Let me clarify the title and tell you that I am talking about my actual Crappy Kitchen being “No More” and Not The Crappy Kitchen blog itself. So food will still be cooked and written about but the kitchen will not be as crappy!
As I write this there is a deafening sound coming from the kitchen in the form of a power-driven chisel painstakingly chipping 1970’s fake brick and 105-year-old plaster (which consists of mortar mixed with horse hair if you’re interested) from the walls. I don’t even want to think about the minute particles of dust going into my body right now. However, I’m willing to suffer as I have waited exactly 11 years for this to happen: yes, the Crappy Kitchen is undergoing serious plastic surgery and if all goes well it should come out looking 30 or so years younger, or at least stop looking like it’s from the “70’s!
The last month or so have been hell (of course I’m exaggerating as hell is rumored to be quite unbearable) but I have never been happier. The place looks worse than ever but as you know, if you have ever deep-cleaned your bedroom or bathroom, you have to make a big mess to come out all shiny and new on the other side.
A few revelations have come from this bit of upheaval which I would like to write about: first, one can cook dinner on a square foot of clear space, and secondly I have answered my question of why I write this blog!
I stopped writing when the first bits of wall began tumbling to the kitchen floor, but that did not mean that the cooking stopped. I had no intention of ordering in for dinner each evening so the rule was, no matter how debris-ridden the place was after a day of work, it would be cleaned up enough for me to used my big saute pan on the stove top and there would be a place to put a chopping board.
The writing stopped at the beginning of this whole project because I was a bit protective of my new camera. My old camera (a Nikon D50 if you are curious) had been literally attached to my hand for the past 3 years and looked like that baby toy that every girl and boy seems to leave childhood with: sadly tattered and worn but too precious to be replaced. It was a highly abused piece of hardware and when I was told time and time again that I should treat it like a camera (you know, put the lens cap on after each use, set it down carefully, don’t leave near frying or steaming food…) I defending myself, and my camera for that matter, by arguing that this was more than just a camera, that it needed to be on hand at a moments notice (hence always having it swinging from my shoulder with the lens cap off!) to take pictures of food wherever it happened to be: my kitchen pretty much every night during my normal life, in restaurants (most memorably, Ireland and Italy in the past two years) and when my cooking took me to precarious places like a stone wall or beach with a two-plate camper burner on my back.
In these cases a camera has to be willing to take a bit of rough handling, although I did not mean to throw it over that high gate one evening in Cortona before I climbed over it myself resulting in a smashed glass lens ( I was full sure it was on my shoulder when I made the climb, and that’s a whole other story in itself! Oh and I continued to take pictures for another year or so after that without the protection of a glass lens cover – worked fine!).
Suffice is to say when I shelled out for a new camera I started out by treating it like my friend with her new car. When my friend got a brand new car in pearly white she would park it in some deserted part of the parking lot or garage away from any other car for fear it would get scratched! I would tease her about her long trek to get to it when leaving her after a bookstore or cafe excursion. I knew her overly protective beginnings would give way to slowly treating it with a little less caution, as surly as I knew I would eventually end up setting my camera down on the spur of the moment beside the kitchen sink while I deftly pulled something out of the oven before it overcooked (incidentally I met my friend yesterday and when I left the bookshop her car was in the very first space!).
The point is, my initial caution stopped me from taking pictures (I happen to buy my camera just before the renovation), which in turn stopped me from writing about my dinners. At the beginning I missed the whole ritual of taking pictures and then recording the event or experience, or whatever you want to call it. I wondered if anyone wondered where I had disappeared to, which in turn got me thinking about why I write in the first place, or more importantly WHO did I write these sometimes long and time-consuming food-related meanderings to?
The only way to figure it out was to make the decision not to write it for a bit and see if my answer would come to me. It was a good time to take a break as the kitchen was a sometimes intolerant distraction, but I was also newly busy with a new business venture which is still keeping me up at night these days!
Anyway, I will leave that question for now to say that despite the rolls of plastic barricading the kitchen from the rest of the house, and the fact that my entire kitchen had been emptied of pots, pans, all food and serving paraphernalia to its new temporary space on bookshelves, sideboards and any empty surface in my dining and living rooms, the cooking still went on, or should I say goes on.
The trick at the beginning, when the kitchen was just about off-limits, was to conjure up dishes that required just one pot from start to finish. That meant, no little sauce pan or pan to saute something last-minute, or God forbid a meal like roast tenderloin, mashed potatoes, gravy and garden peas! Luckily I am more of a one-pot sort of cook where fussing with pots is just something I do on special occasions, or when I feel like being holed-up in the kitchen for hours in order to scrounge some peace and quiet!
The hassle of this new routine is that now ingredients and kitchen tools are not at my fingertips. For a person who generally cooks on the fly it has the tendency of squelching my creativity, giving way to more planned out sorts of dishes. I have to think about what I want to make and then go around the house gathering the things I need from hither and yon and then staying put.
Of course that never completely works out as I always forget something and have to go flying out of the room for a spoon or pot lid. The worst part is that half the time I leave to get something I end up standing in the middle of the room surrounded by my organised piles wondering what I left to get in the first place.
That said I have to admit to loving the madness of it all. I liked having to stick to a tiny space in which to chop ( making sure that the raw chicken or fish was the last thing on the chopping board or else I,d have to use two!) and prepare and it curtailed my tendency to leave spoons here and there on the counter top, and in general be a more compact cook. I feel that I now have the training necessary to cook in the kitchen of a tiny sailing vessel!
I also love the visual of food cooking and glasses of wine against the backdrop of a construction site: the exposed walls, the torn-out cupboards and counter top, with ladders propped up here and there and the smell of newly sawn wood and fresh paint hanging in the air. I’m sure to get sick of it at some point, but for now I am quite content to step over a tool box or lay down a piece of paper where I need to lay out the ingredients for the nightly dinner or breakfast as the case may be. Let’s see how I feel about this if I’m still living like this near Christmas when I most certainly plan on having more than one pot on the stove at a time!
This whole upheaval has further convinced me that you don’t need a fancy place in which to cook good and delicious meals. I’m newly convinced it is all about 1 good knife and a sturdy saute pan that can do the work of 10! The only thing that has unnerved me is the fright I get when the occasional bit of loose plaster or gravelly brick falls from the ceiling or walls. I’ve been hit on a the head a couple of times but luckily nothing has found its way into anyone’s dinner!
I have cooked all sorts of pasta and stir fry dishes, soups galore, meatloaf, battered fish, made fresh tortillas and even a few fabulous desserts in the settling dust of my kitchen construction zone. It all takes a little more time, and cleaning up and then trailing out of the kitchen to put stuff away is a tedious pain, but it is all worth it. We get to eat good food each evening and the smell of home cooking gives everyone a sense of normalcy, something I find my children are in desperate need of after a day of school and homework.
The other point I wanted to make was the whole “why write this blog” business? This was the perfect time to give it up for good. I started this project nearly three years ago to document my food, but it also came from an urge to write – to write anything! I was told the only way to get used to writing was to write everyday, and not just when “you were in the mood”. The whole writing when I was in the mood had left me with a pile of half-written recipes, stories and travel-type antidotes. I decided to write about what I cooked because it felt like something solid and real and something that I could manage. There was nothing to make up: all I had to do was write about what I had done the night or day before.
It was so gruelling at the beginning. I would sit with my pictures from the previous night’s dinner and stare at the big white rectangle on the WordPress Site where my words were supposed to go. I struggled with what I actually wanted to say and how the whole blog should “feel”. I decided to come up with rules to make the writing easier: stick to what I cooked, talk about food, be positive and don’t get personal (I mean personal as in not fall into the whole new trend where you reveal absolutely everything about yourself – there was absolutely no way I wanted to do that and I knew right then that I would most definitely be limiting my readership – after all, there would be no “dirt”)
As I began to write I sort of fell into a pattern, and I liked it. I became brave and began to write about other “food-related’ adventures, like where I ate or where I travelled and ate! After all, for me food is just part of living and that word living is something I hold on tightly to. I became acutely aware of my life as I was now writing it all down, and as it unfolded I realized that this was it, this was my life. No matter what I thought about, no matter what my opinions were on any subject and no matter what I wanted my life to be in the future, I could see clearly what it was in the here and now. I could read about it. And when I read and re-read what I was writing, because I tirelessly edit everything and try to stick to the truth and not some version of it, I started to appreciate it for what it was. It might have been hum-drum some days but for the most part I felt that I had better sit up and start being grateful for every little morsel of what was good.
I found that I especially liked writing about something special, like the time my brother Sean ran in his 100-miler, or when I ate a sandwich on a wall in county Tipperary with my kids or when I cooked a dinner that reminded me of my mother…and on and on…dinners with friends, my sisters June and Mimi, and my lovely husband and children – all so special and so worth writing about. It was to please them, and to please me and to somehow in writing it down perhaps reach out to other people and draw them in. And they could be drawn in for all sorts of reasons: out of curiosity, because they wanted a recipe, because they wanted to look at cool pictures from someone else’s perspective or to feel some connection or familiarity to their own lives. I became aware of all of those things and somehow being a successful blogger took a distant back seat.
For the first while friends or other people who read my blog would give me advice on how to become “popular”…and I just couldn’t relate. It would mean writing shorter entries and perhaps “styling” my food pictures more – it would have meant strategizing my dishes and planning the shots and the evening accordingly. It felt a little overwhelming and more like work! I then read the WordPress site and it turned that I agreed with their philosophy more than with anyone else’s. They said to be successful you should write consistently well and generally be nice – yes, they used the word nice. This is a word that is in my opinion underappreciated. If I meet someone and think they are “nice” this means that they will inadvertently go to heaven (being figurative here) because they look at all of the good and none of the bad. I could never be called nice! It seemed that WordPress wanted me to write about what I was passionate about and to hell with the rest (generally speaking). I decided to stick to my guns and keep on doing what I loved and what I had become good at: writing about the supposedly mundane events of my life and not thinking about too much else.
The blog became the place I had to account to and when you feel accountable you feel an obligation in some way or another to satisfy that thing you started (especially when you family and friends ask you where you have been for the past several weeks!).
I wrote pretty religiously for 32 months until my camera gave up the ghost and my kitchen came tumbling down, and that is when I asked myself the question: do I keep going or do I stop? Afterall, I had accumulated hundreds of recipes (one of my main objectives starting out) and it was not lucrative in any way so why bother. Well it seems that collecting recipes is something I can do forever (I mean there are still more ways to cook a chicken that need telling!) and things happen to me everyday that I feel compelled to write about. As for the money, well it turns out that I am happier scrounging than scheming up ways to make my blog more appealing to a wider audience. In fact I am more than positive that at this point I am not writing this for someone to read as it is way too long (although I hope someone is) and am left with the answer that I write this for myself and eventually for my children – it will probably be the only thing I leave behind (as well as some choice jewelry for my daughter and poetry books that I hope will not be donated to Goodwill or the library!).
The funny part about all of this is that people have been reading my blog as much as ever and my not writing has not affected my mediocre but steady following. That makes me happy and I can’t wait to post the recipe for a great dinner I made the other night that made my daughters toes curl with satisfaction.
And lastly, this post is dedicated to my sister Mimi (she’ll know why!)