The concrete is cool beneath my bare feet. It’s summer, so the windows are open and the breeze rustles the leaves and carries the scent of the outdoors into the kitchen, where I stand at the counter, contemplating dinner. The sunshine-yellow walls lend a soft glow to the shady space and the floor is a pleasant contrast to the summer warmth, a heat kept somewhat at bay by the surrounding trees. We try not to run the small air conditioner—stationed in one of the two kitchen windows—which must work too hard to keep the entire house reasonably cool. Instead, we rely on shade and gusts of fresh air to keep our home tolerable during the hot, thick Arkansas days. In the winter, the floors are frigid even with thick socks and slippers on, but in the summer, it is enjoyable on bare feet. Even when it reaches the hottest part of the day, the floor is a relief as I remove stifling shoes and spread my toes to allow the coolness to seep in, and we are thankfully past the period where they sweat from the sudden temperature changes of late spring. I do not use our oven much in the summer.
Neko, our tubby tortoiseshell, lies with warm belly pressed into the cold floor, regarding me with amber eyes, waiting for me to offer a treat: a dab of peanut butter, a corner of cheese, or a spoon of canned cat food. The cat and one person are all the space holds comfortably: we live in a small duplex with only a corner that holds standard kitchen appliances as well as a washer and dryer. Along the one wall that opens out into the living room, stand the refrigerator, the storage freezer with the microwave on top, a bookcase transformed into a pantry by simply adding food to its shelves, the finicky gas stove, and the dryer. We don’t have much counter space, so the dryer also serves as a baking station with my beloved second-hand Kitchen Aid in a place of honor and easy reach. Parallel to this wall and separated by a pitifully small gap reside the few kitchen cabinets full of dishes and bakeware, the sink, and the one stretch of counter, which is dominated by canisters, dish-drainer, and toaster-oven. I often gaze out the window above the sink as my hands methodically scrub plates, cups, cast iron skillets. No dishwasher, alas. Along the short connecting wall—and below the home of the air conditioner—is a “temporary” prep table, housing a massive butcher block remnant from a friend’s kitchen renovation. It is here where carrots are chopped, onions diced, tofu cubed for our latest meal. In front of this table is a kitchen stool acquired for $5 from a yard sale that my husband loves because he grew up with a stool in the kitchen, and the cat loves because she can sit on it and beg for treats, and I love because it becomes additional space for my copy of How to Cook Everything Vegetarian or the mixing bowl that I need to set aside and have no room for.
The kitchen itself has a spot for every item, though it may seem a bit cluttered to the untrained eye: the bookshelf-turned-pantry is loaded with homemade pickles and jams made from our own garden’s bounty or farmers’ market purchases, as well as canned tomatoes and coconut milk, boxes of pasta, jars of beans and rices in several colors and varieties, little tins and sacks of exotic spices. I occasionally attempt to inventory, to sort, to tidy up the shelves, but in the rush of cooking and living, the sheer volume of random ingredients acquired from Indian and Asian grocers and health food stores and the bargain bin at Marvin’s IGA bursts from their holes and spills out until I’m once again digging through piles of sacks looking for the cumin or that little blue Ziploc of matcha powder or the cinnamon sticks. Once, in a frenzy of cleaning and sorting, I accidentally threw out cumin seeds because it looked like fennel and we already had lots of fennel and my husband had neglected to label it. We then proceeded to yell at each other, me at him about labeling the damned spices from the bulk bins, him at me about yelling at him and throwing out items I couldn’t identify. It ended with us laughing so hard that we had to lean on the kitchen counter and catch our breath.
It’s afternoon, and because of where our house is, the sun doesn’t shine directly in the windows at five o’clock, as I’m removing ingredients from the refrigerator to begin cooking. With the summer air slowing my blood, I feel like cooking something simple, light, crisp. A salad, perhaps, with greens picked from the garden? Or Asian-inspired summer rolls, served with a spicy peanut sauce we love so much? A quick stir-fry sounds good, where I can toss anything and everything lurking in the crisper, along with a splash of soy, a dash of sriracha, a hearty dollop of ginger and garlic for flavor. Served over rice and eaten with the chopsticks given to us after a friend’s trip to
, stir-fry is one meal we never seem to tire of because of its infinite possibilities. I begin measuring rice to cook on the stove while I proceed to prepare the vegetables and heating oil in the large cast iron. I rarely measure anything anymore—just a pour and a spoonful and a taste until it’s just right. It’s an art taught to me by my husband, who cooks by feel. I’m much more of a baker, which requires strict measuring and precision and following directions carefully, but he balances out my desire for constant order, and I learned how to cook by taste instead of methodically moving through a recipe. It certainly makes cooking more of an adventure, though it can be unfortunate when I make something delicious and I have no idea what proportion of ingredients went into it and my friends want the recipe. Japan
Sometimes, especially when there’s more than one cook and her cat, I wish our kitchen were spacious, all white and stainless steel, polished and stacked neatly. Instead, I have clutter and piles and a blocked set of drawers that I keep trying to get my husband to set free. Sometimes I wish the sacks of fragrant spices were jars lined up in alphabetical order, locked sterilely away in a cabinet instead of out for any visitors to eye and pass their silent judgment. Like my mother before me, I long for a space that belongs in the pages of a Martha Stewart magazine, where there is a place for everything and everything in its place. But unlike my mother before me, I know better than to think that I will ever actually live in such a space because even if I had that white kitchen, it would be spattered with cake batter or from sauce or from jams. There would be dishes in the sink and food on the counters and the cat would insist on being on the floor, leaving bits of herself behind for me to constantly sweep up. Occasionally, it would be in order, but only because we went out for Thai that day, or one of us got tired of the clutter and cleaned it up. Our kitchen is simply too often used to ever be gleaming and perfectly clean—something is always out of place because of a project in process or because of a project just completed. A true workshop.
It doesn’t stop me from trying to replicate the kitchen in my head, though. That kitchen has everything labeled and easy to find and that kitchen doesn’t have a table half-blocking the column of drawers, making opening and closing them futile and frustrating and punctuated by OWs and DAMN-ITs and SHITs. In my mind, the cabinets have been repainted from the strange orange-pink that looks like tainted Pepto to a cheery red to complement the cheery yellow, or a demure gray. The stove actually lights when I flip on the gas instead of intermittently working and then having to be lit by the cigarette lighter we keep in the spice rack. The detritus on the floor has found a place and the kitchen is more spacious and open because the clutter has been tidy squirreled away. The dishes are always promptly washed (by my husband, of course). We have a dishwasher. I can stand to use the oven in the summer in this kitchen, without having to stand scantily clad and pouring sweat. And no matter how much we cook, the kitchen is always clean and tidy because we wash up as we work and the floors are swept free of any debris.
But I love our kitchen, piles and all. I love the rows of canning jars hidden high above the kitchen window, with the door that falls open occasionally, scaring whomever is standing by the sink. I love the temporary table that hasn’t moved in the two years we’ve lived in the house, which hides away our recycling bin, and boxes of jars found while clearing out an abandoned attic. It’s often a frustrating space, limited in counter and cabinet and overflowing with bakeware and ingredients. But it’s also a space where I create. It’s where I stir batters and release the worries from the day while pulling muffins with perfectly mounded tops from the old gas oven. It’s where I meditate, measuring flour and sugar and butter, blending and beating into creamy perfection. It’s where I have created the perfect pancake, baked cupcake after delectable cupcake and explored countless recipes, flavors, and textures. When I enter the kitchen, even when it swirls with chaos, the act of opening a cookbook and setting out the ingredients and mixing bowls is an act of purification and calming. I am totally focused when I bake, my mind devoid of the never-ending to-do list or anxiety about tasks or stress from having too much to do and too little time. When I cook, I enter a mini-Zen state where it’s just me, the cookbook, the ingredients, and the making. I exist because I create.
In this kitchen, my husband and I learned to cohabitate and cooperate and forgive each other. When we first started cooking together, he would relegate me to the corner to open cans. After I demanded more skillful tasks, he allowed me to chop vegetables, but he often hovered so much that I wanted to chop him. He said it was because he was afraid I’d cut myself with my limited knife skills; I think it was because his engineering mind does not enjoy when other people do tasks less efficiently—basically, not how he would do them. We move in cycles with our cooking together. Ideally, we complete tasks in separate spaces with separate goals and reunite to bring the dish together. I’ll make the sauce, he’ll cook the pasta. Or I’ll chop the vegetables, and he’ll fry the tofu. At the other end, he stands over my shoulder critiquing my pancake cooking or adding spices and ingredients to my soup without asking me, and I scold him for cooking with too much fish sauce or using butter when a little olive oil would be just fine or for dumping too many ingredients in my macaroni and cheese when I just want it to be straightforward and simple. Yet, we generally manage to work peaceably in the kitchen, listening to music and chatting amiably, asking one another questions, such as What is it missing? Do you think it needs more salt? Do you want quinoa or rice with this? Many of our sweetest moments happen in the kitchen, like when I walk up behind him while he’s stirring something and wrap my arms around his waist and bury my face into the best part of neck, warm and smelling of him, or when he wraps me in a strong embrace. He has learned to wait for me to ask for help if I want it, rather than listing what is wrong, and I have learned that sometimes allowing him to dump lots of spices in a dish makes it pretty tasty.
Our kitchen is the place where we have fought over dishes, he insisting that I not wash dishes after I failed to get them clean enough (fine with me) and especially when I stabbed myself in the arm by leaving a paring knife pointy end up in the dish-drainer (no, it was not intentional); unfortunately, I sometimes have to prod him to wash them. It is the place where he made our wedding food, beginning with durum semolina and a pasta roller and ending with trays and trays of the best vegetarian lasagnas that you’ve ever eaten and freshly baked bread. We spend so much of our days thinking about and discussing food, followed by cooking and sharing, that the food at our wedding was required to be spectacular. And spectacular it was, with everyone dishing up plates of lasagna, carving up pies, and diving into the cakes and homemade ales, much of it made in our small, humble kitchen.
It’s where we’ve hosted wildly successful parties, everyone standing around in the kitchen with plates and drinks in hand or on the counters, sampling the food we’ve created with our two hands or that friends have brought with them. Many of our friends are exceptionally good cooks, and it’s always fun to see what everyone will bring to a social gathering. When we host a party, we always have plenty of good, homemade food—I generally make a cake that is both a feast for the eyes and the mouth, and he makes these amazing steamed dumplings that are never the same—and the wine and beer are plentiful. It turns out that a small space makes for a great gathering, since everyone is forced into close proximity and conversation and the few chairs are constantly being vacated and occupied in random rotation. We love hosting parties in our tiny home because it makes the whole house light up and feel alive, buzzing with music and conversation and the scrape of plates and the groans of full stomachs. On nights like this, you can almost feel the kitchen smile with the pleasure of a place satisfied with having a purpose. And ultimately, that’s why I love our kitchen: it’s where we live.