when pronounced with a Japanese accent. Japanese doesn’t have that “aw” sound, so “called” sounds just like “cold” when pronounced by a Japanese speaker. In fact, the two words are spelled and pronounced exactly the same way when written in Japanese katakana, the syllabary used to write out foreign words. They are both spelled as コールド  (which sounds like kourudo). Given the Japanese love of puns and wordplay (just look at the book’s title again), I think he purposely created the character’s story around the mistranslation to add a layer or two of complexity to an already complex story. One could argue that the mistranslation is sad: a quotation that has calmed an unfortunate man in the midst of a painful life is not real–it’s meaningless. He has been drawing sustenance from a mistake. Or, looked at from another angle–from a parallel universe, if you will–one could argue that Murakami has added a layer of hopefulness to his story: the quotation as remembered may be meaningless, but the character has imbued it with meaning. And that imbued meaning has become the important thing, the thing that sustains him.

Life is like that, Murakami might be saying. Maybe there’s no intrinsic point to our existence; maybe it’s all nasty, brutish, and short–but we have the power to give it meaning. To make it count. To think we hear “Cold or not, God is present” and to make that nonsensical axiom into a source of comfort. I like this possibility best of all.

Of course, his Japanese readers would have an extra layer to peel away before they could get this meaning–they would have to know the Latin quotation and know the correct English translation before they could recognize the English pun at play. This seems like a fiendishly twisted path to the author’s ostensible message.

But keeping in mind what Haruki-san puts his characters through in his beautiful, violent books, it might not be outside the realm of possibility for him to put his readers in a bit of a puzzle, as well.

Tower Image: By (site (avec accord)) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The Perfect Trip: 36 Countries in 36 Months

The end of April is fast approaching, and because of tax time, Easter, and a delightful visit from my friend Jane from England, I have skipped SO MANY prompts in the BootsnAll 30-day travel writing & art project. So it’s time to mix it up and respond to some prompts randomly! Out of order! Like a literary madwoman!

(I’m usually such an organized girl–it’s nice to be a little unruly for a change.) So:

Prompt #26 in the BootsnAll #indie30 project:

What is your idea of the perfect trip?

Be it ever so crumbled, there's no place like Rome. Or like 35 other capital cities that I want to be in.

Be it ever so crumbled, there’s no place like Rome. Or like 35 other capital cities that I want to be in.

A year and a half ago, I got to celebrate the culmination of a six-year international paperwork odyssey that led to a splendid conclusion:

Dual citizenship with the US and Italy. This brings me joy every time I think about it. Because of my family background, I’ve always been Italian jure sanguinis: “by right of blood.” Europe has always been in my heart, as well. But having your citizenship officially recognized is like marrying your long-time lover: you always knew it was the real thing, but now the government knows it, too.

And Italian citizenship, of course, also means that I’m a citizen of the European Union. Twenty-eight nations whisper Come home, Cora! to me on a regular basis.

(Um, I mean that figuratively, of course. I know I just called myself a literary madwoman, but I didn’t mean that in a clinical sense. Political and geographical entities don’t talk, boys and girls.)

(But our deepest desires do.)

So. The perfect trip, if time and money were not a concern, would be to spend 36 months exploring my 36 “other” nations: the 28 that make up the current EU, the 5 candidate countries, and the 3 potential candidates. Slow travel. Seashores and mountains. Food and wine. Cities and villages. Music and art. Theatre and dance. Books! (Mostly in translation…) Blogging as I go. Photographing as I blog. Absorbing the cultures and the languages, celebrating the feast days, meeting the people.

Throwing my arms around the Europe to which I now belong not just emotionally, but legally. Celebrating all the places I can now call home. Perfection.



American Paradox: “American Girl” Keeps Shoving This Girl Out of America

Prompt #28 from BootnAll’s #indie30 project:

What song amps you up for travel?


When I hear Tom Petty’s American Girl, usually while I’m flying down the highway and I happen upon it while pushing buttons on the radio, I start dancing in the driver’s seat, which is good.

But I also get that tight feeling in my chest that says, Cora, why is this car in the US and not on a highway in Europe?? Which is bad.

I know that the lyrics of the second verse are wistful and yearning–the guy pops into her memory, it’s all so close but so far out of reach, people have questioned whether the song is about suicide, et cetera, et cetera…but that’s not the part that sets me to mentally packing my suitcase. It’s the first verse, the part where Tom sings:

Well, she was an American girl
Raised on promises
She couldn’t help thinkin’
That there was a little more to life somewhere else
After all, it was a great big world,
With lots of places to run to
And if she had to die tryin’
She had one little promise she was gonna keep.

That promise that I keep making–and often keeping–is to travel, to run to everywhere I can, to live, even just for a tiny handful of time, in lots of places in this great big world. With Tom Petty singing in my head.

Click here, watch the video, dance along. Then buy a plane ticket. :)

Africa Has Breathed on Me

Prompt #20 in the BootsnAll #indie30 project:

What part of Africa interests you the most?

Come with me to the Casbah: Delacroix's view of Morocco in 1845

Come with me to the Casbah: Delacroix’s view of Morocco in 1845

Northern Africa calls to me. Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt…old and hot and dusty, filled with stories…I want to meet the people, put my hands on the stones of the buildings, eat the food. I have been to the Canary Islands a number of times, which means I’ve been just a few dozen miles off the coast of Morocco, but I haven’t yet made it to the mainland.

This frustrates me. I’ve promised myself that the next time I go, a side trip to Casablanca and Marrakech will be mandatory.

You know, in the Canaries, there are days when the air is heavy and hazy with what looks like the pollution of an industrialized city. It’s not smoke, though, that obscures your view of the landscape–it’s sand, blowing over from the Sahara. The natives say that on those days, “Africa is breathing on us.”

The continent has breathed on me; now I want to breathe on it. :)


Image: Eugène Delacroix [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

Golden Dreams


Time for prompt #16 of BootsnAll’s #indie30 project:

What one landmark, anywhere in the world, would you like to see, and why?

Oh, easy answer: the Shwedagon Pagoda, in Rangoon/Yangon, Burma/Myanmar. I knew almost nothing about Burma until 2006, when it entered my radar through conversations with people who had been there. The stories of the golden temples, their spires poking through the mist; of the activism of the Buddhist monks; of the bravery of the imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi, who had won the popular vote in the previous election and who had been in jail or under house arrest for most of the nearly two decades since–these tales had me wide-eyed. And then I saw the pictures of the Shwedagon Pagoda, 325 feet tall, the most sacred site in Burma, its brilliant, golden skin shining in the sun…and it was like looking at a set created for a fantasy epic. Its beauty was unreal.

It was built either 2500 years ago or sometime between the sixth and tenth centuries, depending on which legend-slash-history you read. It holds relics from four Buddhas, including eight hairs from Gautama Buddha, which are reported to have caused miracles to happen in their presence. I found it hard to believe this building existed, somewhere in the jungles on the other side of the world.

“Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple-spire. It stood upon a green knoll, and below it were lines of warehouses, sheds, and mills. Under what new god, thought I, are we irrepressible English sitting now?”  –Rudyard Kipling, recalling his 1889 visit to the Pagoda

I knew then that I had to visit it someday. And now Burma/Myanmar is somewhat calmer, at least for potential visitors. Suu Kyi is free, and has a voice in the government. The military junta discarded its uniforms and began serving as civilians. Barack Obama has been there! Hilary Clinton has been there! Cruises stop there! There are no more mass imprisonments; the monks are no longer turning over their rice bowls and refusing to accept alms from the junta and its followers.

I’m fully aware that unrest, violence, and state-sponsored persecution of ethnic minorities still take place there. But the willingness of the country to end its total isolation from the West has made it far more likely that the likes of me can, before too long, travel to Rangoon, stand in front of the beautiful golden building, and be astonished in person.

Paradise Has Ice Cream and Elephants

Prompt number 9 in BootsnAll’s #indie30 project:

What is the best experience you’ve ever had while traveling?

What a question. How do you choose? All the amazing, wonderful, joyful things that happen when you travel, and I can pick only one?

Okay, fine then. I pick: Eating ice cream in Spain while a man carved an elephant and threw it into the sea.

I should explain.

In the town of Las Galletas, on the island of Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, there is a little heladeria by the sea. And in the town of New Braunfels, in the state of Texas, there is a house that contains my dearest friend Maria–except in the summers, when she goes home to her family in Tenerife, and then she is contained by her mother’s house in Las Galletas. Every few summers I join her there. (Because Keep Austin Weird and all that, but would you rather visit your best friend in Texas or in Tenerife? Yep, I thought so.)

The first time I went to the Canaries, about ten years ago, Maria and I set out on a warm afternoon’s mission: to walk into town and sample her favorite ice cream. We headed down the pedestrian-only shopping streets in the general direction of the sea, and ended up at the promenade beside the narrow black sand beach. “Here it is,” Maria said, pointing to the heladeria. Its sliding glass doors were wide open to let in the ocean air–and the ocean was only about fifty feet away. Tables topped with yellow umbrellas lined the promenade out front. A nice selection of helados tempted us from the glass case. This looked promising. I chose the berry-bright frutas del bosque; I don’t remember what flavor Maria chose, but we took our paper cups and our little plastic spoons and we claimed a table in front of the open sliders.

Helado. Splendid.

Helado. Splendid.


As we savored our ice cream (so delicious; Maria was right), we indulged in people watching: mothers herding small children along the promenade; young couples sitting on the sea wall, their arms and legs entwined; grandmothers siting in the shade of the umbrellas, trading gossip in rapid Spanish; British tourists, their pale shoulders and noses turned lobster red by the sun. And a sculptor, carving an elephant.

At some point while we were licking helado off our spoons, a middle-aged man dressed in a black tee shirt and black pants had set up an impromptu studio on the sea wall. He held carving tools, and he was using them to flick slivers of stone off a block about the size of a breadbox. What on earth? I said. We angled our chairs so that we could see better. It took us a while to determine that the emerging figure was an elephant. Animal? we guessed at first. Horse? Dog? we considered as the artist progressed. People stopped to chat with him; some bought him beers. Children stopped to guess; he teased them, told them it was a bird, a giraffe…But as his tools bit further and further into the stone, we finally saw it. Elephant!

Elephant. Also splendid.

Elephant. Also splendid.

I was delighted. I love elephants. I love Spain. I love ice cream. And I love my friend. And this moment contained all of them! Plus the black volcanic sand, the shush of the ocean, the lisping s-sounds of Castilian Spanish in my ears…and then the sculptor hopped over the sea wall onto the beach and directed a couple of his admirers to hand the stone beast down to him. He gripped it tightly, the muscles in his arms straining as he hauled it to the edge of the water–and threw it in.

Oh, no, we laughed, what’s he doing now? Was this some sort of indigenous Guanche ritual, some sort of sacrifice to an obscure pachyderm goddess of the sea?

Not at all. He was letting the waves rinse it off. That block of stone was going nowhere until he hoisted it out of the water and carried it back up to his cohorts. Once he was up on the promenade again, a young woman who had been at the center of his admirers for a long time opened her wallet and handed him a small wad of bills. She smiled once more at the elephant, wrapped her arms around it, lifted it, and staggered off under its weight.

Maria and I grinned. It had been a perfect afternoon. And here’s the very nice postscript: every time I go back to Tenerife, one of the first things Maria and I do is walk to that heladeria, choose our flavors, stake out a table, and talk about the time the man in black carved the elephant right in front of us.

Images: Helado: By Andrés Nieto Porras from Palma de Mallorca, España (Montañas de helado Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons; Elephant: Teresa (Terry) Jackson [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons