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Let's talk about cooking, Part 1
Here's the kitchen, please come in
I want to talk today about everyday cooking, that thing that every human being alive has to sort out somehow, that most mundane of topics and one I never tire of reading about. I used to write about it, too — it, in fact, was the subject of the blog I kept for fourteen years.You remember. For three years in there, I also wrote a monthly column about everyday cooking for Bon Appétit. Eventually I got tired of writing about cooking, which is why I don’t do it much anymore. But I could read about other people’s cooking until the end of time. You know those novels where nothing really happens? That’s my favorite kind of novel, and I have a theory that reading about another person’s everyday cooking — which is also, in a sense, their everyday life — is basically the same thing, except the characters are real people. If you disagree, I don’t want to hear about it.
Before I get to the cooking part, I want to talk about my kitchen. That’s because this morning I endured a 75-minute phone call with a lady from the US Census Bureau, completing this year’s installment of a longitudinal housing survey that my unlucky household was, several years ago, randomly selected for. Many of the questions required me to dig up documents — mortgage refinance paperwork, home repair receipts, etc. — and while I dug, my dogged correspondent, whom I shall call Census Taker Mary, offered to regale me with “interesting census facts.”
Would you believe, she asked, that by and large, American homeowners’ largest annual expense is roofing and roof repair?
Mmm, I said.
And second to roofing, Mary said, is kitchen remodels. So many kitchen remodels. But not at my house, she added. I’d rather go on vacation!
Well, me too, Mary. I do not have a fancy kitchen. I don’t think I’ve made that clear, or clear enough, in any of my previous writings about cooking. When someone comes to our house for the first time, they often express surprise at the cobbled-together nature of the kitchen. But you write about FOOD, they say. But you [used to] own a restaurant! Both of which are true — and yet!
The cabinets and basic structure of our kitchen date to 1958, as far as I can tell, since that’s the year that the house was built. In 2015, we partially dismantled the kitchen and patched it back together with restaurant-supply equipment, after a leak under the sink damaged a portion of the cabinetry, floor, and wall. There is still a piece of raw plywood set into the floor in front of the sink, because when we removed the counter and cabinets there, we discovered there was no flooring beneath them. Our kitchen does not have an island, a gas range, an exhaust hood, a farmhouse sink, a Smeg or Sub-Zero fridge, a convection oven, a second oven, or even an oven that can accommodate more than one thing at a time.
Here is a question that doesn’t exactly keep me up at night, but I do wonder: why don’t people like Formica anymore? Ours is the color of cold butter. What could be better? It’s easy to clean, even that time I spilled Campari on it. That’s what Magic Erasers are for. Zero complaints from me about Formica. Likewise, knotty pine. It’s old, it’s fine. A few years back, the hinges on two of the cabinet doors broke, so we just took those doors off. The refrigerator, which is not pictured, is one of those plain white models with a fridge below and a freezer on top. The oven — black, electric, smaller than average — cost $200 at a salvage store. Does it fit cleanly into the space vacated by the original oven, which died shortly after we moved in? No. But does its temperature run true? Yes! It is our Frankenkitchen. When something breaks, we replace it. I can’t imagine a future in which we shell out to remodel.
Our kitchen is full of natural light from a bank of east-facing windows. Because the main floor of the house is technically the second story, you can gaze into the uppermost branches of a flowering plum tree while you wash dishes. One evening while watching me fry sausages, our contractor friend Joe pointed out appreciatively that our kitchen’s layout allows for a nearly seamless workflow for right-handed people. How serendipitous, since that’s what we all are! The only appliance that’s poorly placed is the dishwasher, which, when open, blocks access to most of the room.
Our stove is that wooden box you see above, atop the stainless prep table. It is a four-burner electric Hotpoint range in a shade of mauvy brown that was marketed as “coppertone.” The range is original to the kitchen, but not in its current setting; it was previously embedded in the section of counter that we removed in 2015. Our friend Michael jerry-rigged the setup above, using parts of the dismantled cabinets to build a box to conceal the wiring under the burners, and to raise the whole range off the surface of the table. June and Ash have to bring in the step stool from our bathroom and stand on it while using the stove, because the thing is so high up. The top of the stove is 43 inches from the floor, seven inches taller than the height of a typical counter. As of this writing, only two-and-a-half of its four burners are functional. I have never had a gas stove. It pays to not know what you’re missing.
On the wall opposite the stove are two (IKEA) bookshelves. They hold our cookbook collection, our board games, an abundance of kid art, binoculars, canisters of formula, a half-built ukekele, a Baby Brezza formula maker (🏆 this year’s household MVP 🏆) and a Baby Brezza bottle drier, and one trillion seashells and found rocks in pleasing shapes. I have always wanted to live in a home that appears to be inhabited by university professors or artists or someone’s kooky and bookish aunt. We are well on the way.
Not pictured, but also present: a vintage ceramic lamp that Ash doesn’t like; an array of plants and crab shells on the windowsill; and the many photos, holiday cards, and old inside jokes that we keep stuck to the fridge, including an index card I once found in June’s backpack, proclaiming in cursive, “I eat weirdness on my hot dogs!” and “My nerdiness will show threw [sic] the centuries.”
It is a very nice kitchen, which is to say that we can cook everything we want in it.
That piece of 8.5”x11” paper you see taped to the cabinet in the first photo — that is where, once a week or so, I write down whatever meals I/we plan to make in the coming days, along with a list of suggested lunches and snacks based on what’s currently in the house. I say that I do this once a week or so, and that’s because I don’t have a set schedule for when I plan meals and/or buy groceries.
I do the bulk of both because I (mostly) enjoy it, and I’m good at it. I have been interested in cooking since I was a teenager, and I have been the primary cook in my household since I left home. Ash, on the other hand, was not taught or encouraged to cook as a kid, and though they’ve been gamely learning in recent years, it’s not their thing, not the way it has long been mine. To be frank, this is an area of our marriage that is not equitable, and where we’re working to create a more intentional division of labor. I don’t like to be the one who, by default, always figures out dinner. Neither of us planned to do it that way; it happened. Now we’re working to undo our habits, week by week and day by day. But I do expect that I will always be the primary cook, because I like it. And twenty-plus years into adulthood, I’ve built up a repertoire.
I try to plan the week’s meals each Sunday or Monday, thumbing through my three-ring binder of most-used recipes and our few favorite cookbooks. But often, usually, the planning isn’t so neat. Sometimes I plan meals while in the grocery store, grabbing things as I cruise down the aisles. Sometimes Ash and I swap ideas by text in the middle of a workday. I always thought I’d be a Jenny Rosenstrach kind of cook — hi, Jenny! I love your Three Things newsletters! — the can-do kind who keeps a dinner diary and is very orderly and thoughtful about meal planning. I also aspire to what my friend and podcast co-host Matthew does, which is to keep a Google calendar where his family collaborates to plan the week’s dinners. Turns out, though, that my version of household organization is less organized. My “method” is a sheet of printer paper that I tape up, tear down, and redo when I think of it.
And now that I’ve written this far, I’ve run through the day’s work hours. I’ve got to cook dinner — which, for today at least, precludes writing about it. Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I will actually talk about cooking. I swear. Coming to your inbox before the long weekend is through —
Hosting said blog is very expensive, and I don’t plan to renew it after this year. It’s not the call I want to make, but I think it’s the right one. Consider yourself warned! Save and print whatever you want to keep.
I’m thinking here of MANY titles, but glancing quickly at my bookshelf, the ones that leap out are Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, Claire Keegan’s Foster, Colm Tóibín’s The Master, Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, the Lucy Barton novels of Elizabeth Strout, and Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. If you buy one of these novels, please buy it from an independent bookstore.