Friday, December 20, 2013

The Endless Search For The Perfect Kitchen

Before my husband and I lost our financial footing years ago, we cooked as if it were a novelty.  We would find some imaginative recipe here or there for a chorizo black bean stew or a whole chipotle roasted chicken and we would go on a quest for ingredients.  My domestic skills were sparse and my interest in developing them, even sparser.  Grocery shopping was sporadic and most daily meals were of the white bread variety, boring American food, hastily thrown together out of necessity.  Cooking for us was not a daily art.  It was a 'sometimes, if the mood strikes us' art.

When our economic security began to spiral downward we had already been eating almost exclusively organic for quite some time.  It wasn't a pretention.  It wasn't part of the novelty, it was a mandate.  My mother had become incapacitatingly ill and shown drastic improvement after studying the effects of the toxins in conventional food and making a desperate move by switching to organic.  My mother,the typical Italian matriarch, insisted her children follow suit and safeguard their health with clean food.  It didn't matter that I was 27.  It was easier to acquiesce than resist her, which is usually your best bet.  My husband was happy to go along with what he saw as move towards a more professional way of cooking.  He'd always admired chefs and cooking gurus like Alton Brown and Rick Bayless who often promoted organic foods as being of a higher quality on their shows.  When the bottom dropped out of our bank account and the sources of income began to fall away we were already deeply rooted in our organic commitment.  I'd done a fair amount of research myself by that time and just the thought of sipping on the msg in a cup o'soup gave me a symptom headache.  We were in a position that almost demanded we return to the nauseating ways of rice a roni, boxes of mac and cheese, and cheap meat pumped full of chemical cocktails.  

I was wandering through a Goodwill one day with my mother helping her look for something when I spotted what turned out to be a handmade blue and plaid waist apron.  I'd never seen any women in my life actually wear one except maybe Donna Reed on Nick at Nite.  I wasn't actually aware that they served a functional purpose.  I thought they were merely a superficial accoutrement, something worn for a man to inspire a mix of wholesome and lusty feelings associated with the power of the masculine atomic age...a uniform to direct the woman to her place in the home.  I picked up the apron idly and when my mother laid eyes on it, they dilated with her trademark expression of  Lucille Ball-esq scheming.  She snatched the apron from me, started turning it over in her hands, examining parts of it as if she were looking for something and then finally declared, "I know how you can make some money.  I'm going to teach you how to make aprons out of men's shirts and you're going to sell them."

It's funny what happened after that.  All because of an apron.   I got a single sewing lesson from my mother before she moved away and I did what she predicted.  I started making and selling aprons.  I learned how to make cold process soap and learned the value of cast iron.  I guessed that I could make broth from a chicken frame and make my own crackers rather than buying them.  My domestic interests multiplied exponentially in the interest of survival.  I refused to go back to eating unhealthy food and I found ways around the higher price tag of organic food.  I realized that I could make my own kitchen cleaner spray for a fraction of the cost of a purchased cleaner and that opened a pandora's box of homemade endeavors for me.  All because of an apron.

The thing about this homemade, handmade lifestyle is that it holds its value even when economic equilibrium returns.  I don't make crackers anymore unless I have some spare time and I feel like it.  The time it takes to make crackers from scratch is worth spending the extra $3.29 for premade ones.  I think all of us new domestics have our signature styles.  Some women will make their own bread come hell or high water, others will never spend a cent on store-bought laundry detergent.  It all keeps more cash in our bank accounts and makes a house more of a home.  But if you haven't actually designed the architecture of your own home, it can come with its own set of problems.

I have run into a very specific problem with this new way of keeping house.  And I can't believe it's just me.  We have been searching for a home to purchase for three years now, first in the country and then in the city as my husband's commute began to take a toll on his mental health.  We toured farm houses and city houses alike but with most of them, even the old farm houses, I ran into a problem.  The same problem I have here in our rental house now.  Affordable, lower to middle class houses were not and are still not built to support the self-reliant, handmade lifestyle.  So many houses lack proper mudrooms.  We have backyard chickens where we live now and there is literally nowhere to keep the muddy boots, the feed sacks, the coats.  In a non-disposable world, a certain amount of things need to be kept for future repurposing but a lack of closet space makes this almost impossible.  If you have mountains of disposable income you can invest in expensive wardrobes or other furniture for storing things but if you had that, you might not be in one of these small, affordable houses to begin with.  There's also the issue of garages.  So many houses don't have garages!  I keep wondering, where do these people keep their lawnmower?  Their gardening tools?  Their trash cans?  My husband does all of his own vehicle work from regular maintenance to engine changes so he owns quite a bit of specialty tools and welders that he's collected over the years.  We do truly love to be self-reliant.  He would love to expand this self-reliance to the area of woodworking so we can create some storage furniture for ourselves that we otherwise couldn't afford and maybe upgrade the chicken coop.  This requires space which most small, affordable homes do not have.  A lot of the farmhouses we looked at did have outbuildings that would have served in this capacity but that would have extended his commute to work which increases fuel costs.  Most of the fireplaces have either been converted to gas (useless) or filled in with concrete (even more useless).  At least with the gas fireplaces, a woodstove can be installed or the former working fireplace restored.  Wood can be obtained for next to nothing or for free but this set-up forces reliance on fuel usage.

But of all the ways in which homes are not supportive of a self-reliant lifestyle, the kitchen is always found to be the most lacking.  For a home which provides a good deal of its own produce from the garden, it's always a good idea to have a cool, dry attic for storing squashes and a root cellar for the root crops.  A pantry is necessary for storing the preserved foods that will hopefully last through the winter and of course if you're going to preserving food at all, there's the equipment.  Large kettles and pressure canners.  Stores of mason jars.  Food dehydrators.  Onions need to be stored hanging and there also needs to be drying and curing spots for various crops and herbs.  Cast iron which is always large and heavy!  I like to have an arsenal of spices for my ever-expanding repertoire of recipes but that also requires creative shelving of some sort. Then there are food processors for making large amounts of pesto and salsa for preserving and if you make any of your own cheeses, soaps, or fermented vegetables, they all have their own collections of various equipment.  And here is the major thing I have found lacking in nearly all the homes I've visited on my search:  work space.  Every Friday my family rolls out pizza dough and every Friday, the rolling process is cramped and the rolling pin catches on the other things around the workspace.  When making soap, I run out of counter space.  The cabinets in my kitchen don't hold any of our food.  The food is stored in the basement and in a small cheap cabinet I bought secondhand.  We have a delightfully large porcelain farmhouse sink though!  The only vestige of usefulness in the kitchen!

Of course there are ways around all these inconveniences.  Storing food and equipment in the basement or attic.  Using the dining room table as a workspace.  Using mason jars as glasses to cut down on the number of things that need a place to be stored.  Dehydrating foods in the oven or outside on sheets.  There are pot racks for freeing up cabinet space and magnetic knife racks for freeing up counter space.  In just a few months I will be learning a great deal more about adapting to a kitchen that is not designed to support a self-reliant, handmade family.  Our search has come to an end and we are purchasing a tiny cottage (smaller than our current cape cod) with an even smaller kitchen and even less counterspace.  I cook three meals a day from scratch and our kitchen truly is the heart of our home.  It will just be a bit more compact.  It takes capital to completely reoutfit a kitchen with shelves and racks (our current kitchen furniture setup won't fit) so it will be a slow, gradual process that evolves as boxes get unpacked.  I am thoroughly intimidated and incredibly thrilled.  A part of me scorns the tiny house movement because I know from experience, cramming a self-reliant lifestyle into a small space is a recipe for chaos and clutter but there is absolutely no part of me that wants to inhabit a McMansion.  I'm hoping that our society's move towards more sustainable lifestyles and self-reliant, handmade activities will spur a renaissance in home design, gearing them more towards functionality with less wasted space.  Until then, I will be here, on my double lot by the Olentangy River, nesting.

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