Kitchens Hidden Language

What do our kitchens mean to us? How do they speak to us? Today, Jay opens the fridge, the cabinets, and more in search of an answer.

Jay opens the microwave door, inserts a bowl, and turns on the machine.

JAY: Kitchens give us sustenance–what type and how much seems limited only by our imaginations. Their purpose extends far beyond preparing food. Kitchens are the beginnings and endings of our days, they’re little snacks in between, and they’re always trying to tell us something.

“Carnival” by smallertide begins

When I recently announced that I was contemplating ways in which our kitchens communicate with us, my wife laughed.

“This kitchen tells us one thing,” she said. “That it’s impossible for two people to cook together in this space.”

It’s entirely likely that she said this while sliding past whatever sprawling work station I’d set up on the kitchen counter. And she was probably sidestepping a beagle or two snooping for crumbs on the floor. Obviously, she had a point: Our kitchen can feel cramped.

However, is tight space necessarily a bad thing? Those who share kitchen space are forced to collaborate and communicate. At the most basic level, they must work out who does what when. That’s easy enough to plan ahead of time–you’ll make soup on Sunday, I’ll bake bread on Tuesday, and so forth.

But what if more than one person must bake or cook in the kitchen at the same time? They must choreograph a chaotic and hurried pattern of pauses and dashes, of starting and stopping, of avoiding or nearly colliding. When my wife and I engage in this kitchen dance, we might be bearing sharp knives or lugging pots of boiling water. We waltz and minuet and carry a conversation overtop usually loud music. And somehow we do collaborate and communicate–we’ve yet to cut or scald each other when sharing the space.

Anyway, all of this made me wonder more about kitchens and the different languages–

The microwave BEEPS five times, music STOPS

JAY: Ah, let me get that out of the microwave first.


JAY: You’re listening to “Hidden Language,” a podcast about tuning into place, bodies, and time and discovering the unexpected ways their stories can be told. I’m Jay Varner.

SCOTT: And I’m Scott Lunsford. What do our kitchens mean to us? How do they speak to us? Today, Jay opens the fridge, the cabinets, and more in search of an answer.

JAY: This is how each day begins: The first person into the kitchen grinds the coffee–I pour the beans into the machine before bed each night. Next, dump the fresh grounds into the coffee maker–I also prep the water and insert the filter before bed. Now, turn on the machine and wait.

A coffee grinder grinds beans

JAY: When I first started to drink coffee in college. I knew that the coffee was ready whenever I heard the machine stop brewing. Now, of course, there is a beep.

Coffee maker finishes brewing and beeps.

And, whenever I clean and descale the coffee maker, the machine lets me know the process has finished with a beep–this one, however, is a different tone than the normal brew. I know–I know that I can still buy those old standards but I’m an unapologetic coffee snob.

Coffee maker finishes cleaning and beeps.

JAY: I miss the time when kitchens were quieter, simpler. I resent their intrusion into my life. This is one reason why I always look forward to Sunday mornings, whenever I make French-press style coffee. No electronic beep, just the whistle of a boiling tea kettle, a satisfying pour over the grounds, and that plunger’s descent.

A tea kettle whistles.

“Ode to the World” by Kai Engel plays

The history of the kitchen is supposed to be a story of progress. People once congregated outside around fires for warmth and food. Chimneys later allowed people to cook in their homes. The first stoves often burned wood–coal was much too hot for the usual stove. Gas stoves were showing up in homes by the 1920s and then, not longer after, electric. The housing boom after World War II is largely responsible for the contemporary kitchen we’ve come to expect: more organization, open walls, and, of course, new technology. 

But new technology beeps at me. Like our electric oven. It beeps when I turn it on, when it reaches preheat temperature, and, of course, whenever I set the timer. Those all seem practical–but why does it beep every single time I press a button? At least the stovetop burners are quiet, though orange LED lights tell me if one is turned on or remains hot from use.

Music fades to the sound of a kitchen exhaust fan.

Above the stovetop, the exhaust fan has two settings. Low reminds me of the slight breeze a hand-fan might churn up at a pre-air conditioned Sunday church service. High pushes the unit into a combination leaf blower and air tunnel, so loud that it’s hard to hold a conversation. But at least that fan blocks out those incessant electronic dings.

There’s no way I can even interact with the microwave without a litany of shrill beeps. Select a cook setting, set the timer, press start–I find the sounds so grating that I often stand beside the unit and watch the timer. When two or so seconds remain, I open the door and end the process, preemptively eliminating those four elongated bleats.

The fridge is mostly silent–no beeps, at least. Sometimes I hear the faint trickle of water during the self-defrost. The noisiest part is the ice machine, sounding like a rock tumbler as it spits out ice cubes. 

The ice machine spits out ice cubes.

This model of fridge is dated, perhaps even the original from when the house was built. We’ll likely need to replace the machine In the not-too-distant future when it no longer works. And then what? Surely you’ve seen these so-called smart fridges? They somehow track what foods we use in our fridge and automatically add them to an online grocery list. Apparently this is supposed to make our lives easier, less stressful. When did a magnetized notepad and an attached pen on the fridge create too much work? If you use up the last of the milk be sure to just add it to the list on the notepad.

“Clean Soul” by Kevin MacLeod begins to play.

Oh, that’s an issue with new fridges–stainless steel means no more magnets. I know there are larger heartaches in our world, but I can’t fathom the loss of the fridge magnet. They have simplicity and utility. They hold up report cards and family photos and those appointment reminder cards the dentist office gives at the end of our check-up; they collect our memories in a shared space, highlight our personalities, and serve as gifts or souvenirs. Ten years ago, when my wife and I took a trip to Italy, the only trinket I brought back for myself was a magnet. In fact, each magnet on this fridge tells a story. Even now, as I look at ours, I smile and remember.

My brother-in-law picked up this magnet of two moose touching noses in Grand Teton National Park. This Les Paul and the accompanying amplifier were stocking stuffers my mother gave me when I was in college. And this one, the 1-800-Collect magnet where Mr. T. tells me to call my mama? That was from college as well, back when those commercials were inescapable on television. A James Joyce magnet from Ireland, a “Cleveland: You’ve Got To Be Tough” magnet from, well, Cleveland. Ah, here’s a recent one–just a standard magnet with a home appliance company my wife and I contracted recently. At least this way, if we need them again, their number is on the fridge.

These magnets–by my count, around 100–hold up all sorts of postcards and documents and photos. A watercolor painting made by my cousin’s three-year-old son Gus. Postcards of Abraham Lincoln, an Alcatraz prison guard, a recipe for shoo-fly pie. If you ever visit my house, point toward any one of them–the magnets or what they hold in place–and I can tell you their story.

The inside of cabinet doors offer yet another canvas. I’ve heard stories of people who tape up favorite cartoons or poems, little bits of warmth or inspiration. My mother used the inside of cabinet doors to tape favorite recipes and measurement equation charts.

Cooking and baking demand presence and patience, two things I continually try to cultivate in my own consciousness. Yet no matter how hard I try, whenever I spend much time in the kitchen, my mind drifts. The Zen-like, meditative process of kneading dough, of spending all day stirring a fresh tomato sauce, of peeling and slicing potatoes… these things unlock my own remembrance of things past. I think of kitchens from my life, populated with family and friends now gone.

The rustic, primitive kitchen in my uncle’s cabin nestled deep in a Pennsylvania forest. My grandfather served my cousins and I runny eggs and weak cocoa. I wish he was still there, just so I could wince when he sat that plate in front of me, just so I could hear him say, “Oh, if you’re hungry, you’ll eat it.

And there was my grandmother’s spacious kitchen. Each summer she would process bushels of tomatoes, beans, peaches, grapes, corn, and more. For weeks on end, when I stepped into her kitchen, I felt as if I had entered a steam room. She boiled skins off tomatoes, she boiled water to sterilize Mason jars. With no air conditioning, she relied upon box fans to circulate the hot air.

And certainly I remember the kitchen of my childhood, located in the center of a single-wide trailer, floored with cheap linoleum. On one Thanksgiving weekend my father roasted a ring-necked pheasant he’d shot in a farm field near our house. He was so proud of his kill and field dressing, of the roasted bird on our plates. My parents and I sat at the kitchen table on metal chairs coated in an egg-yolk yellow vinyl.

A few years after that meal, my father would be forever gone from the dinner table, killed by cancer at thirty-three years old. I haven’t eaten pheasant since that night. And, I’m not sure I ever will again. No matter how good it might taste, it will never compare to the meal I still feast on in memory, just my mom and my dad and me.


JAY: You’ve been listening to Hidden Language. Music for this episode was provided by smallertide, Kai Engel, and Kevin MacLeod. Our theme music is by Jay Varner. For a list of episodes, transcripts, and show notes, be sure to visit And if you enjoy this podcast, please spread the word using whatever language you see fit. 



Music was provided by the following artists through, with the respective Creative Commons licenses.

“Carnival” by smallertide CC-BY 4.0

“Ode to the World” by Kai Engel CC BY-NC 4.0

“Clear Soul” by Kevin MacLeod CC BY-NC 4.0


  1. Really enjoyed this episode. Brought back memories of the kitchens in my life…..and an awareness of sounds now prevalent. Thanks Jay.



  2. Went from the day to day sounds of today to a beautiful somewhat poignant reminiscence in a kitchen of Jay’s past. Really excellent background music. Enjoyed it very much. G.D.



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