as spaces of transformation and learning.
The first kitchen I spent a lot of time in was in a two-bedroom apartment in Huntington Village, on the north shore of Long Island. It’s a town tucked in between the county lines, dividing Nassau from my native Suffolk. I was born in its hospital (so was Mariah Carey) and went to high school in the town, too, despite growing up much farther east and all the way south, in Patchogue.
After college, I ended up back there in a succession of three apartments. In the first one, I started to experiment with not eating meat, cooking myself entire sheet-pan meals of vegetables alone. In the second, which was very ugly, with the popcorn ceiling of a sad office, I bought myself a lime-green KitchenAid stand mixer and started to learn how to bake; in this kitchen, I learned how to cook beans and grains. Here, I went vegan.
The final Huntington kitchen was big, for an apartment kitchen. The whole apartment was the nicest I’d lived in up to that point, with a lot of light, real wood floors, a washer-dryer in its own nook, and white walls, located over a karate studio and next door to a shop called Henna Happiness that I went into only rarely, as the owner would always give me an unsolicited and deeply accurate psychic reading. The rent was $1600 per month.
From this apartment, I could walk to the now-closed indie bookstore and the Cinema Arts Centre, and go get a coffee and a vegan muffin at a gluten-free bakery when I was allowed to leave my computer for 10 minutes a day in a break from my copyediting job.
It was in that kitchen that I accidentally began a bakery, and I would spend my weekends endlessly experimenting. I didn’t cook much savory food here, except once I made 100 pastelillos filled with spiced kidney beans for a pop-up. That describes my initial forays into in the kitchen well: I didn’t make dinner, but I would make 100 pastelillos from scratch for strangers. I would make a birthday cake for friends, but more often I was baking cupcakes to be sold to strangers at a natural grocer in Massapequa. I went big. I’d need the psychic proprietor of that shop to tell me why.
The kitchen I have now is the one in which I’ve done the most cooking of my life. This is incidental, because we moved in two weeks before we all received a push notification alerting us to this flu becoming an official pandemic, and also circumstantial, because food in San Juan is expensive as hell and going out to eat doesn’t provide the variety, quality, or value one can have when cooking for oneself. (I’ll be writing more about the pleasures and difficulties of a small city next week.)
The apartment on the whole is the biggest and dreamiest I’ve ever had, fulfilling my fantasy of having a high-ceilinged Old San Juan apartment with beams and Spanish arches. It’s everything I wanted, though it’s not without its quirks. (How could it not be, being in a house constructed a couple hundred years ago?) There was that time the pigeons moved in, and the tops of my spice jars rust from the salt air of the ocean. But who can complain about the salt air of the ocean?
I love this kitchen despite itself: It’s small and opens onto our patio, so anytime I slice a piece of toast off a loaf of bread then move to the dining room to eat, I return to a sparrow helping itself to some crumbs. Keeping the patio clean is a challenge, but I do feel so put-together when I can hop out for a few sprigs of an herb. There’s only about a foot of counter space built in, so I do my work on a baker’s table that I recently expanded, to my great joy, with a secondhand IKEA table. It’s the second kitchen that’s been a place of real transformation, of peace and respite, for me.
In pictures, for the last few months, I’ve been trying to show the mess of it—that spices and wine corks are usually scattered around, that there’s a paint chip here or a splash on the wall that I need to clean up over there. I don’t want it to be a studied imperfection, some sort of claim to relatability: It’s just a real kitchen.
This is what I like to see in Apartamento, including the most recent issue, which features cookbook author Claudia Roden (she was also in a 2010 issue). She talks about food becoming fashionable. Her kitchen has an enviable double stove, and she sits at a large table with bread, vegetables, herbs in a bouquet set in water so as not to wilt—it’s a big, beautiful kitchen, and it’s the kind you can also see as a setting for work and leisure alike.
The other kitchens I’ve been admiring are in Italy—white walls and minimal, distressed furniture. Inspiration for ours.
When we moved in to our apartment, the small electric stove was broken: This was a stroke of luck, as we got to get a new gas one, fueled by propane tanks delivered by men on a truck. Cooking with gas isn’t just an aesthetic preference in Puerto Rico; it’s about being able to cook if and when the power goes out (have you wondered about the irony in the Bad Bunny song “El Apagón”?) thanks to the faulty grid, and about mitigating the endlessly rising cost of electricity. Have you ever been boiling water for gnocchi when—poof, out goes the electricity, all the electricity in the city, so what the hell are you going to eat? I prefer to avoid that. I can cook in the dark; I can’t cook without heat.
It’s a 20-inch oven, though, with one rack, and I try never to use more than two burners at once. If I’m using three, I’ve fucked up somewhere along the line. It’s in the darkest corner of the kitchen; even when the sun is at full blast, I strain to ensure onions are the right shade of brown.
I learned how to be dexterous in the kitchen while I was baking and got better while cooking at a wine bar, but I have added new moves to my repertoire because I am constantly avoiding starting a fire by dripping water from the lid of a pot where I’m steaming onto the flame of the burner where I’m sautéeing. I’m calm if a fire does erupt upon some small pool of oil I hadn’t noticed: I just top it with an upside down baking pan and wait for it to pass.
I never started a fire, even a small one, with a larger stove, though I know it’s a cop-out to blame my tools. The nicest stove in this size that we could get at the time was stainless steel, which both my mother and now mother-in-law warned against, because of how dirty it would get and how difficult it is to clean. They were right, as mothers tend to be.
This is the kitchen I curse and adore, that I sweep up daily, where I take my precious food photos, where I have cried while making shortbreads in the May humidity while doing recipe development for a cookbook (not my own), where I have burned so many pots of chickpeas while writing in the other room and made the hummus anyway. I have reached new heights of spirituality while cooking dinner after the beach and blasting “WTP,” though you can usually find me listening to dark but dancey synth stuff these days (“Unfamiliar” by Tempers is a favorite). When I was a baker, it was Nada Surf’s entire discography that kept me company, to the point that when I saw them live, it was strange to find out they lived anywhere but inside my own head.
This stove where I spend so much time now, with which I have a love/hate relationship, I am grateful for it, for its lessons in patience and humility, in fire control and agility. I am grateful, too, for the lessons in what my dream kitchen would be, if ever I have the opportunity to construct it. I don’t need anything fancy, just a bit more space. I can make do with anything, though, the knowledge of which is the best gift this appliance has given me. I was cooking recently and recorded myself into my phone, in anticipation of writing this essay, and I said, “I think it's been the best learning experience for a cook, for a recipe developer, to work in a teeny-tiny kitchen on a teeny-tiny stove, because I know that anything is possible.” I know that anything is possible!
British writer Rebecca May Johnson’s book Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen will be out this month, and I recommend it for anyone who likes to think about the kitchen as more than a place to put together a meal for sustenance. It is a feminist call to intellectualize the domestic—people want to be chefs, as Roden notes, but home cooking is the more significant act around the world. Much more significant than restaurants! Johnson reimagines and reconstructs the kitchen as a space for critical thought, for a body in motion.
I begin to think about an epic in the kitchen, about devoting my writing to what I do there. I have the suspicion that what I am doing in the kitchen is more than I think I am doing in the kitchen. When I take stock of my life or make a narrative of it, I usually do not include recipes or my understandings of an onion. But if I brush this aside, I will brush myself aside, under the carpet, and I’ll disappear into a crack in the wall like the ‘I’ in Ingeborg Bachmann’s novel Malina — poof!
But if I brush this aside, I will brush myself aside… Later she writes, “Making tomato sauce is a position as good and as serious as any other.” Cooking is my position; even when I’m writing in another room, burning the beans, I’m writing from the kitchen.
This Friday’s From the Kitchen for paid subscribers will be a recipe for what I’m calling a tropical sponge cake: spiced banana cake with coconut milk dulce de leche, plus optional additions. See the recipe index for all past recipes available to paid subscribers.
Next week’s essay will be about cities, so going back to some reading on the subject, including Georges Perec’s brief An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris.
I made Dishoom’s jackfruit biryani again after a long time. It’s still very good. I made za’atar fries as part of my effort to perfect the oven fry—very good. Above is the date caramel tart in tahini shortbread crust that I published for paid subscribers a couple of weeks ago. I believe it’s very good!
Such a beautiful read :) Whenever I moved into a new apartment, I always wondered who used the kitchen in the past and how they used it. Or who's using it now after I left?
“A real kitchen” —- I love this. And btw I, too, live in Suffolk County!