I was at some friends’ party the other night in the lovely San Diego neighborhood of Kensington. The kitchen in this home is phenomenal — a recent remodel doubled its square footage. It is spacious, open, inviting and very functional with its high quality appliances and general flow. Five or more people can work in there very comfortably and efficiently.
My kitchen, on the other hand, is a room unto itself, right off the dining room. We remodeled it almost a decade ago. It, too, has high quality appliances, but it is smaller, with less counter space, and except for the one door, not open at all to the rest of the house. Only about three people can work in there comfortably.
At this particular party in Kensington, our hostess Janet was very busy assembling the main part of the meal. Our friend Yoli made cheese fondue, while another friend, Gwen, made a salad. I busied myself cutting sourdough bread into cubes for the fondue.
One cannot help but feel a wave of love and warmth in such a communal gathering, throwing together an amazing meal. Every one of these ladies knows her way around a kitchen quite well, and it’s always a privilege and a joy when we all have the opportunity to cook together.
Janet travels a lot, so I know that when she is home, her kitchen is her favorite place to be, and preferably surrounded by friends.
Over the years I have learned to covet my own kitchen; my laboratory, where, unless there are other “scientists” like me – aka wine sipping, sushi-rolling, veggie chopping gal pals – in there assisting, I prefer to be left alone.
I acquired a bumper sticker from a new spice shop that says, “Love people. Cook them tasty food.” That really says it all, when you think about it; but it sometimes comes with certain stipulations.
Our gracious weekend guest Craig — who I featured several blogs ago — has such a fascination with my culinary escapades. Not much of a chef beyond the crock-pot, he tends to shuffle into my kitchen at least three times in the course of one hour before dinner, just to check out what I am doing next. He’ll bombard me with questions on how and why I do things, “ooh” and “ahh” about what delights might lay before him, and maybe saunter over to the stove and take a whiff of something simmering or sautéing.
In the beginning, I thought his sense of wonder and anticipation was a bit charming; but over the past few years it has become downright annoying, and for a while I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why.
So, at the risk of sounding like a kitchen diva – and a territorial one at that – I have come to realize that part of the fun of cooking — especially for hungry bachelors and even people that don’t cook much, themselves — is presenting the finished product before their hungry eyes without them seeing the mechanics behind the actual preparation. Yes, sometimes I tend to revel in that element of surprise.
All wizardry and pixie dust aside, it can be truly annoying when someone keeps wandering into my kitchen when I am trying to get work done. Along with blowing the surprise of good things to come, it tends to derail me. When in the throes of preparing a great meal on my own, I am a cross between an eccentric artist and a mad scientist — both of whom enjoy possessing certain tricks and secrets which they may or not be willing to share. I am focused, I am engrossed, and above all I am in my element.
So, the last few Thanksgivings that Craig has spent with us I have had to politely lay down some ground rules: “Get out, and stay out.” I have communicated to both my husband Chuck (who really isn’t a problem, but he stands as a buffer) and other male guests, in a roundabout way, that “when something is ready, you will be the first to know, as I will present appetizers on the coffee table while you guys watch sports; and when it’s dinner time, please take a seat at the lovingly-decorated dining room table so that I may serve you something hot and (hopefully) delicious.”
Craig is starting to get it. More Chuck’s buddy than mine, he has come to realize that sitting and watching sports or having beers out on the terrace aren’t a horrible consolation prize of being banned from my kitchen. Besides, he still gets to enjoy the meal, eventually.
It’s not just Craig that I have had to ban from the kitchen. A few years ago he and our mutual friend Tom were in town for the weekend. The following morning, Tom – an engineer – stood in my kitchen with Craig, while I made breakfast, and tried to tell me how to cook the bacon, and exactly how he wanted it. Seconds later, Chuck walked into the dining room just in time to see Tom and Craig hastening out of the kitchen with a look on their faces like a couple of startled dogs who had accidentally wandered into where the mom cat keeps her kittens.
I was telling one of my foodie girlfriends about my off-limits policy. Looking crestfallen and betrayed, she asked, “You mean you don’t want anyone in there while you cook?”
“No, no,” I back-pedaled, “You’re one of the scientists, one of my foodie friends. When I am cooking with friends, it is a totally different dynamic; one that I truly enjoy!” And I meant it with all sincerity.
There is another area in which my territorial side kicks in: kitchen cleanup. I am the sort that would rather wait until the next day before tackling the post-dinner mess. Most times – aside from the standard clearing plates from the table – I don’t particularly like cleaning up after a meal at someone else’s house, so I definitely don’t want to kill the buzz of a good party at my place by expecting others to help me clean my kitchen. I want to be “like the guys,” and continue the party in the dining room or out by a fire on the front terrace.
A few months ago we had a dinner party that included Craig, Engineer Tom and his wife (yeah — let’s not go there), Amy, and another couple, Todd and Sandra. After dinner Amy insisted on helping with cleanup. She didn’t ask, she insisted. I politely declined, telling her I would deal with it later.
(Sandra — who I have known for eighteen years — offered once, took my “no thanks” seriously, and continued enjoying her evening at the dining room table with the others; hmmm, could that have anything to do with the longevity of our friendship? Affirmative.)
It would have been nice if the cleanup conflict had ended there, but Tom and Amy (and Craig) were overnight guests, so the next morning, the subject of kitchen cleanup was first and foremost on Amy’s mind.
“Please let me help clean up,” she practically begged.
“No, but thanks,” I again declined politely. “I prefer to just handle it all later, when everyone is gone. It’s just the way I roll.” Secretly, I simply didn’t feel like having to show someone where everything goes, plus I wasn’t ready to tackle the project just yet; we were getting ready to head out to breakfast, and as far as I was concerned, that was an extension of last night’s party.
A couple times when I was out of the room, a not-to-be-dissuaded Amy would start to meander into the kitchen to clean.
“Ameeeeeeeee….” Craig warned her. “Kelly said ‘no.’ She’ll get to it later.” Conditioned (bless his heart), Craig had clearly come to accept my territoriality, comprehend the thin ice in which Amy was treading upon, and try to avert the cat fight which he knew damn well I would win.
Poor Amy. A dear lady, she truly meant well, but unlike most of my friends (who take “no” for an answer upon offering to help), she kept insisting – about six more times.
By now you’re wondering, “Good grief, Kelly, why didn’t you just let her clean?”
My answer is twofold: My kitchen is my domain, and I will not be manipulated. The harder Amy tried, the firmer I stood ground. If that makes me a kitchen diva, sign me up. There is a new Sur La Table at the mall near my house, and I have a birthday coming up. Gift cards welcome.
In closing, I am excited about this weekend as I will be having friends over, including one of my dearest foodie friends, Dianne, who is one of my favorite people to cook, and even clean with. When she arrives for the weekend, she hits the ground running, unloading produce, wine & cheeses — and usually some culinary item that I have never heard of before — that she has brought, giggling and chatting the whole time. I adore her. Over the years she and I have developed a sort of kitchen dance, one where we bounce ideas off each other, plan casual and fun menus, cook like fiends, clean up as we go along, and catch up on our gossip. Although we clash or challenge each other on occasion, our mutual passion for cooking, and respect for each other never fails to result in a fabulous time.
My heart is in the right place, and my kitchen is truly the heart of my home; I guess that makes me the queen of that heart. And like most queens, I can be a bitch.
Have some nut-crusted Brie with jalapeno jam, and a glass of wine; you’ll get past it.