My life is bizarre and unstable right now. On May second, I was a grad student living in campus housing at Utah State University, waiting for commencement to start. Most of our possessions were in boxes, and we were preparing to move back to Missouri.
A month and some change later, I’m still a grad student. We’re living with family in Missouri, and most of our possessions are still in boxes. I’m trying to finish my thesis, find work, and maintain my physical and emotional health. It’s not easy to juggle everything, but I’m surviving with Emily’s help, and I’m grateful for everything I have. Sometimes, though, I need to escape from it. I’ll read books that have nothing to do with my research, and I’ll imagine cooking in my own kitchen. I remember the tools I’ve collected over the years, and recipes I’ve adapted for the ingredients and people in my kitchens. Tamar Adler’s “An Everlasting Meal” inspired me to write about the things that played a role in our last kitchen, and I hope will define the next one.
Most of my cooking happens in cast iron of some sort or another. We own three pans from different origins, and Emily will attest that at least one is dirty pretty much all the time. One is an enamel dutch oven that we got while living in St Louis. It’s such a staple that I can barely remember not having it around, but it was definitely a present at some point. I’ve riddled the inside with scars and scratches from metal whisks and scorch marks from overheated oil. The outside is discolored from more spills than I’d care to admit. Another is a black Lodge dutch oven that gave up staying seasoned long, long ago. It’s my workhorse for large quantities of baking and slow cooking. The lid is stained with steamy lard from cooking beans for hours. The whole thing imparts a faint odor of onion and cinnamon to anything that sits inside it for too long. I’ve heard of bakers who keep separate pans around for sweet and savory, but that’s not my temperament. Our cast iron skillet is about ten inches, and lives on the stove, where it’s just a quick scraping away from the next meal. I removed it from a life of decorative luxury above my parents’ fireplace about six years ago. It lived in each my grossest kitchens when my roommates and I refused to do dishes, until Emily rescued it from complete squalor. Hurried cleaning early in it’s domestic life has left it warped, but it’s as timeless and resilient as the mountains we just left.
We have stainless steel cookware from the wedding that we have used and abused. Thanks to Emily’s valiant efforts the entire set remains almost unstained inside and out. Thanks to mine it has a tiny bit of corn tortilla charred on the smallest pan. Glass lids make them great for keeping an eye on dishes that need both steam and coddling, like rice. Because the bakeware all came about at different times, I’ve destroyed them unevenly. I scratched the brownie pan when its namesake getting stuck and the cookie sheets are shameless shades of brown.
I have a confession to make: I have an addiction to spoons. Not tablespoons and teaspoons, which I leave to Emily until I develop an eye for silverware aesthetics. Wooden cooking spoons. I think we own some from at least six different “sets.” Some are slim and bamboo, some are heavy and oak, and they’re all a little scorched because I leave them in pots too long. One almost killed my old roommate when a small piece broke off and hid in the tomato sauce. Another exists in a confusing realm between spoon and spatula, with no curve and a sharpish edge for scraping. I use it to test vegetables and mix sturdy breads that threaten to snap slender spoons. There are countless spatulas, serving spoons, measuring cups and other things throughout the kitchen. Each serves its own purpose, although I can’t recall any memories of most at the moment.
Those things are only tools. They’re tools with stories and stains, but not the spirit of the kitchen. I feel the same way about recipes the first time I use them: they’re a means to an end, but they have the soul of some other kitchen. I don’t begrudge them their origins because most of my favorite food started out as a recipe from some other cook. Simple meals, like PB&J or a cheese plate, don’t get changed much. There’s not much to change, and both of my dads are quick to remind me not to fix things unless they’re broken. I try to listen to people who are older or wiser than I am, and they qualify on both counts. Everything with some complexity to it, though, I refuse to leave alone. One of my favorite recipes is a simple soup that I think came to us through Shutterbean. It uses white beans, olive oil, tomato paste, onion, garlic, stock, seasonal vegetables, and maybe a little meat. Pretty much anything will garnish this simple soup: parmesan, lemon, fresh herbs, greens, croutons, pasta, other vegetables, more oil, or a pat of butter all seem to work well. I’ve never tried beets for fear of a brash, magenta dinner, but I’m sure proponents of pink food would be happy with the flavor.
Another favorite I’ve found myself craving lately is a burrito I found over at Cooking Comically. The meal mixes sweet, savory and spicy with reckless abandon, and I only have to dirty one cast-iron to make it. Chicken marinates in pineapple juice and cooks in a blend of cuminy taco seasoning, cinnamon, and flour. Onion, peppers, and pineapple chunks saute until they’re soft, and the whole thing ends up wrapped in a tortilla. My spice blend never ends up the same way twice, and any number of fillings round out the flavors: salsa, sour cream, beans, potatoes, rice, cheese, shredded cabbage or lettuce all work fine. I’m sure it would taste just as good with chunks of beef, shredded pork, or no meat at all, but the chicken has always felt right to me.
My kitchen is a place of reckless abandon. I’m always out of something or other that I forgot to get at the store, so I find myself thinking “well, that’s close enough” more days than not. My tools come from the European tradition, but my ingredients and recipes span the globe. I’m never quite sure what I’m going to make with any warning. Plans for soup become pasta, plans for pasta become sandwiches, and leftovers mix with eggs to create frittata. Emily keeps me grounded, of course. I’m sure she’s tired of reminding me that burned food doesn’t taste as good and is harder to clean, but she always says it with a smile anyway. I learned Italian and Mexican recipes for her, and she tried Thai for me. Our last kitchen had an essence that was ours, despite sensitive smoke alarms and weak range hoods. I’m sure the next one will have a similar soul, at least at first. What we have and like will change in time, and so will the spirit of the kitchen. If not, it would just be a collection of tools and recipes.