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KITCHEN STORIES Gay Bilson This essay is based on a talk given at the 2011 Watermark Literary Muster, a biennial gathering that brings together writers and readers in New South Wales.

The transformations in the cauldron are so utterly marvel­lous and of such subtle delicacy, the mouth cannot put them into words and the mind cannot comprehend them.

Yi Yin (a legendary cook), quoted in a third-century b c text,

Spring and Autumn Annals by Lu Buwei

Kitchen Stories is a film made by the Norwegian director, Bent Hamer, and released in 2003. It is one of my favourite films and I have watched it many times. It isn’t specifically about food but food plays its part. In its gentle way it is a very funny film but it is centrally about friendship and our often thwarted ability to communicate.

An old Norwegian man who lives alone in the country is chosen to become a guinea pig for a study instigated by a Swedish firm. It is the 1950s and the ergonomics of domestic life are under scrutiny. Observers are sent to study people in their homes, in order to chart their movements while they cook food and do other chores in their kitchens. Perched on specially designed step-ladders, with pencil, rubber and charts, they must only observe, and have absolutely no interaction with the householder.

Very quietly and slowly, the Swedish observer and the lone house­holder begin to communicate (a hard-boiled egg and a misplaced salt shaker are the triggers), and to enjoy each other’s company. By the close of the story the householder … but I won’t disclose what happens.

The sense of tenderness one feels as this friendship creeps up on two lonely people (of different, comically and continually sparring,


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