If you have issues with your kitchen, they’re most likely mushrooming (sorry) right about now. The holiday season — which might as well be nicknamed the cooking and eating season — will quickly show off any deficiencies in your kitchen.
Perhaps you’ve been hoping to resolve those inadequacies with a major overhaul. But it’s likely that your economic picture isn’t looking as good as it was last Christmas.
I’m here to help you feel better. My own kitchen, which is what many New Yorkers would consider halfway decent (and is much like the one my mother cooked in when I was growing up), is about 7 feet long and 6 feet wide. It has a moderate-size refrigerator, what was once considered a full-size stove (as opposed to the compact “apartment-size” stove or the monsters recently gaining popularity), annoyingly little counter and storage space (yes, I sometimes must remove the stored pots and pans before using the oven) and even a small dishwasher.
I complain, but I make do. And it’s here where I develop and test most of the recipes for my cookbooks and articles. So imagine my surprise when I posted a picture of my kitchen on my blog a few weeks ago and received a flood of e-mail messages from readers who wondered how someone could write large and evidently useful cookbooks, even a weekly column for The Times, while suffering such deprivation. (In the middle of all this, a young journalist called and asked what, after all, I considered essential in a modern kitchen? “A stove, a sink, a refrigerator, some pots and pans, a knife and some serving spoons,” I answered. “All else is optional.”)
Interestingly, none of the queries, condolences and commiserations came from women born before World War II, women (whom I often describe loosely if unfairly as “grandmothers”) who grew up learning how to cook from their grandmothers. They know that it’s fully possible to cook just about anything just about anywhere, with just about any equipment at hand. I have lovely memories of my grandmother using a beat-up paring knife — which, for all I know, came over with her on the boat — for hacking garlic (she did not mince), peeling potatoes and cutting up chicken. She did not own a cutting board, and would probably be as dazzled by a food processor as by an iPhone.
No calls came from chefs, either, or from fellow food writers. They, too, know that when it comes to kitchens, size and equipment don’t count nearly as much as devotion, passion, common sense and, of course, experience. To pretend otherwise — to spend tens of thousands of dollars or more on a kitchen before learning how to cook, as is sadly common — is to fall into the same kind of silly consumerism that leads people to believe that an expensive gym membership will get them into shape or the right bed will improve their sex life. As runners run and writers write, cooks cook, under pretty much any circumstance.
I’ve developed material for my column and books when cooking on electric stoves (heat is heat, after all), in unfinished basements using hot plates and microwaves, and in borrowed kitchens all over the world. The equipment can make things more or less difficult, of course, but after all, cooking is cooking.
I asked my friend the chef Mario Batali what he thought about all this. “Only bad cooks blame the equipment,” he said. “I can make almost every dish in my restaurants on four crummy electric burners with a regular oven — as can just about anyone else who cares to.”
I then called the best grandmotherly cook I’ve ever met, Marcella Hazan, the woman who by her cookbooks and example (and without television!) taught millions of Americans — myself included — that real Italian home cooking was easy, simple and straightforward, and could be mastered by non-Italians. (Remember, please, that until a generation or so ago almost no one in the world cooked food that was not part of their personal heritage; Marcella was in the wave of cookbook writers, and arguably the most important, who began to change that.)
She told me about all the bad kitchens she’d worked in. “During the war,” she said, “when I was a teenager, I helped my mother to cook on a wood stove that was so old it had holes in it. When I moved to Forest Hills, we had a stove, a refrigerator, a sink and a table — that’s all, nothing else, a few pots and pans.”
How did it work out? “I tried to remember the food and smells from my home in Italy,” she said. “I did the most simple things — steaming a piece of fish or sautéing some vegetables. At some point I learned how the stove reacted, how to treat the food. If you have a feeling for taste, if you can imagine what you want, maybe the first time it doesn’t work, but the next time you do it better, and that’s how you learn.
“All you have to do to cook is want to do it. The kitchen is never the problem.”
So, my fellow cooks — to your stoves!