The Kitchen

“We owe much to the fruitful meditation of our sages, but a sane view of life is, after all, elaborated mainly in the kitchen.”
– Joseph Conrad         

When we moved to the country from the city, I had the romantic notion that I would begin to cook sumptuous meals immediately.  What happened instead is a feud that continues to this day: my kitchen and I do not get along. I am mad at it most of the time and talk to it rudely.  “You smug cook top with your measly two burners. How do you think you are going to cook a dinner for twelve?”

I quickly learned that I was going to have to live with cabinet doors that wouldn’t open because they were blocked by drawer fronts that fell off whenever I tugged on them even gently.  I can’t count the number of times I have accidentally bumped behinds with acquaintances by merely trying to reach for a glass from an ill-positioned cabinet over a peninsula that sticks out in the middle of the room. This island, which should be a model of efficiency, allows for only eighteen inches of space around its sides, so even gangly and thin children get in my way. The simple act of slicing up an apple can be laborious since it is interrupted every single time anyone walks by.  Move the chair in, let someone by, get up, close refrigerator to allow back door to open, close oven to open cabinet for pans, don’t dare use microwave if the dishwasher is being loaded – it’s like a symphony in chaos – harmony in screeches, but well-rehearsed.  Kitchens are supposed to be the well-oiled machines of the home and mine is the stalled car on the side of the road – abandoned and hopeless, all the tires stripped off.

 My earliest kitchen memories are with my Mom in a simple house on the outskirts of Chicago.  She would stack thick telephone books on top of a tubular metal chair with bright blue and white naugahyde seat cushions.  Mom would give me a small piece of dough and I would roll it around with my awkward hands, then pat it flat.  She would show me how to tap cinnamon from the side of a tiny spoon and pinch sugar from a bowl and let it fall on top of the pie crust dough.  Then, how to drop dabs of butter, cut from a large chunk, on top of the sprinkles.  She taught me to rub butter on the bottom of a small pan with a little piece of waxed paper and then put my little round pie crust tort inside. The little crust would bake quickly and I was proud of my cinnamon pie that I would then eat with milk.  I was three years old, sitting on a stack of telephone books on blue and white shiny chairs, amongst bright orange cabinets and this kitchen was helping my Mom teach me how to cook.   

My kitchen was designed for a cook employed by the owners of the house, a cook who slept in a tiny room just outside the kitchen door.  I can see evidence of this small room by the marks on the ceiling that are still visible, though faded and worn.  In order to make the kitchen larger, someone foraged space from the small sleeping room and now a table could stand in the space but the refrigerator has to go by the back door, which to this day does not allow anyone to enter easily.  Only one person can be in the kitchen at any one time, and even the simple task of getting a glass of water is complicated.  If Andy comes in to get something, I have to leave the kitchen and step over to the table, unless I lift myself up onto the counter so he can reach the sink.  

I comfort myself with the knowledge that the new kitchen plans have been sitting in a drawer near the beverage center for seven years.  Actually the beverage center has no beverages at all, let alone any cabinetry, but it is an idea shining in the future and all good design starts that way.  There will be a beverage center with coffee and tea and cappuccinos beckoning to the sleepyhead sons as they walk in scratching their arms and looking like little boys.  They come downstairs before their wives, our daughters, to see what I’ve put out on the old farm table that sits proudly, yet cramped in the middle of the tiny kitchen.  Though the table is too big for the space, we forgive this and wrangle with it when we have the kids stay with us.  This is the time when the wild hoopla of having four daughters, each with a quiet husband who watches his wife live the wild hysteria that is us, is gentled and I slide a large mug of hot coffee in front of each young man as he comes down to the kitchen to see what might be on the table.  Gathering a tiny moment of peace to chat about life, one on one, is precious indeed.  This is a sacred time for Mother and “son” with only open faces, open hearts and what else do you need?  When the third person enters and the quiet is disturbed and the entire table must be shoved to the side, all havoc breaks loose. Making enough room for the refrigerator to open while daughters and their husbands are seated, or to pour coffee from what is NOT the beverage center, requires vigilance and a hearty dose of determination but most special moments in life are like this. They are carved out of blocks of randomness.  My kitchen can create these moments even when we are mad at each other.

The act of pouring a cup of coffee has always been ceremonial to me.  Selecting a mug from the cabinet is something I look forward to every day.  Often Andy picks out a mug for me, and sometimes I use the one he selects, but some days he watches me from the table where he is reading the paper, and he peers over his glasses as I stand on the other side of the counter and inspect the mug he has placed out for me.  I’m not sure.  Maybe.  No.  And I open the cabinet door and stare for a full 15 seconds before I pick the one I want and replace the one on the counter with this new choice.  So I pour hot black coffee into the mug and slide into a chair next to him and he looks back down at his paper smiling.  “In a mood today for red?” he asks without looking up.  “Yes, red.  It is a red day.” I respond. 

Morning rituals often start in the kitchen and I take this very seriously.  Every night I anticipate what tomorrow will bring by saying good night to our irritating kitchen and I have always done this.  Even though my country kitchen and I are fighting, I do try to be respectful. Every night I tuck it in and put away the dishes and hang a bright blue-and-white-stripe fresh towel from the oven door.  I make sure the sponges are neatly stacked one on top of the other and that the soap dispensers are full.  I turn the banana bowl just so, and make sure the peek of the yellow bananas contrasts nicely with the blue cobalt stripe that runs around the top edge of the warm creamy white ceramic bowl. The ledge above the sink, whose surface is made up of small one-inch-square French blue tiles, juts out awkwardly into the yard, but the window faces a magnificent maple tree that I look at dozens of time every day. I have filled this blue surfaced ledge with white pottery and I make sure the blue tiles form a lovely circuitous path between the different shades of white bowls and pitchers.  Dried baby’s breath sits atop an old pitcher and it is a white on white cloud against the sunset-dark-sky-glass behind it.  Cutting boards rest against each other, relaxing until they are put to work again, and the strainer baskets are dry waiting to be drenched with the first splash of cold water in the morning as the coffee pot is filled. 

Kitchens should be the land of home hope and a broken promise can be easily healed by a piece of chocolate cake from a well-placed refrigerator.  There is ceremony in coffee and in salads and in baking and in the quiet snapping of beans.  A functional, well-designed kitchen heralds the arrival of absolutely everyone.  Just plan a party and set up every room with nestled coves of wonderful snacks and comfortable pillows beckoning for conversation and they will look pristine when the party is over because everyone will be in the kitchen.  Kitchens are places where people take off their masks, just like I do.  I wear heels at work and flip flops in the kitchen.  I put my hair in a ponytail and while I am cutting up a tomato, I listen to my grown-up daughters tell me their secrets and my little grand-daughter shout out the ABC’s.  I sing at the top of my lungs to music on the radio, and Andy comes in to whirl me around the floor in a quick dance step spin.  We feel young in our kitchen and comfortable with life, and anxieties spill out and feel better with a piece of refrigerator pizza or a cold piece of almost anything, especially if it is a vision of the familiar. 

Our city kitchen was tiny, and it didn’t bother me since it was laid out perfectly – like a small closet with perfect shelves and poles so that you can see everything and know what to wear on any given day. Open a cabinet door to any great kitchen layout and the contents are waiting to work.  The forks wait tine up ready to pierce the nearest piece of food and the baking pans are lined up at attention ready for duty.  In my Chicago kitchen I felt like Meryl Streep in the role of Julia Child with wooden spoons clanging in rhythm against pots as if playing musical instruments. Reach for measuring cups, get water from the tap, grab ingredients from the refrigerator, stack plates on the table, whisk, stir, pour, this city kitchen  worked in harmony with me and it was fun to cook. Our country kitchen was planned by the zoning committee of a government agency.  It didn’t work at all and expected to be paid.

I always smile when I see a scene in a movie where a tough guy shoot ‘em up baddie, or a CEO of a publicly traded company has a particularly bad day, and enters a large and well laid out kitchen late at night to sit in the dimly lit stage of work table blues and eats a simple sandwich left for him in the refrigerator by some knowing chef.  The scene depicts the only solace he will get and the familiarity of having a snack in the middle of the night makes even the viewer feel better.  My kitchen disappointed me and that was a problem that would be expensive to fix.  There were numerous other mechanical issues such as crushed sewer lines, which trumped my complaints of an awkward microwave placement, so I had to find another solution, even if temporary.

It wasn’t long after we moved into our house that we discovered that our kitchen was the bridge on the ship of all the mechanicals of our home.  All the old knob and tube wiring, outdated and not to code even 50 years ago, led to the kitchen where a non-electrician, decades ago, took dozens of these cloth wires and decided in a fit of temper to wind them up like Christmas lights taken down off of a tree by someone infected with distemper and jumble them up furiously and throw them to the bottom of a box.  It was impossible to know what wire led to which outlet, and so we had to rip open half the walls in order to untangle wiring that was going to be discarded anyway.  I did not understand this and said so to Andy.  He took on his “I will explain this to you stance” and strode into the kitchen and put his hands on his hips, with strong legs spread apart and he pointed to the wiring like a man seeing the ocean for the first time.  I listened for a few minutes trying to understand his locution of why something has to be redone first before you could rip it out and throw it away, but my eyes glazed over.  When Andy put his arm down I knew that it was time to say, “Oh, I see.”  He gave me a sidelong look.

The plumbing pipes that ran through the kitchen walls had burst one glorious day and we had to rip open the remaining walls since it appears the same non-electrician was also the non-plumber who decided to run all plumbing drains into a too-small drain until it would all erupt one day in a wild deluge in the middle of the day when we were not home.  For years the sound of flushing toilets could be heard from the kitchen no matter which bathroom anyone used. Even when this ultimately was figured out, the walls remained open in the hopes that we would start the kitchen renovation next. We are still hoping.

One day in a spitfire storm of inspiration, I brought home a full 50 yard bolt of chestnut-colored burlap.  I cut lengths and stapled it to the kitchen walls, trapping and covering the large wall holes that exposed all manner of noxious black cast iron pipes.  Since the outdoor sewer lines were still being worked on, Andy did not want to close up the walls just yet.  Just yet.  Just. Yet.  

On the burlap day in question, I wasn’t going to look at the black shiny and large pipes carrying sewage from the second floor to the main floor one more day and so up went the burlap and down came my expectations.  I even let the burlap climb out onto the ceiling in a spurt of creative license that left Andy shouting from the basement that this was a waste of perfectly good staples. The stapler I was using was a construction stapler used to put waterproof liners onto the exterior of homes.  You would slam it quickly and firmly against a wall and staples would shoot out, holding down the Tyvec or in this case, chestnut-colored burlap.  It was satisfying work; blam blam BLAM.  I hit the wall, stapling the burlap with all the strength my scrawny arms could muster.  With each hit of the stapler against wall, I was declaring my purpose in this kitchen.  I was claiming it as mine and this was my fight club. I stapled the burlap onto the walls as though building a rescue raft that would take me somewhere new.  With all of its incongruities and points of non-functioning irritation, this kitchen belonged to me now and it was here that I would mend the hearts of my family by serving up home-made soups and pasta and my Mom’s chocolate chip cookie recipe.

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