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New York, New York

Kitchen Existential

What does your kitchen say about you? Worse, what does it say about your relationship? Our food writer opens his Manhattan galley to an expert on tiny kitchens—and the domestic squabbles that can explode inside them.

I didn’t think I had a problem, and I certainly didn’t think I needed an intervention. To me, interventions were for the weak, the lost, the Oprah-obsessed. But if you scratched the surface, rooted deep enough, opened doors and pulled back tablecloths, it was true—I was powerless over my Pyrex, and my kitchen had indeed become unmanageable. If I was to make peace with my postage-stamp-size Manhattan kitchen, I had to turn my will and our Fiestaware over to the care of God as I understood Him. And in this case, God was dressed in a smart white-and-blue checked shirt, khakis, and a woven belt.

Justin Spring, author of The Itty Bitty Kitchen Handbook, a pocket-sized bible for city dwellers who, like me, love and loathe their tiny kitchens, agreed to visit my apartment for a once-over. For days, I had imagined he would cast a knowing glance at the contents of my cupboards, rearrange a few tumbled shelves of pots and pans with a sure hand, and calm would prevail. Instead, the poor man stood in the living room feverishly mopping his brow, for, of course, I’d chosen one of the hottest days of the summer to exorcize my kitchen demons.

Unfortunately, due to yet another aneurysm in the New York City postal system, I didn’t receive my promised copy of his book (sent by his editor not 30 blocks away) in time for his visit, so I was unable to cram before Spring’s miraculous laying-on of hands.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t have Itty Bitty.”

He just looked beyond me, a beatific expression upon his face. “But you have a Wolf Kahn.”

I turned to the painting of an orange barn hanging on the wall. Its name is, appropriately, “Overall Orange.”

“Oh, that,” I replied. The One Who Brings Me Love, Joy, and Happiness, and whom I share the apartment with, is a big art collector, and this was the latest acquisition.

“Well, I hope you have the book I wrote about him.”

Damn! Second strike, and the man hadn’t even made it to the kitchen.

“I know we have a book on him somewhere,” I said. I riffled through the mess on the coffee table. Lying beneath a pile of cookbooks was an oversize art book, Wolf Kahn, with the byline “Justin Spring.” He smiled upon me, and I was redeemed. He even signed the book for The One, a kind of belated gift with purchase.

I finally ushered him into my poor attempt at a Martha Stewart-green kitchen, and he was taken by the original ’30s wooden cabinets and counter.

“Everyone says keep this, but it’s all going,” I said. Then added: “Shouldn’t it?”

“When?”

“When we finish the renovation.” Spring’s brow cocked, registering something. Displeasure, perhaps? I tried to read it, but he remained silent, scanning the room. So what if we were a little late in finishing the renovation? When we bought the apartment seven years ago, The One insisted we do a gut renovation before moving in. But we left two things undone: the kitchen, because we wanted to live in it before we decided what to do with it, and, oddly, a bare hallway light bulb, which still hangs from its wires. Neither of us can remember why we didn’t bother to put up a fixture, and neither of us now has the energy to fix it.

“You need to either renovate the kitchen,” said Spring, “or do a stop-gap reorganization. But this,” he swept his soothing hand across the kitchen, “isn’t working as well as it could.”

Ouch. Always competitive, I realized his comment meant there were other small kitchens out there that were better than mine, more organized. Looking back at the string of cozinhas I’ve cooked in, only my mother’s was truly organized. And she did it with nothing more than shelf space and an under-the-counter lazy Susan. No overpriced Williams-Sonoma gadgets for her. It just was neat towers of nested bowls, stacks of graduated pots and pans, and a plastic silverware divider. Where did I go wrong?

Before I developed an interest in cooking, my kitchens were the picture of über-organization. They contained nothing more than a few bowls, plates, pieces of flatware, plus one frying pan and a pot. If the contents of my batterie de cuisine couldn’t fit into a moving carton, it didn’t make it into my cabinets. It was that simple. But then along came The One, and my one carton met a van full of boxes. All of it had to fit in our first kitchen, a much smaller galley space than this one, and I didn’t see why I had to give up some of my stuff when The One had a lot more stuff to give up. But because Mamma One and Grandma One passed down so many of those dishes, glasses, and silverware (not to mention quilts, tchotchkes, and furniture—including a hulking organ), The One played the family card, and I, with nary a family tin cup to my name, had to back down, sometimes resentfully. Cabinets bulged, and as I studied cooking, I added even more to the throbbing mass behind those cupboard doors.

Perhaps seeing I was crestfallen, Spring was gentle in his assessment. “Look, your refrigerator opens the right way.”

“Through no doing of ours. It came that way,” I sulked.

“And, here,” he said, pointing to a shelf two and a half feet above the worn butcher-block counter. “You moved canisters and books out of your way, clearing a workspace for yourself. Good.”

Was he truly God-like? Had he divined our struggles from the jumble of Fiesta dishes? Did the cabinets whisper of shouting matches long forgotten?Emboldened, I swung open two cabinets above the refrigerator. “This is the most clever thing we did,” I said, acting like a bounding cocker spaniel pup trying to get approval from his master. Inside was the microwave. In an uncharacteristic moment of handyman prowess, I’d drilled a hole in the bottom of the cabinet and threaded through the cord. It kept the ugly appliance out of sight, but, of course, since it was at head level, I’d probably given myself brain cancer every time I heated up a Weight Watchers frozen dinner. Still, a small price to pay for a neat kitchen.

After a few more show-and-tells, Spring asked to go out to the living room where it was considerably cooler; his shirt was now sticking to him. I tried to keep us in the kitchen, tried to get a few helpful hints on how to fix the somewhat troubled room. Determined to extract from him just how it stacked up to other kitchens he’s seen, I pressed him for a grade. He reluctantly gave it a B.

Sitting there, conversation drifted in another, unexpected direction. The kitchen, he explained, is where relational dramas unfold, where the gestalt of a family is dissected and laid bare. “Some people are uncomfortable in the kitchen because so many bad family events happened around the kitchen table.” I thought on my childhood and of my raucous Portuguese family, who treated dinner as a time to guffaw, shout, pray, and debate. Not many troubling memories there. “It can also be a place where control and territory issues come up—especially for a couple.” Suddenly, I began to sweat. Was he truly God-like? Had he divined our struggles from the jumble of Fiesta dishes? Did the cabinets whisper of shouting matches long forgotten?

Kitchen as Rorschach test. Kitchen as barometer of the emotional health of a couple. I was certainly in Oprah territory now, laying my psyche in Spring’s hand, but it made sense to me. Appropriately, I was lounging on the couch while he sat upright in the nearby chair. As we talked, I confessed all our culinary intimacies. I mentioned the power struggles and one-upmanship. The One’s heirlooms, and how I couldn’t compete.

Spring then began telling me of his love of the art of the meal, and soon I was explaining that it was important for us, especially The One, to have different music for different parts of the evening: jazzier, upbeat music for hors d’oeuvres, classical music for dinner, and quieter music for post-prandial conversation. Location had to change, too. In the city we move from living room to dining room, back to living room. But in our new house in Connecticut, we’ll move from family room (hors d’oeuvres), to dining room (dinner), to living room (drinks and dessert).

“So dinner as narrative is important to you,” he said. Again, that beatific smile. I felt anointed, blessed. Maybe my B would be upped to an A-minus when entertaining was factored in, I thought. But dinner as narrative? It had never struck me that way. In fact, I never thought of it as a conscious decision to entertain like this. It’s just something The One and I did. Sure, we type up lists of who does what for each course so that our guests are never left without at least one host. OK, we argue over who sits where, even having name cards made for large dinner parties so the class clown of our friends isn’t seated next to the quiet one, making dinner uncomfortable for both. Granted, we scour the music collection to set the right mood (although The One has played the sound track to The Prince of Tides 100 times more than I would like). But conscious decisions? Never.

While chatting, I could see that I had appeased this Zeus of the kitchen. Even though my pots are scattered haphazardly throughout shelves and racks and I have grease to remove from the walls, pans to polish, spices to ditch, cabinets to clear out and restock using organizers from Crate & Barrel, I was essentially OK—and so was my relationship. Whatever lunacy rules in the kitchen we make up for in the dining room. I felt calm, the plumbing of my psyche purged, ready to tackle the enormous task of letting go of much of what we didn’t need or use in the kitchen. I envisioned a tortuous process as we argued over whether the plastic Chinese takeout containers were dumped (according to Spring, yes), the kitchen painted (yes), the hanging pan rack trashed (no).

But let me warn you: This unmooring of yourself via kitchen clean-up, this thrilling freeing-up as you witness years of accumulated detritus being thrown out can be dangerous. Anticipating my liberation, I blithely invited Spring and his editor (a freaking cookbook editor, for God’s sake) to dinner, post-organization. But faced with cooking for two such discerning palates, I suddenly needed all the stuff in those cabinets, overhead, underneath—to clutch on to, to soothe me. I’m a junkie who needs a fix. I can’t do it cold turkey, man, I simply can’t. I’ll clean up, Justin, I promise. I will. Right after you come to dinner.
 

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer David Leite has stated a little too emphatically that he is not a food snob. (But we have it on good authority that while other people have moldering hot dog buns and withering mesclun in their fridge, he has been know to harbor lobes of foie gras, exotic mushrooms, and bottles of champagne.) He’s quick to note that he loves plain ole mac and cheese, but he was overseen recently pish-toshing at the waitress until the chef agreed to drizzle it with truffle oil. He’s not above a McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish, though. He’s also the publisher of the James Beard Award-winning website, Leite’s Culinaria, and the author of the upcoming cookbook The New Portuguese Table: Exciting Flavors From Europe’s Western Coast. More by David Leite