Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Kitchens (a post that has been properly aged)

I found this unposted post sitting in my files...

I have lived, by my estimate, in at least fifteen different places in my life, including all my college apartments. That means I’ve had over fifteen kitchens. But here I am, fast approaching my 35 birthday, and I still don’t feel like I’ve found my kitchen.

The important thing to realize is that I still feel like my kitchen is out there to be found, or at least to be built, which speaks to the importance of the kitchen as a symbol of home. I have no sense that someday I will find my bathroom or bedroom or hallway, but my kitchen exists in my imagination like my garden, my studio.

My first home, in which my family lived until I was eight, had a tiny kitchen. We usually ate in the dining room, because to eat in the kitchen required pulling the table away from the wall and carefully easing ourselves into the chairs that just barely fit around it. Once all six of us were seated, there was no space for anyone to get up. If you needed the ketchup, the person seated next to the fridge had to perform contortions to get it for you.

One of my strongest memories is of my mother, not a woman prone to ebullience, spinning around in her brand-new and much larger kitchen the day of our move, like Julie Andrews in the opening of Sound of Music.

That was the kitchen I leaned to cook in, and it was serviceable, but unattractive. There was plenty of counter and cabinet space, and a pantry with its own lightbulb, which I found very intriguing at the age of eight, and two lazy Susans, which were more exciting still. But the walls were covered in a particularly hideous seventies wallpaper of green and brown plaid, and the cabinets were a dark wood, the floors an ugly beige linoleum.

That kitchen was never the sort of warm and pleasant place my grandmother’s kitchen was. Her kitchen was wallpapered with the same paper that had been in my mother’s old kitchen, a pattern of sepia butter churns and spinning wheels I found very comforting. She also had one of those tall steel stools with the stepstool beneath, which was my particular place in her kitchen. I think the woodwork was white, which I suspect is the source of my fondness for white paint in kitchens, though elsewhere I dislike it.

My kitchens in college were for the most part small and utilitarian, until my senior year, when I shared a large apartment in an old house with three friends. That kitchen was big and warm in a very “children of hippies” way, and, given the excess of time college students have, usually filled with cooking projects, rising bread or sprouting beans. My post-college years in New York were characterized by kitchens so small two people couldn’t stand in them at once, and my cooking suffered a long lapse as a result. Since I moved back to Massachusetts, I have lived exclusively in apartments in the older double- and triple-decker houses that provide the cheapest apartments in this overpriced housing market. (I have not lived in a house built more recently than 1875 since I was an undergraduate.) These kitchens have generally had a few things in common:

1) Old appliances. Landlords don’t replace stoves and refrigerators until they absolutely have to. Exhibit 1: my rusting stove.
2) But those old stoves are, thank ye gods, always gas. I had no idea until very recently that gas is considered upscale in some markets, and that the majority of Americans suffer through electric stoves.
3) No dishwasher, though. I have no idea how to use a dishwasher.
4) The nicest of my apartments had a disposal, very lux. The rest haven’t.
5) Landlord linoleum. The advantage – it never looks really dirty. The disadvantage – it never looks really clean. Oh, and it’s ugly.
6) Lack of cabinet space.
7) But a decent amount of overall footage. I haven’t really had a small kitchen since NYC.

I have deep ambivalence about my current kitchen, which is typical of these kitchens. I hate the ugliness of the dark, faux-wood-panelling walls, the mismatched backsplash, the stove that’s too old to ever really get clean. But I love the fact that I have enough space for both a deep-freeze and a wine fridge, that I have a pantry, that the stove and fridge and sink are arranged in a reasonable order to facilitate actual cooking. It’s not lovely, but it’s a very functional space, and for that I am deeply grateful.

And it has no granite countertops, which is good.

Not that there’s anything wrong with granite countertops. But those triple-deckers that have served as reasonably priced housing for working-class families, new immigrants, and young people for all these years have been bought in huge numbers in the last few years by people who want not homes, but profits. The first thing they do to raise the value of the apartments they want to turn into condos is gut the kitchens and install islands, granite countertops, and stainless steel appliances. These things are all fine as they go, but they serve to artificially increase the value of the space. It’s the same size apartment in the same neighborhood with the same lack of yard, but now it costs three times the price, because it’s been given a veneer of luxury materials. Now everyone making less than six figures is locked out of the housing market, which pisses me off.

Also, I don’t care for the aesthetic. All these remodeled kitchens look the same to me, the industrial edge hinting at the underlying message of status and power, so far from the warmth and security I want from a kitchen. My favorite kitchens, in my homes and others, have all fallen into two categories – hippie kitchens with lots of wood and plants and old-fashioned kitchens with gingham curtains and white paint. Stainless steel anything would look out of place in either (though I have a friend whose stainless steel stove looks charmingly bright and shiny in her red, casual kitchen). But, beyond knowing that, I am not entirely sure what my eventual kitchen will look like. As far as purchasing kitchen items goes – a table and chairs, a hutch, and so forth – I suffer from a not-unusual form of paralysis. Since I don’t really believe that my current apartment counts as my HOME (that’s someplace in the future, with a garden and walls I can paint), I don’t dare buy anything permanent for fear that the real place will require a different choice. Until I see the kitchen of my heart, I am not sure how I am going to reconcile the warm wood of the hippie kitchen with the bright white and red of grandmother kitchen. So I don’t invest in anything, though my current kitchen chairs have all been salvaged from street trash, and my sideboard is a salvaged desk with a piece of granite on top (a gift from an old housemate) and a skirt around the bottom to hide the pots and pans beneath. Someday I want a real kitchen, but I also worry about living in somedays, as if my real life is something I’m preparing for, not living.

I have been moving beyond that feeling in the last few years and have actually invested in some things for my kitchen – a few really good pots and pans (my wedding gift pots came from just before the kitchenware market exploded, when Revereware was still the standard), the deep-freeze. But my kitchen is still not my kitchen, and I don’t know that it can be until it’s mine, until I can paint the walls, replace the cabinets, pull up the linoleum. Maybe the next one…


Tim said...

What a truely beautiful comment. The kitchen certainly is the heart of the home and I adore mine. No it is not perfect - 1880's house - 1970's kitchen. But despite a bit of dark faux timber cabinetry it does feel like the heart of the house. It has the orginal wood burning range, huge windows over looking my vege garden, we painted the walls a burnt orange and hung an reproduction french provincial chandeller. It is filled with warmth, and freshly baked aromas and joy.

Jeff said...

Thank you for this post. I smiled while I read it, and let out a muted YES! several times. This one gets bookmarked.