The rootedness of most New Yorkers – their attachment to the city and their intention to stay there – can often be measured by their kitchen. First: do they have one? Second: is it an approximation of a covert freshman dorm kitchen (hot plate and mini-fridge), or does it have adult-sized appliances? Third: what is actually in the appliances? New York apartment lore is rife with tales of ovens which exist to store stilettos and refrigerators containing a moldy hunk of Gouda and a six-pack of Corona.
My own attachment to New York has evolved with my kitchens – from a shared, narrow affair where I cut my teeth on living as an urbanite, to my first kitchen of married life, to a place where I stopped playing house and starting living it.
I moved to New York a month after my college graduation. I’d landed the classic (pre-recession) twenty-something package: a cushy job at a large investment bank, housed in a tall glassy building overlooking Central Park, and an L-shaped apartment right at the bend of a crooked street in the West Village, shared with a kind classified-ads roommate, Katie, who was not much older than me but enough to be far more settled in her life of entertaining traveling friends and playing tennis and working at an architecture firm a few blocks away.
The kitchen was long and narrow, with a window at the end that looked into a luckier neighbor’s courtyard. We had two cabinets: one held Katie’s dishes, and the other we split between us to store our food. I was too green to know how lucky I was to have an oven, refrigerator, and enough counter space to easily cook multi-course meals. And so, I didn’t do much cooking; I ate a lot of Cheez-its and chocolate chips. It was okay. I knew I wouldn’t be living there forever.
I wasn’t an incompetent cook – my mother made sure of that – but since I’d lived at home during college, I had to learn to buy groceries for myself. The West Village is devoid of good supermarkets, and I shopped at the exorbitantly-priced gourmet stores like Citarella until I stumbled upon a bare-bones, run-down, but completely adequate grocery store called Strawberry Fields, apparently run by an enormous family of Pakistanis. (With typical Gotham transience, it’s now a bleeding-edge couture boutique.)
Katie had lived in Europe for a while before moving to New York and had fallen into the habit of shopping for that day’s food on the way home from work. That worked well for her, as she subsisted mainly on what could be purchased on nearby Euro-wannabe Bleecker Street: fresh bread from Amy’s Bread, fish and salami from the Italian butcher, coffee from Porto Rico, cheese from the inimitable Murray’s.
And so I fell into the habit, too. Amy’s was easy enough to navigate – large, crusty loaves of artisanal bread, ciabatta rolls shot through with rosemary, softball-style muffins, melty croissants, all baked fresh every day and familiar to me, lined the cases and shelves behind the register.
But as someone who, until recently, never liked cheese, I hovered on the periphery of Murray’s until one day I ventured in to see what the fuss was about. It’s an intimidating place, filled with colorful and exotic fare. I bought some paradigm-shifting handmade dried pasta and a big ball of fresh mozzarella from Brooklyn, and eyed the stacks of imported chocolate in colored foil wrappers, the jars of gourmet pesto, the trays of sliced prosciutto. Murray’s became my guilty pleasure haunt.
Still, though I was becoming aware of these local culinary delights, I didn’t spend much time in the kitchen. I mostly ate easily-prepared food in the living room with Katie, where we occasionally watched television, or in my room, where I chatted with far-flung college friends on my computer. The kitchen was a place filled with someone else’s utensils, someone else’s dishes, someone else’s pots and pans and knives – and while Katie was happy to share, I could hardly feel like much more than a sojourner.
On December 23 of that year, I was headed home the next morning to celebrate Christmas with my family upstate. Katie had already left, so my boyfriend and I decided to band together and throw a dinner party at my place. Our friend Apryl, who worked in finance but had gone to culinary school, offered to cook, and I splurged at Citarella on Cornish hens, fresh rosemary, tiny red potatoes, fresh butter, crusty Italian bread, crunchy green beans, and a crème brulee.
I brought the food into the kitchen and watched as Apryl got to work. She tied together the legs of the hens, then rubbed rosemary under their skin. Reaching toward the back of our black wire shelving unit, she pulled out our thickest cutting board and sliced the bread onto it, then added some cheese and prosciutto. She halved the potatoes, dotted them with butter, and roasted them in the oven in their jackets. We opened a few bottles of Riesling and had a memorably cozy feast by candlelight.
By the following summer, I was engaged, and had moved to Park Slope – as one does – to a tiny studio apartment with all the furniture I owned: a bed, a desk, a futon with no mattress, and a floor lamp. The new place was all one room, but bucked the Brooklyn studio trend by having a tiny kitchen set off in a separate room from the living room. There was a three-quarter-sized refrigerator, a big-enough gas stove, and, mercifully, a lot of cabinet space to fill with wedding presents of dishes and gadgets and wine glasses.
It was a peculiar room: nearly square, except the wall to the right of the door, which suddenly angled out at about twenty degrees – too narrow to fit a tiny table, too irregular to fit a shelf. It was a mystery. The angle was quite clearly intentional; it was not an architectural flaw, but it had no matching angle on the other side of the wall and no apparent purpose. Hundred-year-old buildings often befuddle the tenants.
The window, once again, looked into the backyard of a luckier neighbor.
We had moved above a gourmet grocery store and around the corner from the most famous natural foods co-op in the country, and fresh food was now available all the time – and I had my own fun kitchen toys to play with. Using my immersion blender or vegetable steamer basket gave me an embarrassing amount of pleasure: I could be creative, geeky, and a heroine to my hungry husband.
Our favorite wedding present was an Italian-style stovetop percolator; not only did it make espresso, but you could pour milk into the top and it would froth into a lovely latte. Unfortunately, one fateful day, we forgot to turn the pressure knob inside all the way to the right, and the espresso and milk exploded all over the daisy-yellow walls and ceiling in a brown cascade of drops, right as we were both trying to leave for work. I quickly washed everything down with soap and water, but when we came home that night, the drops were back. And the next night. And the next night. No matter how many times I washed, the drops came back. For all I know, they’re still there, coming through fresh coats of paint and puzzling the current resident.
It was also in this kitchen that I learned what it was to cook as a wife, not a girlfriend. Girlfriends order Chinese take-out and serve it on paper plates, but being a wife in a sophisticated Brooklyn neighborhood feels distinctly more grown up. Like Julia Child in Paris, I felt driven to learn to do things like poach an egg and make a salad dressing and use the right kind of wine glass for the right kind of wine. I learned that men don’t particularly want to eat the same thing day after day. I came to recognize the value of a Crock-Pot.
We lived there happily for two years. The kind older man living downstairs was a jazz musician. In the summer, we went onto the roof and drank chianti and ate ice cream and watched the fireworks displays that inexplicably happened every weekend at Prospect Park. I tried to grow rosemary on the roof until the pot blew over and away, leaving the plant and its soil stranded. We gained a reputation for throwing raucous dinner parties, with a dozen people crammed onto the floor eating chili or pasta caprese and chocolate mousse and contributing bottle after wine bottle.
But one day the man downstairs moved to Long Island, and our landlord – a quiet but reasonable guy not much older than us – said the wall downstairs was apparently rotting out from a leaky pipe and he had decided to just renovate the whole building. We started packing and apartment-hunting.
Mercifully, we inadvertently landed in a slightly larger apartment just across Flatbush Avenue, in a brownstone neighborhood that rivaled Park Slope for beauty and was a whole lot less yuppie.
When we came to see the apartment, we instantly loved it – bright and airy, with a huge casement window looking northeast. We slowly circled the apartment, looking at the layout and architectural features. The kitchen was a marvel, with a half-height wall that connected it to the rest of the apartment visually, but kept it separate enough that leaving a few dishes in the sink wouldn’t make the whole place seem messy. It was a little larger, with more counter space and a lot of shelving.
One problem: it only had a mini-fridge. While that could be made to work for people who shop every day and eat out a lot, I like to have room for my vegetables and my yogurt, and my husband cannot face the day without knowing that there’s a pint of ice cream at the end of it.
“We love the place, but we need a real refrigerator,” we said, and the owner liked us enough to consent. The new kitchen now included one and a half refrigerators.
If I’d learned to shop in my first kitchen, and cook like a grown-up in the second, the third is where I learned that good food is essential to relationships, especially in a city where people are loath to put down roots and never seem to have enough time to sit down and have a meal.
In this kitchen, I learned to guesstimate how much food would be eaten at monthly open invitation brunches for the twenty-plus people who would crowd around our coffee table and spill into circles on the living room floor. I found out that certain meals – breakfast casseroles, smashed potatoes, cinnamon-kissed lentil stews – go a long way for little money, and people grew fond of a certain grapefruit cake I started making as a bright spot in a dreary winter.
I discovered that friends who had lost jobs or couldn’t find freelance work were subsisting on ramen and canned beans, and started surreptitiously sliding a chicken and some potatoes into the oven when they came over to watch a movie. Hungry people are usually too proud to let you cook for them if you ask first, but if you ambush them with food, they eat with grateful alacrity.
This kitchen was where I discovered the healing power of a meal of spicy cod and rice and a comforting pot of coffee, with a box of chocolate chip cookies and a bottle of blood orange soda sent home after a quiet family crisis. It’s also the first kitchen of mine which my mother visited, several years after my father died, on her first solo trip to New York. I think it comforted her to know that I had proper appliances and utensils, even if I lack a dishwasher.
And it’s the kitchen where I officially realized I’d set down roots in a neighborhood. It’s the place where I bring home vegetables from the local farmer’s market, where I started growing oregano and basil and dill and thyme on the windowsill, where I started baking bread and grinding coffee and attempting – not yet successfully – to make cheese.
Other things have happened to make me feel like a New Yorker since that first apartment. I’ve bought couches and televisions and other things that root you to a spot. I changed the address on my driver’s license and passport. I served as a fourth alternate juror in Brooklyn Criminal Court. I’ve stopped carrying maps of any kind, and I’ve become the kind of New Yorker who grumbles quietly about the inefficiency of every place that isn’t New York.
But it’s my kitchen that’s home, where I have my favorite bottle of olive oil and too many boxes of tea and my phenomenally heavy Ralph Lauren Home wine decanter. It’s where my French press and my pretty stacks of plates and bowls live. It’s where a friend who travels half the year sighed happily and said, “So many delicious things in your home.”
We may not have a hearth, but our kitchen makes this city our home.