Zsofia McMullin works in publishing and lives in Connecticut with her husband and son. She blogs at http://zsofiwrites.com.
When I rented my first apartment right after college, I had two pots, a glass baking dish, a set of four plates and mugs, and a colander. And wine glasses, of course—mismatched, most of them left over from college parties. Even though it wasn’t much, I couldn’t imagine when I would use most of these things. Under what circumstances would I need more than four plates? When was I going to bake anything?
Then a care package arrived from my parents. Inside the box was a wooden cooking spoon and a pair of salt and pepper shakers that looked like tiny mushrooms with red caps. When I opened the package it struck me how I never even thought to have any of these things, but how obvious, necessary, and indispensable they became as soon as they entered my kitchen.
My kitchen now is much better equipped with electric mixers, spatulas, pie plates, a garlic press, cutting boards, matching glasses, and place settings for at least eight. But my arsenal of tools and gadgets will never live up to my parents’ kitchen when I was a child—and even now. As I was setting up my first household with just the bare minimum, I think it was hard for them to imagine my life without wooden spoons and saltshakers.
I can hear my mother’s voice—the exact tone, the exact intonations, as she said “Do you mean to tell me you don’t have a mandolin in your kitchen?” The question wasn’t an accusation, but more like wonderment at a life lived without such an essential piece of kitchen equipment. And soon after that a mandolin appeared in the mail so that I could cut paper-thin slices of cucumber for salads.
I thought of this recently when I was in the kitchen with my mom and she fished out a small jar of horseradish from the back of her fridge to make her own cocktail sauce. I don’t have horseradish in my fridge. I don’t have a lot of things that my parents or my grandmother’s kitchen had; things that I understood to be measures of your homemaking skills, your resourcefulness, your life.
Because there are certain things every good household should have.
A toolbox with those tiny screwdrivers used to fix watches and glasses. A reliable drill. Perhaps a saw. Extra light bulbs, screws, nails, a measuring tape. My first tool kit for my first apartment was put together by my dad in a cardboard box that served as a makeshift tool box. He labeled it with a blue marker: nails, screws, hammer, screwdrivers. Everything a girl needs for quick fixes around the house.
One of my favorite memories of my grandmother is the way her linen closets smelled: a combination of soap—something industrial and economical, nothing fancy—and that stuffy closet smell, from years of using the same shelves for the same purpose. They were full of neat stacks of ironed sheets, kitchen towels, and handkerchiefs. There were extra pillows and blankets protected by tiny satchels of lavender. In another closet were bras and panties and scary girdle-like garments for special occasions only. A nice dress for the theater. Pantyhose. Perfume.
My parents and my grandmother both had a special cabinet designated as “the bar,” where they kept liquor, peanuts, chips, and chocolates in case guests stopped by—and those days people did do that. On lazy Sunday afternoons my parents’ friends sipped cognac in our living room, smoked cigarettes, and talked about so many things that I didn’t understand. I just understood that I wanted to be an adult and join them—and if I was quiet and didn’t interrupt I could sit there in their midst and try to make sense of their conversations. They nibbled on snacks served in tiny dishes and on sandwiches with little colorful flags. My brother and I had to wait for our guests to eat first and then we could also have a few of those sandwiches and later have a tiny sip of the sticky, strong brandy served in delicate, round glasses.
And of course, every good household must have food. Lots of food. Flour, sugar, salt—extra bags of them in reserve in case of a bad storm. Extras of everything in the big pantry: cans of food, jars of jam, boxes of pasta and rice. Packets of bouillon and spices, breadcrumbs, oil, matzo meal.
A freezer full of pig parts and giblets and bone for soup. Leftovers in tidy, marked containers. Ice cream. Cake.
My parents made a big shopping trip together every Saturday, leaving for the market early and walking the few blocks carrying woven baskets and bags. In the summer when our windows were open, I could hear the creaky gate opening as they left and I remember as a child always feeling like it took them hours and hours until they returned with fresh rolls, fruit, and milk for breakfast, along with all of our groceries for the week and whatever else was necessary to keep the shelves and fridge stocked.
Our fridge was tiny—a European model in our apartment in Budapest—and these shopping trips filled it to the brim. Just off the kitchen, in a tall, narrow pantry was where the rest of the stash lived on shelves lined with paper. Every time I helped my mom in the kitchen it was my job to run to the pantry and fetch whatever she needed—rice, or onions, or a jar of jam. As I got older I could reach more and more shelves.
But the kitchen wasn’t the only place in our apartment that housed the requirements of a proper household. There were volumes of encyclopedias and dictionaries and anthologies about engineering and mechanics and opera in the living room. Envelopes, letterhead, stamps, and pens, ribbon for wrapping gifts, tape, pens, a couple of blank greeting cards in a cabinet that we named after a chain of stationery stores.
In the hallway and in closets there were coat brushes, shoeshine kits, sewing kits— preferably a sewing machine with extra fabric and ribbon and a collection of buttons. (My mother’s button collection was kept in a three-tiered cardboard chocolate box with tiny drawers.)
Spending time in my parents’ kitchen always makes me feel like a child—not just because of the tastes and smells produced there, but because my kitchen compared to theirs is still like a child’s pretend-kitchen. My house feels like a pretend-house, like I am playing grown-up, but don’t really have the necessary tools to be a real one. I remember opening our wedding gifts years ago—the tablecloths, the matching towels, the knife sets, napkins and placemats, candleholders—and panic rising in my chest from the thought that I will actually have to use these things. That there will be guests and dinners and laundry and cleaning and dishes, and that I will be mostly responsible for all of that. That somehow my adult-ness will be judged by whether I have pretty hand towels in the bathroom, or whether I can quickly whip together dinner for six from the ingredients in my fridge and pantry.
Ever since my first apartment, I’ve been trying to replicate my parents’ should-have household. But we never need “extra.” Sugar and flour are always readily available—we don’t have to worry about stocking up in case of bad weather because the grocery stores never run out. My books are still in boxes since our last move. I don’t sew or shine shoes and I wear my special underwear and use my special plates every day.
My household is not a “good” one by my childhood standards, and I sometimes miss my parents’ hoard of abundance, their preparedness for all eventualities. I don’t feel ready for anything. They always seemed to have the security of knowing that they can reach into a particular drawer and find just what they need at that moment—tape, wrapping paper, a flashlight, matches, a bottle opener. Despite my best efforts, looking for these things in my house always ends up in a frantic search through drawers and cabinets, usually with very little result.
But lately I am finding freedom in not being prepared—there is no stuff, no structure and should-haves. My household is mine with its imperfections and quirkiness. My abundance comes from a bit of chaos, spontaneity, unpredictability. I have made it through life OK so far without a year’s worth of pickled deliciousness in my cupboards, without lavender satchels and emergency kits and stacks of old newspapers kept around because you just never know. Do I ever miss those things? Sure. They added a certain stability, a certain heft and weight to life that made you feel settled as a grown-up.
But I sleep well in my un-ironed sheets and dream of letting it all go.
Photo credit: “Kitchen Stuff” by Marco Antonio Torres is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.