Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The kitchen, the cook, the food, and their lover

I have written previously of my ideal kitchen. I will never stop dreaming.  I will never stop entering sweepstakes that promise remodeling.  I will never stop encouraging my husband to play the lottery, although I still believe that the lottery is merely a tax on people who are really bad at math.  I long to have acres of counterspace, gleaming and spacious appliances, and a dish pantry.  But I don't just want a closet for my dishes, I want an entire room devoted to dishes, table linens and serviceware.  With an island and additional storage space underneath the island.  This kind of Kitchen Nirvana will ever and always be my unrequited love.  The one that got away, so to speak.  My home was built during the '70's, which means that my kitchen is still very '70's in a lot of ways.  There are kinds of limitations that only the '70's can present and subsequently, there are cosmetic changes that can and will happen.  But generally, I'm not sure that a lot of structural changes (read: expensive changes) will happen unless my husband wins that lottery.  You go, honey!!

There is a certain sweetness, a quiet and loving resignation that happens when you realize that you are married to and committed to living with your less-than-ideal kitchen.  It is a sort of sadness of what might have been.  Like realizing that your beloved has a wart...right there.  The knowledge that you have the original diamond in the rough.  Sometimes you recite the shoulda, coulda, wouldas.  Then, after all those maudlin wishes on all those distant, smugly twinkling stars, what follows is an endearing stab of protectiveness for your beloved and all the flaws that accompany it, and then, a burst of pride and confidence: you can do practically ANYTHING in your kitchen and that you can furthermore make great food despite (or perhaps, because of) your perceived limitations.

I just read an article entitled "Making It Work," written by Madhur Jaffrey in the August/September 2011 issue of Saveur magazine.  It filled me with such fondness, such unconditional love, such bittersweet emotion.  It was as if Ms. Jaffrey were talking about me and my kitchen: a small, completely outdated, badly-in-need-of-renovating space that confines and challenges the cook.  It even appeared that Ms. Jaffrey suffers the Disease of More, as I do.  She collects things and stores them all over the house.  She stuffs "more than the usual supply of spices, seasonings and dry goods" into her cupboards, shielding herself, as I do, when she opens her cabinet doors, from the avalanche of jars and packages that might occur once things have shifted after the last foraging attempt.  OMG!!  They say everyone has a twin, and here she is!!  Even better, she's Indian!!  I knew I'd had another life in India!!  I knew it!!

But I must say, I do love my kitchen.  No, it's not glamorous.  It's not bright, shiny, modern, or sleek.  I gave up that dream several years ago after an experience with a large, Big Box store that tried to convince me that all appliances were standard-size and would of course fit into the spaces left by my old, needing-to-be-replaced appliances.  I am here to tell you that they are not.

My kitchen has shaped me, defined me, changed the way I look at and prepare food.  Its limitations and challenges are only as limiting and challenging as I allow them to be.  Can I cook for 50?  Yes, but in stages, and preferably as flights of hors d'oeuvres.  Can I wash dishes after a dinner party for 20?  Yes, but I will be up until 3 in the morning, and that's OK.  Can I store enough food for an eight-course sit-down dinner?  Yes, but I will need to bring in large coolers with plenty of ice.  And I will need to hide those coolers in the adjoining laundry room.  And I will need to stack those coolers to the ceiling, requiring the use of a forklift to move them around.

Sometimes, even though I live part-time in Kitchen Beautiful Dreamland, I am convinced that I would not be as good a cook if I had a modern, sleek, up-to-date kitchen with all the bells and whistles.  I fear I would become lazy and complacent.  I know a woman who has a beautiful kitchen--a glamorous, darkly rich showplace of copper, black variegated granite and Brazilian walnut.  But sadly, this woman doesn't cook so much as she assembles.  A box of this, a can of that, reheated take-out foods.  There isn't a lot of creativity that emerges from this beautiful kitchen.  It is as if the creative energy has been stripped away to make room for all that stop-your-heart beauty.  Sort of like the difference between Kiri te Kanawa and Maria Callas.  One sings with amazing technically precise and exacting beauty.  The other sings with a deep soulfulness and with such heart-wrenching intensity that the roughness and imprecision of her voice carves its own thing of beauty, like Michelangelo transformed a raw, flawed piece of marble into his famous Statue of David.

Sometimes, I think that it is my kitchen's flaws and its terroir that defines my food.  Its shortcomings and limitations have forced me to problem-solve in ways I might never have confronted in my cooking career.  The lack of counter space, storage space, and the cursed electric stove have cramped and molded my cooking style.  The embarrassingly old porcelain sink, which always needs a good come-uppance with a can of Comet, is small and shallow.  The pantry?  A mere linen closet!  What if I did not have these challenges?  Would I be a better cook?  Would I be more productive and efficient?  Maybe.  But I think not.  As Ms. Jaffrey has observed, "I've realized that a dream kitchen isn't absolutely necessary:  It's your aspirations for the food that make a kitchen come to life...After all, it is the food that comes out of the kitchen that matters most."

And so, like an old, familiar lover, my kitchen remains embedded in my heart, my soul, my technical expertise (or lack thereof).  Like an old familiar lover, my kitchen is familiar to me, beloved, war-torn, battled-scarred, molded to my will.  And like an old, familiar lover, my kitchen can also have its way with me, can convince me that I am the most beautiful and gifted of all its previous lovers, or it can bring me to my knees in humble submission, wishing for swift and sweet mercy.

There's something to be said for that kind of relationship. 

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