Whatever I’m doing, I’m in that moment and I’m doing it. The rest of the world’s lost. If I’m cooking some food or making soup, I want it to be lovely. If not, what’s the point of doing it?
I grew up in a house filled with food.
We were a family of bounty, that traditional German kind—with cupboards filled, meat in the oven, and something usually simmering on the stove.
Dinner tables were often laden with generous meatloaves, pastas, and casseroles—usually covered with cheeses, sauces, and gravy. We cooked storied recipes, recipes passed down to us from at least two generations back. Many of my favorite childhood memories are of stirring great pots of beans or mashing up potatoes into a creamy and delicious side dish. But as a teenager, I was introduced—and fell madly in love—with celebrity cooking shows.
Here was a kind of food and cooking I had never encountered before, food that was almost sinful in its color and brave approach to flavor. This was the time when I first watched the sexy yet companionable Nigella Lawson, who had the amazing ability to turn frozen peas—something we would normally just boil—into a velvety, bright green curry. Even more I loved the cooking show competitions, if only for their surprising range of unusual ingredients and even more surprising ways of cooking them.
There on the screen were foods that would never be found in my house. Avocados, prawns, complicated vinegars, and meats I had never even heard of before. I remember watching with wonder as one competitor opened up a ripe pomegranate to coax out the jewel-like seeds from inside—how they fell out like dark rubies.
Inspired and naive, I announced to my mother—a busy mother of six, I think it should be clarified—that I was going to start helping with the meal plans from now on and presented her with a recipe for Moroccan spiced chicken with couscous.
That night she had me boiling beans.
Still, the hunger remained. I made plans for my future home, imagining the big kitchen I would have and the meals I would make there. It would be the kind of kitchen you saw on my beloved cooking shows—with magnetic strips on the walls to place knives on, and copper pots hanging from the ceiling.
Later on, bored with the monotony of the college dining hall and hurried meals between classes, I started imaging the spices I would add to it. It would be a place of exotic flavors, I decided. Maybe including one of those pull-out spice drawers restaurants have.
Things didn’t quite turn out that way.
Now, I have a small but beautiful apartment at the top of a little old house near the city. Since the apartment was carved out of the house’s original layout, it’s a crooked setup—lacking many of the traditional features of a home. For instance, you don’t enter through a hall or into a family room. Instead, the door opens into the kitchen.
The kitchen is so small that once you have opened up the door and been welcomed in, there is no room left for a third person. When guests come over, they overflow into the living room by sheer necessity. And in such a small kitchen, cooking for all of those people, you can imagine, is an intense challenge.
There’s no dishwasher to spirit away dirty dishes into. Instead they start to pile in the sink, or spill onto the countertop—of which there is only one, about two and half feet wide. I’ve been known to place cutting boards on the (unlit) stove, just to have an extra workspace. But this becomes impractical when the oven is in use, since the oven radiates enough heat to warm the entire kitchen to uncomfortable temperatures.
My pots and pans aren’t hanging from the ceiling. In fact, they’re not even in the kitchen at all, but shelved away in the living room closet, to which I am always running back and forth to grab a pot or some lid or another. The knives are in a block above the fridge, and the bulk of my spices are (to my shame) tossed together in a big box I keep above the sink.
It’s not the kitchen I imagined. In fact, it’s nowhere near the kitchen I imagined.
But there’s no place I’m happier in. And all of those fancy pots and pull out spice drawers don’t make a kitchen. Even the kind of food you cook—whether it’s packed with flavor, passed down from generation to generation, or simply the kind of food you find convenient to cook at the end of a long day—doesn’t matter when making a kitchen. What matters is simply loving being there, making something that’s good and lovely.
That goes for a four year old mashing up potatoes, or the now quite grown-up four year old planning this year’s holiday cooking. (Though this year’s main dish, I have to admit, will be Moroccan spiced chicken with couscous.)