Sinfonia Domestica

I have cooked for most of my life. Even as a small boy, my mother made sure her kids could be self-sufficient in the kitchen; In grade school, I  made sandwiches, Chef Boyardee ravioli, and baked my own brownies. All through my life, I have been happy with the pots and pans. But I’m a cook, not a chef. Nor am I one of those suburban dads who takes credit for culinary skill by charcoaling a chunk of beast over a grill on a weekend. 

No, I’m a day-to-day sort of cook; a plan a menu for the week kind of cook; the sort to check the pantry to see what we’ve got. Through two marriages and two unofficial marriages, and during those years I slogged it alone, I always kept my hand in. Several times, I was the primary cook; my second unofficial wife had no interest in the kitchen and I cooked daily for those seven years, and I spent a year an a half cooking for the family that took me in when I was on the verge of being homeless. The kitchen has become the room in the house I am most intimate with. 

Through it all, I’ve never had a really great kitchen, the kind you see on TV or in glossy magazines, with kitchen islands in the middle and a butcher block and maybe a $200 food processor with a hundred horsepower. But I’ve had perfectly usable kitchens, mostly rather small, in all the houses I’ve lived in. Never enough counter space, but one learns to make do with a tiny patch of clear space to slice and dice. 

The first I remember was when I got married to my first official wife and we lived on the top floor of a duplex. The stairs were on the outside of the house and rather treacherous in the snow. The kitchen had metal cabinets and a small electric stove. Our pots were cheap and nearly thin as tinfoil. Our dishes were Melamine and our flatware bent if the steak was too tough. She did most of the cooking, but I did the baking. For some reason, even if we did exactly the same things, my bread turned out steamy and crusty and delicious and her bread came out of the oven ready to be used as a deadweight anchor or doorstop. I’ve always been mystified by the juju of baking. Some people seem born with it, others not. 

We were poor and planned our meals from a book called Dinner for Two for $1 a Day (Dorothy Neiswender Kent, 1967). We’d buy a chuck steak and split it into three parts, the two bony parts cut for stew beef, the middle filet for a kind of steak. 

One winter, when the refrigerator went out, we left our perishables outside on the windowsill. When you are that young, poverty can actually be quite romantic. 

First kitchen; second; Phoenix kitchen watercolor by Jo Leeds

After that, my second unofficial wife — the one who didn’t cook — and I had a side-by-side duplex with a long thin kitchen and a window over the sink. Outside was a patch of garden and some woods that told of the season. We had splurged for Dansk dinnerware and felt quite sophisticated. But our frypans and pots were all dented and crappy and I longed for some quality cookware. One evening, we hosted a kind of Tupperware party for All-Clad cookware and I drooled over the saucepans. Unfortunately, they were way out of our price range — might as well have been a Maserati — and I could only gawk. 

At one point, I got a job working for the Black weekly newspaper in Greensboro, N.C., and among other things, I wrote a cooking column. I was the “Kitchen Magician,” and used my home cooking as the source for my material. (I also wrote stories, laid the paper out, wrote the headlines, wrote the editorials and managed an advice column: “Dear Carol.” I was factotum.)

World’s Most Obscene Man

When Second Unofficial moved on, I relocated to Seattle to share a house with two lesbian doctors and The Worlds’ Most Obscene Man™️. We shared cooking duties, but almost everything we made was tongue-crippling spicy. I remember making our weekly cauldron of hot sauce. It was an easy recipe: one-third onion; one-third jalapeño peppers; one-third garlic; and one-third tomatoes. It simmered all day on the stove. When TWMOM came home from work one day, he saw the pot and grabbed a spoon to taste the brew. “Great soup!” he yelled to the house. His motto: “If you ain’t sweatin’, you ain’t eatin’.” 

The year after Seattle was the low point of my life. I came home to North Carolina with no money and no job and a big, swollen and bruised case of depression. But my two saviors were my college best friend and his wife, who took me in and gave me a room in exchange for my cooking and housekeeping. It was an old multi-cat farmhouse with a woodstove in the kitchen, which was the only heated room in the house. In the winter, when I woke up, sometimes the glass of water next to the bed was frozen. Those months, we spent almost all our waking hours in the kitchen, stoking the fire, breathing the smoke and watching Masterpiece Theatre or Bob Newhart and Suzanne Pleshette.

It was 1980 and I kept notes that included our daily menus. For the week of Jan. 20, we had spaghetti on Sunday; sukiyaki on Monday, chicken and broccoli on Tuesday; souvlaki and eggplant with lemon soup on Wednesday; papas con chorizos on Thursday; hamburgers on Friday (evidently I was slacking off); and braised pork chops to end the week. We had several regular recipes to save money, including something we called “sausage and rice mess,” and there was always tuna casserole. 

Because I always cook without recipes, there was the occasional complaint: “This was really good; how are you going to make it again if it isn’t written down?” Except for a few reflexive dishes, such as spaghetti or that tuna casserole, I never cared to make repeat meals. But a few did get stuck with names, like “Chicken Motocross” and “Linguine Nilsenesca.” (My brother, who also cooks, is famous for his “Mock Hawaiian Chile.”) A few had rude names that I won’t repeat here. 

To my host’s horror, I even baked without recipe. “You can’t make a cake without measuring ingredients,” she said. But I did. A bit of this and of that and voila: cake. (In retrospect, I think there may have been some luck involved that time, but boy, I loved the look on her face when it came out of the oven looking perfect.)

Carole

I got married again a couple of years later, to the woman I spent the next 35 years with, until her death three years ago. Although Carole could walk through walls, and took no guff from anyone — she once stopped a knife fight in Norfolk, Va., by jumping out of her car and scolding the belligerents in her best schoolmarm voice — she had a surprisingly retrograde view of gender roles. “Cooking is the woman’s job,” she said, and kept me out of the kitchen for years. I couldn’t argue with her; she’d beat me up. Changing burnt out light bulbs and unclogging the toilet — those were “the man’s job.” But when she began to get sick, I took back the kitchen and I’ve held it ever since. 

Carole was crazy for red, and so we have a red Kitchen-Aid mixer and a dozen red bowls, casseroles and a dutch oven. Open pretty much any cabinet and you will find a burst of red, like roses in a garden. 

When I retired and we moved to Asheville, N.C., I got the current kitchen, which is still small, but nice enough. And with my buy-out money and pension I have been able to supplement the kitchen arsenal with some of the nicer tools I have long coveted. Over the next several years, I acquired heavy-duty triple-layer professional-grade saucepans, each weighing enough to clobber a bear. 

I have used T-Fal Pro fry pans recommended by America’s Test Kitchen. I’ve had to replace them every 18 months or so. 

But now, I got my perfect non-stick pan from Ikea

and I have kept it bright and shiny for more than a year. It is for me, the perfect 12-inch pan. I use it almost every day. 

I found a series of Ikea knives that have taken over from all the others I have owned. They are one-piece with stainless steel handles and I love them. 

I’ve owned many a knife. Before the current set, I used some really cheap ceramic knives I bought for about $4 each from Target. They each held their edge for about six months before I needed to replace them. But Target doesn’t seem to have them anymore. I miss them. 

And I have added some specialty knives I always wished I had, like a blunt-ended carving knife, a flexible boning knife, and an Asian-style cleaver. 

There is a kind of fetish I have for pots and knives. When I was young, I threw anything in the dishwasher or left them soaking in the sink. Now, I cringe when I see anyone doing that. I wash everything carefully and dry it immediately. I keep a polished gleam on the bottoms of pots. I have always loved dishwashing almost as much as cooking, and almost as much as eating. 

I have settled on a cutting board and I have a drawer full of the implements I use regularly, including a spider and tongs. Almost an antique, I have the shallow-bowl ladle that my grandmother used when I was a wee bairn. It’s one of the few heirlooms in my kit. 

The bane of my existence is storage. I have not enough cabinet space and I really don’t know what to do with all the pot lids: They seem to multiply like gerbils. 

But the cupboards are upholstered to overflow with the ingredients I need: flour, cornmeal, olive oil, baking powder, panko crumbs, canned tomatoes, dried beans and lentils, rice — the cast of thousands. 

And over the years, I’ve collected many sets of dishes, changing them out every few years for variety, which had left me with a pile of back-catalog plates and bowls that I used to have to find a place to store. Finally, I gave most of them away. But I have found a couple of old Dansk dinner plates that are my current standard, along with a nice set of elegantly simple blue-rimmed white-ware. 

So now, to the left of my flat-top electric stove I keep the pots I use regularly

and to the right is my work area, with the salt and oilcan, cutting board and garlic bowl. 

The kitchen is the place you can be creative every day; you build a chemistry experiment out of things you love to put in your mouth. It is an utter delight to have the implements of construction in your toolbox and the means in your larder. 

I love my kitchen, especially now that none of us dare venture out of the house. The kitchen has always been the beating heart where I make my offering to those I love. 

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