Mary Ellen Chatwin - Winner

Competition: Food Short Story Competition

Born in San Francisco, Mary Ellen Chatwin developed a taste for life in other cultures when her family moved to Trieste. After graduating from the University of Alabama, she moved to Switzerland with her husband and children, and worked as assistant editor for Editions Berlitz Travel Guides and other English-language publications. Resuming her studies, in international development and ethnology, she specialised in ‘foodways’. Her dissertation in food anthropology took her to newly-independent Georgia where she still lives and works, gardening, writing fiction and non-fiction, editing, and supporting social programmes.

Mary Ellen Chatwin

The Kitchen Door

Mari can’t stand up well anymore so she’s sitting on a stool, chopping fresh white onions on the long wooden board Gia fixed between two old kitchen chairs. She always wears slippers since the kitchen heat make her feet swell – especially now she’s got heavier. The odour fills the kitchen and I blink to let the tears fall and scrape the onions into my bowl, then take it over to Gia who’s making khinkali. He just finished grinding the pork and is mixing it all together by hand, squeezing and blending meat, onions and herbs. The pig had been his own, sacrificed three days ago; the day after his brother Zura was killed by the Russians out in his field.  
The pig was meant to live until the end of the year, or at least until two days before New Year’s celebration night, but Zura hadn’t lived until those holidays either. He’d been harvesting his pumpkin crop when he stepped on the mine.
The foreigners in the other room were here to investigate. Last night our Mayor came over and told us they were coming at 4pm. He said the UN or Swiss – or was it European – officials would come and see us this afternoon. Of course that meant we would receive them right. A large meal – after all we aren’t so poor we can’t show that our village is grateful they’re coming. Good thing the neighbours hadn’t gone to bed, so we got wine. They still had twenty litres of good red wine left from last year. The Mayor had mentioned words I don’t know much about – that what happened to Zura was a ‘war crime’. We all know the Russians are guilty of creeping in on our fields more every day, but what with Russians all over the country in the casinos and on the highways in their fancy cars, and in the malls too – by the busload – it’s all war crimes every day, because they pretend our country is theirs. They keep speaking Russian to everyone even if they know lots of us – especially my age – don’t learn it. Why do they treat Georgians like we’re old-time Soviets?
When I heard their motors coming closer I hurried to see that the table was ready. Uncle Dito pulled back the curtain at the front window to see the group. ‘We’ll need more plates,’ he said. They’d arrived early. In fact – it was 4pm; they’d been to the field where Zura had died. I could see that flowers fallen from the casket yesterday still dotted the road, but the visitors hadn’t visited his grave. The cars were parking along the fence near Mari’s house; cows detoured around them on their way home. The Mayor came in, stamping his feet on the mat, followed by ten neighbours and five foreigners. I left the room quickly and closed the kitchen door.  
‘Who comes to a meal on time anyway?’ Mari snorted from the back porch, where she was resting and peeling potatoes. ‘Do they think it’s polite to get here right on the dot – as if they’re hungry? From the look of those big white cars I doubt they’re starving.’ Gia laughed.
Rezo, our neighbour, cracked the kitchen door. ‘How’s it going – we’re starting,’ he whispered. He would head the table today as tamada.
Roast slices of eggplant with walnut dressing were already on the table; the kindsmarauli wine stood in four earthen pitchers between plates of cheese and pickled cucumbers. Chairs scraped and for a moment all was quiet. I peeked to see what they look like, these investigators of my cousin’s death, these hungry foreigners ready to eat and drink. Did they care about Zura? Maybe their job isn’t to care – just to investigate and send a report.  
I placed six tiny bowls of black pepper for the khinkali and the roast potatoes on a tray then pushed the door to the dining room. My skirt got caught when it closed back, but I didn’t spill anything. The blue tablecloth with traditional images looked handsome, thanks to neighbor Lili who loaned it; the two foreign women were talking about it with the translator, then one picked up the dish of eggplant and motioned for them to try it, and took some herself. All the Georgians were men. They speared sliced Imeruli cheese with their forks and broke bread as Dito poured the dark wine. Rezo sat ready to lead the toasts at the head of the table. The second big meal in two days, honoring Zura, would begin.  
I went back to report to Mari, leaving the door slightly cracked in case they called for something. Mari can’t wait on the table but my school friend Keti was there from Tbilisi. She’d come to help with the funeral meal yesterday. Reporters had come too, and today a cameraman had been to the field with the foreigners. It would be on the evening news.
Mari sat facing the late afternoon sun beyond the distant field where Zura had died. He was her sister Lela’s youngest son. Lela had died last year from cancer, and yesterday after the funeral Mari said it was true what the tamada had said when he raised his glass to the family – that it was good her sister didn’t live the worst nightmare of any parent “to see their child die before they do…”
In the kitchen again, I peeked through the cracked door at one of the women. She was picking up her glass of red wine to take a sip. Suddenly Rezo’s voice thundered as he rose and scraped back his chair.  
‘Dear ladies and gentlemen!’
The woman paused, her glass in mid-air.  
‘We are gathered here in honour of our dear brother, son, nephew, friend and neighbour, Zura, who left us so tragically, all too early.’
He raised his own glass without drinking and continued the toast. No one at the table was drinking, so the woman slowly lowered her glass and glanced nervously around, then leaned to hear the translator. Rezo’s neighbour, to his right, answered, ‘We are all with Zura; we are all victims of aggression…’ I let the door close and turned back to help Gia, making khinkali, lining them up on a floured cloth. I rolled the dough as thin as possible on the long floured board. He cut circles with a large cup, put the meat-onion mixture in the middle and deftly pleated the dumplings, complete with the ‘navel’ at the top to hold in the juicy contents as they boiled. Steam rose from two enormous aluminium pots on the gas stove. The windows were foggy. Once thirty or forty khinkali were ready, Keti and I took more wine to the table before we took them out, piled high.
‘So who are the women?’ Mari called in to me from the porch when I came back to the kitchen.
‘I think they work at the UN, and there’s a translator from Tbilisi.’
‘There must be fifteen people, what with the Mayor and the neighbours – do we have enough khinkali?’
The kitchen door flew open and Dito came in for the last plates of khinkali. The first main toasts had been made to the visitors, the family and of course to the dead. The men had stood for that toast, and now sat eating in silence. The women had begun drinking wine with the food.  
Rezo’s voice boomed again – this time calling for Keti, Mari and me to come into the dining room. Keti looked at me nervously. We took off our aprons and went in, but Mari stayed on the porch. The translator said the women had asked for us to come in.  
‘They are wondering why the women have to stay in the kitchen doing all the work and serving, while the men are all eating and drinking.’
The men at the table glanced at us and each other, then fell silent and continued eating. I could only look at the interpreter and smile slightly. I could tell she knew what I couldn’t say, but words failed and I avoided the foreign women’s gaze. Why would we want to be sitting in here listening to long toasts and drinking? We can eat all we want in the kitchen. But I couldn’t say this. Keti looked away, and I stared at Rezo silently asking for help.
‘They like cooking and serving. It’s an honour!’
He motioned for Dito to refill the glasses. I wondered if Rezo had helped; sometimes foreigners think black is white and white is black. The translator was whispering quickly to the two women, trying to explain, perhaps, what they hadn’t understood. Rezo stood up, and told the diners to stand. Everyone rose and raised their wineglass, as Dito handed us each a glass of wine.
‘To women! To our pillars of society! To those who nourish us, care for our children and our homes. They are the real strength of our nation! Gaumarjos!’ This Georgian word is a prayer for ‘victory’ when the glass is raised. Rezo looked at the interpreter who translated to the other women.
‘And to these women who have come so far to help our country, to our community, over difficult roads – to be with us in this tragic time, wishing us well and suffering with our families – Gaumarjos!’  
Each guest lifted their glass in turn, looking at us then directly at the foreigners, thanking them for caring enough to come be with us, exhorting them to come back. All the foreigners’ eyes had begun to glisten. The two women held up their glasses and smiled at me and Keti. ‘Gaumarjos!’ they said. One asked the interpreter to tell us how wonderful the food was.
I nodded to each of them and took a sip of wine, but thought of Zura, and of the pig… Neither was here in the strangeness that had come over our world. We returned to the kitchen’s warmth and smells. I went outside to the empty porch in the waning light, but I could still see the dark line of mountains to the north, rising beyond the pumpkin field.  

Judges Comments

The Kitchen Door, Mary Ellen Chatwin's winning entry in our Food Story competition, is an understated, dignified, poignant account of a community under pressure, and of the role food plays in maintaining cultural identity.

The story is undated but the background to it is the war between Russia and Georgia in 2008. Set in Georgia, this quietly observational story of a meal held to welcome the investigators into a political murder is narrated by one of the women working behind the scenes to prepare the food. The story is her internal narrative and it takes the position of recounting events from the viewpoint of a person who is liable to be overlooked by the people gathered to eat the food she has been involved in preparing. Told with restrained, deceptive simplicity; the style reflects the story it tells in that it has hidden depths.

The Kitchen Door highlights the importance of food in ritual, the dignity of hospitality, and the role of food in holding a community together in times of grief. The recipes are for very specific traditional dishes, associated with the region and precisely described: the khinkali dumplings, with their pleated navel; the Imeruli cheese; the kindsmarauli wine. These foods, quietly but proudly proclaiming the Georgian identity of the dinner's hosts, are symbolic of much more than simply a meal.

An interesting aspect of this story is what happen when different types of people are brought together, like this, in unlikely circumstances. The strangers commenting on everyday items as if they were 'artefacts' and the foreign women's assumption that the village women are 'confined' to the kitchen suggest the way assumptions are made about people occupying diffferent spaces, and lead to misunderstandings about the way other people live.

The personal and the political spheres are divided in this story: in the dining room the important visitors and community elders are discussing war crimes; behind the scenes people are preoccupied with the preparation of food. But whether they are preparing it or eating it, all the characters in this strong, subtle story are united by the continuity of food at a time of change – or as Mary Ellen so neatly, eloquently phrases it, ' the strangeness that had come over our world.'

 

Runner-up in the Food Story Competition was Susanna Letchford, Prenton, Merseyside, whose story is published on www.writers-online.co.uk. Also shortlisted were: Iain Andrews, Poringland, Norfolk; Dominic Bell, Hull; Jodie Rose Carpenter, Birmingham; Irene Evans, Houghton Regis, Bedfordshire; Damien McKeating, Penkridge, Staffordshire; Jennifer Moore, Ivybridge, Devon; Emma Myatt, Gourdon, Dundee.

Back to Showcase