The Picture Show
4:21 pm
Wed March 28, 2012

What Our Kitchens Might Say About Us

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 8:55 am

Imagine your kitchen, if you have one. What's in it? Appliances? Food on the counters? Is it messy or sparse? Fully stocked or running on empty?

These are questions that fascinate commercial photographer Ellen Silverman, who often photographs food for magazines and books like Gwyneth Paltrow's My Father's Daughter. It's what inspired her personal series, Spare Beauty: The Cuban Kitchen, which she shot while on a workshop trip in Havana — now on display at the Umbrella Arts Gallery in New York City for a few more days.

Trying to explain that interest, though, was easier said than done — let alone trying to convince strangers in Havana to open their homes. While some were receptive to Silverman's impromptu visits, others were naturally a bit confused.

"In one instance," Silverman recalls, "a husband and wife happened to be artists and they said, 'No, you can't photograph our kitchen. It's a mess.' " After some cajoling they gave in. "It became this lovely experience," says Silverman. "To make connections with people in this way was really special."

The communist-ruled island has been under a U.S. trade embargo for 50 years, and life for most Cubans is still difficult, despite recent economic reforms. In some ways, Cuba is frozen in time — cars from the 1950s still cruise the roads, the architecture grand, but crumbling.

Silverman's images show the kitchens as she finds them. Well-used pots sit on stoves or burners, utensils hang from plaster walls with faded paint, and mismatched plates are piled haphazardly. At first glance, Silverman says, she wants viewers to see the photos as "kind of anthropological ... in how people arrange things." But the second thought, she hopes, will be: "Wow, they're beautiful. ... This is somebody's reality."

Some of the kitchens don't have tables and chairs. Usually, Silverman says, she would see a pot of rice cooking or a metal coffee maker ready to brew a fresh cup. There seems to be an absence of food on display or on countertops — like fruit in a bowl or vegetables in a basket — stark reminder of most Cubans' difficult economic situation.

"People are still rationed. They get a ration card and you get a certain amount of food a month," she explains. "There are supermarkets, but there are very few ... people buying food on a daily basis. Not everybody has refrigerators."

Silverman says Cubans tend to keep appliances for a long time. "They're adapting, they're improvising, and they're doing what they have to do." Isn't that, after all, what all the great chefs do?

It's an interesting concept that our kitchens might say a lot about us. What does yours say about you?

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.