Our kitchen looks out on our garden, and for us one is the extension of the other. From the kitchen sink we can peer through a window into the garden, or let the air and birdsong in. Two large glass sliding doors make the boundary of kitchen and garden transparent and open. Many trips per day join these spaces, whether to bring in oranges and lemons, chard and arugula, herbs and roses, or to take out orange and lemon rinds, banana peels, potato peels, and onion skins to the compost bin, or move recyclable packaging and old newspapers out the doors and around the corner from the garden to the blue toter. Jean can see me puttering in the garden as she makes miracles in the kitchen, and wonders if this time I’ll remember to take off my garden shoes before I step onto the clean floor.
The open design means that most of the indoor space along the back of our house is shared by two concepts: “kitchen” and “family room,” but there is no obvious divider of the two ideas. One end of the open space is obvious kitchen: stove and microwave, refrigerator and sink, tiled counters and wooden cupboards. A tiled, cupboarded “island”sits in the middle of the floor at this end of the space. (As I write this, I can hear Jean cutting veggies on the island, while our cat grumbles for her attention.)
The other end of the space is obvious family room, as that concept has become standard in U.S. house design over the past several decades. A fireplace, with mantel, at the far end, and a built-in niche for a TV and “entertainment center.” Plus room for a couch and a couple of soft chairs. This end, too, has its windows that let in the garden sun and colors.
More Kitchen or More Family Room?
It is in the several feet of luxurious undetermined space between the two ends that we could decide: “more kitchen or more family room?” For us, a no-brainer. Our six-chair kitchen table, which doubles as workspace and eating area, commands the space beyond the island. Two bakers racks, one on either side of the room beyond the sliding garden doors, proclaim “Kitchen!” in what usually might have been part of the family room. One of the racks holds Jean’s cookbook library and extra cups and dishes. The other rack holds serving platters and bowls, plus the coffee and tea mugs we’ve collected over the years–and serves as the blender, mixer. and food processor station. This morning, while I was squeezing oranges and lemons into the juice pitcher on the counter near the sink, she was blending a smoothie of coconut yogurt, almond milk, strawberry jam, banana, and honey for our breakfast. By claiming family room space as kitchen, we manage most of the time to navigate around the room without getting in each others’ way. Most of the time….
In contemplating this space, I realize the irony of its two ends. At one end, the gas oven/cooktop and the electric microwave. At the other, a fireplace. We use the contemporary tools at the one end every day of the year, several times a day. We use the fireplace as “fire place” maybe once or twice a year, to build a crackling, decorative fire for the holidays, from the fallen or trimmed branches we’ve collected from the big sycamore in our front garden. But we would never think of this fireplace as essential for daily living, as long as the gas and electricity stay connected.
The Basic Meaning of a Home
For most of human history, and in many parts of our country and throughout the world today, the “place for fire” has been the heart/hearth of the dwelling. Most homes in the world have been essentially “places for fire” (whether produced by wood, coal, electricity, gas, or some other fuel) surrounded by cramped quarters, often just one room, for people, their food, their few goods, and perhaps their animals. Indeed, what is a home, basically, but a frame that can hold in the warmth generated by the fuel that is needed to cook the food and warm the space?
The central engineering problem for home design over the ages has been how to solve a huge contradiction: to keep the space warm and cook the food, while, amazingly, opening the space (1) to let out the smoke from the fire so that the inhabitants can breathe, and (2) allow in enough air to provide oxygen. The more heat that goes up through the smoke hole (AKA chimney, stovepipe, and so forth), the more fuel we have to burn to get the same amount of heat, and the more smoke we produce.
The Kitchen: the Real Family Room
Is it any wonder that even today, when homes for the affluent contain many more rooms than that which holds the fire, people still find the kitchen the central gathering place? That is where the food is prepared and served–and where the good smells draw people from all over the house. That is certainly true for us. When family visit or guests come for dinner, the kitchen is where we inevitably gather. Fortunate we are that we have the space to make that kitchen as large and useful as we have.
The Kitchen Is My Playground
I’d rather be in the kitchen than anywhere else in the house, except for those moments when I am immersed in a good book, a movie or TV show, or a hot bath. The kitchen is my playground. Like most playgrounds, it is not especially neat. Chris gets nervous when it’s messy, but I just need to know where everything is and be able to reach things easily. There’s a basic order to the way I have stored my bowls, pans, and kitchen gadgets, and I just get upset when I can’t find them where they belong when I need them.
I’ve learned from artists that they love their materials and tools almost as much as the creative process and the end results. That’s the way I feel about cooking and my kitchen, although I am not an artist. A good chef loves the look, smell and feel of good ingredients, and respects the amazing things good kitchen implements can do with them.
Cooking, for me, like writing, is about inspiration. I don’t do well when it’s just a chore. When I’m on fire with an idea, things usually turn out great. The idea can come from anywhere–a dish I saw demonstrated on TV, described in a newspaper column, or pictured in a cookbook, or simply from a tool I want to use, like the “spiralizer” for making strands like spaghetti noodles out of vegetables such as zucchini. Sometimes it’s a single ingredient–an untried vegetable from the farmer’s market, or simply a hunk of meat or fish I got at a good price that week.
Here are two recent dishes, fish and pork, that Chris particularly loved:
People who are not good cooks, I find, are suspicious of food, like the woman I know who said “Where do you buy your meat?” in a tone that implied there is something inherently suspicious and harmful about meat so it must be purchased only from the most fastidious of sellers. I’m not sure I want to put my faith in fastidious sellers. Sure, I love to get organic, free-range, drug-free meat whenever I can, but I don’t think the other is going to poison us, and I’m not sure all those claims of superiority can be trusted. My point is merely that people who are so wary of their ingredients can seldom get off the ground with cooking. In my opinion. In my experience. I could be wrong.
Now, this week my inspiration was chicken thighs. I bought a big package of 12 or so, boneless and skinless, no promises regarding the health of either the chickens or ourselves. Then I bought a smaller package of organic, free-range chicken thighs, bone-in and skin on. The extra fat and marrow makes for good eating. Then I just had to look for recipes. Here’s one using the chard from our garden:
In fact, here are enough ideas to last a month. I can’t get enough. I’ll try whichever ones I happen to have the ingredients for.