The other day I was in a restaurant-styled home kitchen complete with stainless steel counters, sinks bigger than bathtubs and stockpots the size of water towers. But it was so disorganized and cluttered that when I tried to find a spoon I had to admit defeat and use my fingers. In contrast, just the week before I was in a kitchen no bigger than my bed and it was so organized that I could have found Amelia Earhart had it occurred to me to look.
I’ll admit that when it comes to kitchens, I’m probably not your friend. I am the last person you want to have in your kitchen because I am bound to either scream at you for what you’ve done to it or plot a way to steal it from you and make it all my own. Women need not fear me sneaking into their bedrooms when they’re out of town, but if they have a good kitchen, watch out. I’ll do whatever it takes to have it all to myself even if it means assuming their identity and simply moving in.
I know I’m not alone in my kitchen issues, because like most people, I’ve been toughened and embittered by years of bad kitchens that never should have been. I’ve never had a kitchen that wasn’t designed by some prehistoric man who’d never cooked a meal in his life, except for the one my dad designed when I was living on the other side of the planet and came home to discover the sink had been moved to the opposite wall and the doorway was six feet to the right of where it was when I left (as was my dad once he started watching Rush Limbaugh). But my dad wasn’t afraid to fix his own meals, so he at least knew that people stand in front of stoves to cook and that sinks require a place to stack the dirty dishes.
But most kitchens I’ve had were clearly designed by people who had no concept of what goes on in a kitchen other than opening the fridge to grab a beer and holler to the wife to get the vittles on.
One of my kitchens had a built-in mid-century stove that had four burners tightly aligned in a single front row framed by tall walls that left only the center two burners usable – there was no room for so much as setting a tea kettle on the others because the framing was only two inches from either side of the burners. I managed to cook on it for two or three years before I finally had the money to have it replaced. When it was tossed to the side of the curb a team of archaeologists arrived to analyze the material remains of early human cooking. Either that or they were post-minimalist artists thrilled to find an avant-garde installation they could sell for ten or twenty grand if they presented it to the well-healed impressionable with a cheap chardonnay and mass produced Certificate of Authenticity.
Another of my kitchens was so big that I had to stride across the room just to drain the pasta which inevitably got cold from such a long journey from stove to sink. I came home one day to find that my undocumented immigrant roommate had hung a clothesline from the fridge to the dishwasher and I had to pass through a curtain of unmentionables just to put away the dishes. Another kitchen was the perfect size — but three quarters of the space was devoted to unneeded dining space with the stove and refrigerator shoved next to each other in a corner. It was like cooking on a boat with less counter space than you’d find in a hot dog cart, but enough floor space to stage a ballet. A kitchen in Paris had a shower curtain around the sink so we could shower and do the dishes simultaneously, and another in Madagascar was outdoors and consisted of three rocks beneath a thatched roof with a plastic bucket for fetching water from the crocodile infested water.
So when a reader asked my advice on how to cook in a small space with limited gadgets, I was up for the challenge. A good cook, I replied, can cook in a broom closet, and the fewer gadgets she has in her kitchen the better. After all, most must-have appliances weren’t even invented until late into the space age. We managed to fly to the moon before we came up with food processors; nice as they are, they aren’t exactly an essential. The truth is, far too many “gourmet” kitchens are so stuffed with non-essential gadgetry that cooking a meal practically requires a rummage sale just to find a potato peeler.
Let’s face it, if it has to be plugged in and is only good for making a single dish, keep it out of your kitchen! It’s like a politician in a church; it might look good, but it’s really just for show. That goes for anything ending in the word “machine,” including popcorn machines, ice cream machines, bread machines, and pretzel machines. And get rid of any of those money makers disguised as nostalgic food makers. You know what I mean, the donut makers, cupcake makers, donut hole and cake pop makers, cotton candy makers, whoopee pie makers, and pigs-in-a-blanket and appetizer makers. I’ll make an exception for rice makers, though I personally find that a saucepan with a lid does the job just as well, but if you have and use one, then enjoy. I have a counter-top rotisserie just to twirl my chickens while they roast so who am I to judge a toy that boils rice.
Any unused gadget of any sort in the kitchen makes about as much sense as a swing set in the living room unless of course you use it. Ask yourself this question: do you actually cook? If not, don’t buy another damned thing for your kitchen and go out and have some fun. If it’s appearances you’re after when it comes to kitchen design, take a vacation instead. It’s cheaper than a professional stove, and let’s face it, the truly hip and rich know that there’s no better statement of obscene wealth than to have no stove at all, and the broke and over extended who can’t cook so much as an instant pancake but just dropped twenty bucks on a plastic pancake pen are in need of medication. Get help now, before you come home with a ten pound pizza stone to cook your frozen pizza. Your friends will love you even more because it means they don’t have to match you pizza stone for pizza stone and you can all throw away your devilish credit cards and order a large pear and arugula with goat cheese and pine nuts delivered in half an hour.
Next, clean your cupboards. Most of us have cupboards so jammed with spices older and more tasteless than dust, and opened boxes and jars of ingredients we can’t pronounce or only use for that signature dish we make every lunar eclipse that there’s no room to put away the crackers. I found a bag of marshmallows in my cupboard the other day that were so old I had to cut them apart with a knife (why I bothered, please don’t ask) and a jar of something I mixed up once upon a time that may or may not have been intended for human consumption or could have been a homemade facial toner. I dared not open it when I saw that it had spawned an undiscovered life form, but I was reluctant to toss it out because I thought it might not be done aging.
Third, think vertical. Throw up some cyclone fencing and S hooks and you can store your mother-in-law on the wall if need be. Peg board, garden trellises, curtain rods with S hooks, and stainless steel grids or Teflon-coated cooling racks, can all be stuck on the wall and everything from measuring spoons to vintage bicycle baskets can live there happily ever after. (I’m dreaming of the day I have a Velcro kitchen and everything can just be ripped off the wall and thrown back at it when I’m done.) Hang a pot rack on the ceiling and dangle some tiered baskets in the corners, and while you may not be able to take three steps without sustaining a concussion after you bump into the swinging potatoes and hanging frying pans, you will not have to rifle through any over-stuffed cupboards looking for them either.
Finally, think work stations. Keep things for baking in one place, things you cut and cook in another. Put a large cutting board on every counter, and keep your oils, kosher salt (don’t tell me
you use table), and pepper mill within reach of the stove. Don’t walk across the room to get a knife, keep them close by and sharper than scalpels and you can slice and dice your troubles away with no premeditation to speak of. After awhile, you’ll get to be like Jack the Ripper in the kitchen and you won’t think twice about the time it takes to disembowel a hapless bird or mince a clove of garlic, because it all just happened on your way to get yourself a drink.
Kitchens are really nothing more than playrooms; they’re made for messing up and dressing up and having a good time. But if you fill them with too many toys or don’t keep them clean or you design them to look like other people’s and not the way that works for you, then you just won’t use them. Treat your kitchen like your own private playroom and cooking won’t be a chore.
Just be sure you don’t invite me over, because if you’ve put together a good one, I’m moving in . . .
Photo: Sadie’s kitchen; small but organized kitchen design for the tasteful hoarder in us all.