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spice tins

I can’t remember exactly where I first saw the magnetic spice tins.  It was probably some kind of kitchen or lifestyle website, the kind with the empty countertops, the spotless backsplashes, the shining faucets.  All I can tell you is that when I saw them, I just sat there for a while looking at them, jaw slack, mind spinning.

Breaching the spice cabinet of a recipe tester is not for the faint of heart.  Over the years mine had evolved into a beetling, pungent jungle of  condiments that defied categorization, was housed in a motley assortment of boxes, tins, and jars, and fell out in bits and pieces every time I tried to find something.  I had become so ignorant of what I had in there that when I finally made a stab at organizing it a couple years ago, I found I had three containers of asafoetida.  I had 16 kinds of salt and 17 kinds of pepper.  I had bishops’ weed and fenugreek leaves, cubeb and kalonji.  I did my best, going at it with a labelmaker and a box of old glass stopper jars, making separate neighborhoods for seeds, leaves, mixes, and so on.  But the whole thing remained, more or less, impenetrable.

But when I first saw magnetic tins, the elegance of the solution left me poleaxed with awe: to be able to see everything, all at once! free of the pedantic requirements of gravity! Nothing hidden behind anything else!  This was not home organization – this was Art.  I priced it out as a DIY project and determined I’d be better off signing up for discount emails from Pfaltzgraff, the housewares site, and buying them ready-made, on sale.  So that’s what I did.

I filled my tins and slapped them on the fridge and then just looked at them for a while – the colors and textures an analog for the brilliant world of smell and taste safely closed within –  in a kind of fugue state of bliss.  I sort of wanted to leave them unlabeled, but I’m not quite that arrogant.  There was, after all, a sporting chance I might swap out ajwain for caraway, or mace for dried lime powder, which would be a recipe-testing misdemeanor at the very least.  So I decided to label them on the floor-facing curve of the lid, alphabetically . . . and in Latin.

Now, it would not be entirely untrue to say I have a sort of reflexive aversion to doing things the normal way.  But labeling in Latin wasn’t just an attempt to be different, and it wasn’t a matter of pretense either.  It’s a simple fact that spice and herb nomenclature is a taxonomist’s nightmare.  Some spice cultures named things after the leaves, some after the seed, some after what the thing does to you when you eat it.  Every language has at least one name for the same spice, and to privilege one language over any other in a rigorously post-tribal kitchen seemed rife with ethnocentric assumptions.

It seemed simpler to just go straight to the closest thing we have to a lingua franca in all of this – the botanical name of the plant from which the condiment derives.  If that means I have to have two Myristica fragrans – one for the nutmeg, one for the mace – fine.  I can see the difference, after all.  And what’s more, Latin is equally inconvenient for everybody.  It’s democratic!

So that’s how my spices look now – arranged on the side of the fridge, 6 feet away from the countertop and stove, alphabetically from Apium graveolens to Zingiber officinale.   My birthday’s still a month away (I don’t suppose it’s obvious I’m a Virgo or anything), but I have to say this is about the best present-to-self I’ve ever pulled off.

As to the other problem – won’t my spices have a shorter lifespan from being kept in daylight, exposed to indirect solar radiation?  I can only answer: Probably.  But after all, even a cookbook reviewer has to make some sacrifices for Art.


When I previously boasted of having the worst kitchen in professional food writing, I posted a picture of my new kitchen space under construction.  Many thought this was the “Before”  picture, and in a sense, I suppose it was.  I couldn’t quite bring myself to post the true “Before”  picture, of my old kitchen.  I wasn’t sure people could stomach it.

But now I’m just going to go ahead and do it, because I don’t think it’s possible to appreciate just how happy I am not to be cooking in this place unless you see it.

old kitchen
Over the February break, Husby built face frames, cut and polished soapstone, mounted drawers, primed and painted.  Our friend Mark helped us move the stove into place and install the close-to-300-lb. first slab of soapstone countertop.  I plastered around the windowframes and electric/plumbing holes and oiled the countertop.  By the end of the week, we had an operational range hood, working stove, hooked-up dishwasher and faucet, and the biggest expanse of counter space I have ever had the pleasure of cooking on. Sometimes I just stand next to that lustrous, smooth plane of soapstone and run my hands over it for a while.

kitchen update 02-13

There’s still a long way to go.  We haven’t even reached the halfway point as far as the physical space goes.  But the point is, the new kitchen is now functional.  And as for myself, I can’t imagine how I could possibly be happier.

The kitchen-to-be, in all its  unfinished glory.

The kitchen-to-be, in all its unfinished glory.

I don’t like to brag, but for 12 years I have occupied the Absolute Worst Kitchen in the world of professional food writers.   It’s not that it’s small, like most contenders for Worst Kitchen.

It’s not so much a kitchen as an undefined space, a walk-through horror show that happens to be used for cooking.  There is a horrible old composite countertop that typically has 1.5 square feet of free space.  There is a horrible stained lineolum floor with huge patches torn out of it where you can see the floorboards underneath.  There are foot-wide holes in the plaster ceiling where the lath pokes through, dumping age-old dust, dirt, and other unspeakable particles onto the range shelf while I’m cooking.  There are no cabinets.  There is no dishwasher.  There are no places to sit.

The two things that make it function are my 36″ 6-burner Blue Star range, and an 8′ -wide floor-to-ceiling expanse of wire shelving that is my pantry and batterie de cuisine.

Anyway, I’ve had this kitchen for as long as I’ve been a food writer, which is not a coincidence (see earlier thoughts on situational irony).  But we’ve finally decided to try and do something about it.

Since a full-scale kitchen renovation with contractors etc. is out of the question, Randy’s doing most of the work himself, in the huge room on the western end of the house, which we’ve optimistically called the “new kitchen” ever since he laid the floorboards 4 or 5 years ago.  We’ve bought the appliances (zero-radius stainless-steel apron-front double sink, 600CFM Windster range hood, Kenmore dishwasher, pull-down Delta Cassidy kitchen faucet that cost more than the dishwasher), the lumber, and the soapstone for the countertop.  We’ve had plumbing, electrical, and gas roughed in.

There’s been one major calamity – the uncovering of lead paint on the posts and window frames.   So R has had to add “lead decontamination,” “boxing in posts/beams” and “building window frames” to “appliance installation” and “learn cabinet-making”.

My job has been to keep the children out of the construction site, find places for everything that was stored there before, continue recipe testing in the now-even-more-cluttered old kitchen, and cry when appropriate.

It’s a big job.  But someday it will be done, and we’ll have our friends over again, and there will be merriment and good food, and it will be a kitchen for the ages, or at least one fit to serve four long-term optimists.

A little while ago, I wrote a post venerating the 5 kitchen things I can’t do without.  On later reflection, I felt that post smacked faintly of having-it-all-figured-out.  I thought, in the interests of candor, it would be wholesome to do a counter-post showcasing just a few of the many flaws in my frustrating kitchen.
+++For a person who writes about food professionally, I have an incredibly bad kitchen.  It’s really hard to convey just how bad it is.  It has a stained, cracked linoleum floor.  There are huge holes in the plaster ceiling and almost no counter space.  It’s hard to work in and harder to clean.  I don’t even have a dishwasher, the plan being that we will get one when we do the kitchen renovation.
+++But one price of getting to write about food professionally is not earning enough to afford a kitchen renovation, which I believe  is called “situational irony”.
+++Anyway, it was really hard to choose just 5 kitchen things I could do without–not including “Item 1: the entire kitchen”.  So I decided to limit the list to things that ought to be easily fixed or replaced, but which for some reason haven’t been.

defective oxo tongsThe Tongs from Hell.  I got these Oxo Good Grips tongs in 2009, after burying the tongs which had served me for 8 years previously and died of a sprung pin.    The first time I used these, the rubber began to melt, leaving a black streak on my thumb.  I figured I shouldn’t have left them so close to the burner and resolved to be more cautious.  Because of my caution–and refusal to believe the tongs were simply defective–it took 3 years for the rubber to melt all the way through, which it at last did, dramatically, while I was grilling a steak.  In seconds, the rubber sloughed off the steel skeleton, leaving nothing between steel and flesh.  I threw them down just as my thumb began to sizzle.
+++I’ve ordered new Oxo tongs (they haven’t yet arrived) in the hopes that the Tongs from Hell were simply a flawed instance of a basically sound product.  I believe this is called “optimism”.

argo corn starch boxThe Corn Starch Box.  I use corn starch a lot, because  it’s a critical ingredient in the crispy “egg crêpe” I make for my son almost every morning (he’s never been able to tolerate softness or wetness in eggs).  Although the current hard-walled plastic box is an improvement over the iconically bad cardboard box it was before, the Argo corn starch container remains a messy, badly-designed failure.  Yet all it really needs is a double flip-top (perforation one side, scooping hole the other), as one finds on spice bottles, or a foil half-cover for leveling a spoon, as one finds on a baking powder can.  As it is, every time I use the box there’s a trail of powder on it and around it and everywhere it goes.

maverick 3 line kitchen timerThe Erratic Timer.  But for one issue, this timer would have been on the other list, the one with my favorite kitchen things.  It’s a timer that has 3 separate lines so you can time 3 different things, and a count-up chronometer and clock on the alternate screen.  It’s magnetic, so it can go on the side of the oven, which is the only logical place for it in my kitchen.  But when the oven reaches about 400 degrees, the timer freaks out and re-sets to zero, inevitably at a point when I have no clue how much longer there is to go.  It also freakishly re-sets to zero on other random occasions.
+++But I have to stick with it because there are so very few good kitchen timers that count both up and down, never mind being able to time 3 different dishes.

Satan’s Kitchen Mitt.  When my husband first got me these high-heat silicone mitts, I thought they were great.  But because silicone only seems indefinitely flexible (it isn’t, really), over time they have developed a rip in that most critical of places, the thenar space.  The thenar space is that bit of skin between your thumb and forefinger.  If you would like to know pain, try extracting a cast-iron skillet that has been in a 450-degree oven for an hour with a mitt you believe to be intact, only to sustain a screaming burn right in the thenar space.  Also, these mitts are slippery when wet or oily.
+++I still have them because I haven’t yet figured out the best replacement–an all-cloth quilted traditional mitt, or some other differently-shaped silicone product, or both.

blue star igniter ceramicThe Temperamental Igniter.  I love my Blue Star range, which is my kitchen’s only indication that a serious chowhound is in residence.  It’s stainless steel, propane-fueled, with six radial burners, two of which can put out 22K BTU. But the igniters–tiny, easily broken, ceramic tubes–don’t work when it’s humid, when a wire has shifted, on alternate Tuesdays, or when the moon is in Aquarius.  They’re moody, is my point.  We’ve replaced at least 3, and I’ve taken to just keeping used wooden skewers next to the stove to transfer an igniting flame from one of the few burners that do ignite.
+++I suppose I could just keep a stockpile of extra igniters around, but I resent having to shell out $20 apiece for a part that is smaller than a birthday candle.

Taken in perspective, I guess it’s bearable, and a lot of great food gets cranked out of here in spite of the various annoyances.  After all, it’s just little stuff.  So long as you don’t count Item 1: the entire kitchen.

Now cooking

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