composer's note: I never had a grandmother who taught me to cook, but I’ve always loved the kitchen. Cooking is one of my favorite activities in the world, half serene meditation and half wild improvisation, which has the bonus of nurturing me and my family. As I worked in my own kitchen, pondering how to adapt Chloe Longfellow’s story (as told to StoryCorps) into this song cycle, what struck me was how the inspirational words of her Grandma Doris in the kitchen were only a small part of the life lessons imparted there. The act of collaborating in the kitchen across generations, preparing ingredients together, experiencing the magic of individual foods combining to create something greater, Chloe’s small hands working in concert with Doris’s grownup hands: these experiences had their own wisdom. The life lessons Chloe learned in the kitchen with her grandmother could only be learned by investing that time, doing that manual labor as a team, and creating a delicious meal from mere ingredients, with those simple tasks adding up into something much more meaningful and loving.
Writing “Grandma’s Kitchen,” I sought to bring those unspoken lessons onto equal emotional footing with Doris’s spoken ones through song and performance. Because I loved Chloe’s anecdote about preparing beets with her Grandma Doris so much, when I set out to adapt her story I dug up recipes involving beets from old, out-of-print cookbooks. And in reading and subtly editing and combining those recipes, I became fascinated by how the seemingly mundane lists of ingredients and instructions actually had marvelous resonance with Doris’s lessons. A complex recipe for borscht combining many diverse ingredients feels perfectly in line with Doris’s words of tolerance and acceptance. A recipe for yellow tomato & beet salad where one carefully arranges ingredients on a platter feels like a little love song, both to the ingredients themselves and to one’s kitchen helpers. Once I realized that the foods themselves have so much to tell us, writing “Grandma’s Kitchen” became a way of telling Chloe’s story from all these emotionally resonant angles: Doris’s lessons became music, Chloe’s heartfelt reactions to those lessons became music, and the subtexts and things left unsaid while cooking became music. All those perspectives unite and intermingle in this cycle, illuminating the bond of love between Chloe and Doris that was forged in Grandma’s kitchen.