Community forum: When times are tough, plan a kitchen

By Martha Nordstrom


In those trying times, those boring times, those times of waiting, in the dull and onerous interstices between life’s more exciting moments, I plan kitchens in my head. That’s my coping skill and my mantra. It’s what gets me through a tough day. I’ve been doing it for more than 40 years and I’m very good at it.

For me, now is one of those times. I’m far from my own kitchen in Ellsworth. I’m in Norman, Okla., in a dinky apartment where my downstairs neighbor is a real sweetheart but the fellow next to him plays really loud, really bad music at really weird hours. And my kitchen is crappy. My temporary job is to care for my granddaughter, 8 months old, and on Friday afternoons her sister, just shy of 2 and half. It is the best of jobs and the worst of jobs. I am with new and unfurling life. The smiling baby — she makes the Gerber baby look depressed — is pure joy to hold, to watch, to snuggle and to bathe in love. The older one lets me join her on her fabulous quest for discovery. Most recently she discovered two, not as in counting but as in something that is more than one. What a profoundly pleasing discovery it is; slightly better, I suspect, than climbing Mount Everest.

OK, but there is still the loud neighbor, the crappy kitchen, the lack of friends and familiars and the endless routine of sitting up and tumbling over, tummy time, diapers, bottles, naps, walks, all repeated over and over forever. Thus, in my head, I plan kitchens.

Over the years some of my designs have borne fruit. I designed my first kitchen that became real in about 1977. It had what was possibly the very first commissioned granite countertop in all of New England. The fellow who made it, who has gone on to make thousands and thousands of granite countertops, had never heard of the idea before I asked him to make one. Yup, that’s how good I am.

These days I’m into deconstruction, although if you go online and Google “deconstructed kitchens” you won’t find what I’m talking about. They are still all about substituting one expression of an element for another expression of the same element but they don’t question the elements themselves. That’s where I’m at.

Is a kitchen a room? No. That’s easy. Can there be no kitchen? No, that’s easy too. Does a kitchen exist in only one place or can it be all over the place? Probably, but I haven’t figured out how yet. What are the things without which there would be no kitchen? Right now I’m at heat, cold and water.

About this point I realized that I had never, in all my 40-plus years of designing kitchens, conceived of a kitchen without a gas stove as its heart. The platonic ideal of a stove — the one that all others aspire to — is one my mother had installed in her kitchen when she and my father retired in 1974 and moved to a farm in the country. It was a restaurant stove installed long before restaurant stoves became the rage (the apple didn’t fall far from the tree). It was big and black with massive burners and an enormous oven. Every stove for every kitchen I have ever designed in my head has had some iteration of that stove.

Why? If I’m going to be serious about deconstruction then I have to seriously question that stove. What are the elements that make it essential to any kitchen? Honestly, is it just a prejudice against electric stoves and where did that come from? My dinky apartment has a second-rate electric stove in its crappy kitchen and cooking on it is like steering an oil tanker. Delayed response. Whatever I want from it I have to have thought of five minutes earlier. I never do. But that’s just training and it’s a lousy stove anyway.

You can roast peppers on a gas stove — something I’ve probably done three times in the past 40 years. That’s not enough to make it essential to kitchen-ness.

Then, I think to myself, if I had an electric stove what would I do in a power outage? And finally I realize what that gas stove has always symbolized for me — a kind of independence, my own personal tiny off-the-grid statement. Me and my stove, we can take care of things. We don’t need your stinking proletariat, conventional electrical systems designed for the masses.

But, as I watch my grandchildren so their parents can work, as I call home on an international system that is so complex that probably no one person in the world could possibly understand it, as I fly back and forth between Maine and Oklahoma or even drive between my dinky apartment and my daughter’s house I realize my stove and I are kidding ourselves. We are not off the grid, independent, able to take care of ourselves. We are very much a part of an intertwining, massively complicated human, physical and technical network. Our small attempts — our tomato plants or gas stoves — might make us feel better but they don’t really make us any more independent. We’re all a part of it.

So my advice, as the person who saw granite as the proper material for countertops before anyone else: remember to vote. Because, like me, you can’t help but be part of this great, grinding grid. We’re stuck with it and each other. While we’re at it, let’s let our voices be heard. And on the kitchen front … electric stoves are probably OK, too.

Martha Nordstrom of Ellsworth, in past lives, has worked as a reporter and editor. When not designing kitchens, she designs houses and, sometimes, entire neighborhoods.

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