Thursday, November 01, 2012

Tiny Kitchens and Making Do

No. 1 was living in a sublet for her first few months in Austin, Texas, but she has now moved into her own apartment, one she hopes to stay in for a while. Moving is no fun. I haven’t seen her new place apart from a video tour of the complex, but she has complained about the size of the kitchen—so small with so little storage space, she’s hard pressed to store even dishes and flatware. That’s a shame, but you know, it’s difficult to hear your kid complain about one of her first living spaces without thinking back to your own…and…wait, I feel a flashback coming on!

When Husband and I were first married, we lived in Ridgewood, New Jersey, a town with a lot of moneyed residents even though we were relatively money-less. We rented the second floor of an 80-year-old house owned by a nursing home that bought up a row of houses on a lovely street. They rented the first floors out to elderly people who needed only minimal care, and they rented the second floors to people like us.

Our apartment was made up of what had been bedrooms when the house was first built. There was a tiny room we used as an office, but the larger bedrooms provided a living room, a dining room and a bedroom with a bathroom down the hall, claw-footed tub and all. Initially, we were to share the large downstairs kitchen with the elderly resident, Vivian, but she wasn’t keen on having us intruding on her space, so the nursing home gave us our own kitchen upstairs.

Where would they put such a thing in an apartment made up of bedrooms, you may ask? They put it in the walk-in closet, of course. They closed off the door into the bedroom and made it a separate room with a doorway from the hall. They installed a vintage apartment kitchen unit (read that as old) that had been stored in someone’s basement, and it looked a lot like this one, with a little sink, a small oven and stove top and a small under-the-counter fridge. And they hung a set of matching metal cabinets just above it.

So, there we were with a closet kitchen with no drawers for storage and no counter space except the small bit above the fridge. Fortunately, there was a tiny closet inside the closet, so we stored our flatware on the shelves inside it along with our pasta and peanut butter. Someone gave us a small refrigerator for extra cold storage that just fit in the corner. And let me tell you, we turned that room into a gem of a kitchen.

We papered the walls, hung curtains in the window, hung a red metal rack on the wall to hold things like pans and ladles, and I painted the metal unit a bright white. I’m sure we complained about the size of this kitchen—who wouldn’t—but we made the most of it. We didn’t know how to cook anyway, as I recall.

But it was in this kitchen that I first began to learn about cooking, because up until then, I only knew how to boil water for pasta and heat spaghetti sauce from a jar; and I remember boxes of Mrs. Paul's clam strips and Weaver's unidentifiable fried chicken parts. I roasted my first duck in that little oven and baked cookies and cakes. I learned how to steam vegetables and how to read recipes from the cookbooks I had begun collecting, and I learned I'm no good at making dumplings. We invited people over for dinner and hosted a few parties and even Thanksgiving with friends, and we proved a small kitchen is no deterrent to hospitality.

We knew an elderly woman named Betty Lichtenstine who was a character if ever there was one. She was a diabetic with one leg who spent most of her time in a wheelchair even though she was capable of walking with crutches. What fun Betty was, and what a sense of humor she had—we would sometimes take her out for dinner, and she would shout, "Oh my God!" every time we hit a bump in the road and always made a spectacle in restaurants. After I learned to cook some presentable dishes, we invited Betty up for dinner, and I prepared a feast for her to her delight.

Vivian, from downstairs, was a crusty woman who always had a cigarette in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, and she would talk about her children and grandchildren who attended the snootiest private schools in Upper Crust, New Jersey. But her family rarely came to visit her, and when they did, they seemed cold as ice. We had a decent relationship with her, though, as long as our cat didn’t escape down the front steps and wander into her apartment because she wouldn’t keep the door shut.

After my success with Betty's meal, we invited Vivian up for dinner as well, and she accepted with enthusiasm. She arrived as planned, and we seated ourselves in the dining room—our second-hand furniture and homemade curtains didn’t seem to put her off—and I served roasted duck and vegetables and rolls. Then she announced that it was her birthday, and we were the only ones to acknowledge the day. We had no idea, but I had baked a cake, so we put candles in it and made an occasion of the evening.

When I remember that tiny little closet kitchen built from old parts that had been stored in cobwebs for decades, I have only fond memories. If we had started out with the kind of money that floated around Ridgewood, outside of our circle, and had a gourmet kitchen with all the stops, I don’t believe we would have had finer meals or better memories with people like Vivian and Betty and Thanksgiving.

So, cheer up, No. 1. Your tiny kitchen just might be the scene of some memorable meals and learning to make do.


savannah said...

great memory, sugar! i remember my first kitchen, too. it was in los angeles, 2 blocks away from the home i grew up in! 2nd floor apartment of a typical cali. 3plex, landlord lived downstairs and his mother-in-law, next door to us! gallery kitchen with a built in oven and gas stove! i was in 7th heaven. thanks for the reminder. xoxoxo

dive said...

A wonderful post, Robyn. Much as I miss my huge old kitchen, the tiny kitchenette I have to use now (room for one person standing as long as I don't turn round too fast) has made a virtue out of necessity and all my cookery blog posts were made there.
I tell myself it's good that I can stand in one spot and reach everything I need.

Speedway said...

My first apartment was two rooms + 1/2 bath in an old, divided up house. I miss my 4-burner gas stove to this day. One of the charms of my first apartment was the freedom to, finally, be able to cook what I liked, to use the recipe books I'd bought. That stove gave up wonderful beef stew, cookies, cakes, and Julia Child's "Chicken Napoleon." Yum.

Katie Martins said...

this is living space number four, not counting dorms and dover... at one point does it graduate from "one of the first"? the kitchen is a downsize from the rest, but this place already feels like home. started painting this weekend, and planning a making a crafty clock for the wall involving postcards from all the places i've lived. there will also be dozens of paper cranes on strings. wall decor on a grad student budget!