Suburban ‘dream kitchens’ vs. expat kitchens.

ANOTHER SUBURBAN HOUSE BOUGHT, another kitchen remodel. Cathedral ceilings, recessed lighting, granite countertops with just the right amount of silvery flecks throughout, backsplashes galore, and special sinks just to fill up the pasta pot.

They post pictures on Facebook, and then, when you visit, you have to ooh and aah and revere like it’s some kind of house of prayer. Here is where we slice the sacred onion and place it upon the bluish flame with the holy Le Creuset pot I bought at Sur La Table. And they ate, and it was good. Amen.

I hate it.

I have never been bitten by a giant American kitchen. I have never so much as burned myself in a kitchen with a Viking stove and apparatus galore, though I have stared, mesmerized, as coffee beans turned from sage green to chocolate brown in the countertop coffee roaster at my sister’s house back in the States.

Living in Chile, I seldom witness the kitchen-on-steroids phenomenon, this futuristic, gleaming shrine to all that is cookery. Surely in the nosebleed section of my city, where the blondest and bluest-eyed and wealthiest of the Santiaguinos live, there are spacious, maid-friendly kitchens where nothing ever falls on the floor and you never have to jimmy up a countertop with a folded kitchen towel you bought out of some guy’s backpack at the market. But I’ve never seen one.

I just don’t think it’s necessary, and I know for a fact it doesn’t make you a better cook.

I find the cult of the American kitchen excessive. It’s not that I don’t like a clean surface to work on, an arm’s breadth between me and whoever else is working with me. I just don’t think it’s necessary, and I know for a fact it doesn’t make you a better cook.

It’s the same American exaggeration that enshrines the SUV as the vehicle of choice for driving to the local strip mall. It’s suitcases that practically roll themselves for you, carbon fiber bikes under the asses of weekend warriors who can’t put the chain back on when it slips off the granny gear.

I choose to believe that from the simplest of kitchens can come the most divine treats. Nothing foamed, nothing cooked in a water bath at just the right temperature in plastic (or now silicon) bags. Just good old-fashioned places to chop and knead, to fry, sauté, simmer, and otherwise show off the bounty of the land you live in.

I recently took a cooking class from Chef Viola Buitoni as part of a series at 18reasons, a nonprofit food organization in San Francisco. She’s got seven generations of culinary history behind her (you may recognize her name from the labels at your local supermarket), and she impressed upon us the simplicity of cooking good risotto. We were in an industrial kitchen, but all we needed was a bowl of vegetables, the right kind of rice, lots of butter, basic supplies (a large sauté pan, a stove), and the stock she had generously prepared for us ahead of time. Back to basics.

The cooking class, along with my simmering hatred of the overbuilt American kitchen, got me thinking about expats’ kitchens. It’s not that there aren’t nicer kitchens in the cities we live in, but we may live alone, may be on a budget, may not have prioritized the kitchen, may have had to furnish it all ourselves (in Chile, many apartments are rented without a stove or refrigerator), or that may be what’s on the market where we are.

So I polled a few fellow expats and collected photos and stories of our various kitchens, including what the best food was to ever come out of them.

Photo: Author

I start with myself. This is the kitchen from my old apartment in Santiago, in which the standing space was less than the area of a Hefty bag (I measured it). The stove was two-burner, the oven had two “temperature settings,” which I named turbo and nuclear.

In order to make any kind of dough or have a place to actually cut anything, I had to buy a piece of laminated pressboard, lay it on top of the stove, and use that as a surface. The refrigerator and the dishes both lived outside the kitchen.

Notwithstanding, in this kitchen I made, pizzas, soups, a birthday cake, lemon curd, Senegalese peanut stew, and more batches of black bean dip (from dry beans) than was probably good for anyone.

Camden Luxford recently moved into her own apartment in Buenos Aires after years of living in Cuzco, Peru. Her kitchen seems to be a relative of mine, with a similar-era stove.

Here she divulges details of the “selection of delicacies whipped up to date: lasagna, plenty of steaks (still in the honeymoon stage with Argentine beef, I think), chicken and asparagus risotto, grilled polenta with roast vegetables, and the old standby of pasta a million different ways.

“Prep space is a premium, and as soon as two plates are dirty I have an overflowing sink. One of my two burners doesn’t work, so any multi-pot meal is cooked in a series of carefully-planned stages… I think this kitchen is teaching me patience.”

Karin-Marijke and Coen are traveling around the world in a Land Cruiser, and supplied me with this picture. Karin-Marijke reports having a very large kitchen on most days, since they mainly cook outside. Here, on an inclement day, she brings the cooking inside, using a 40-year-old cooking set and this stove, which runs on petrol.

The cutting board is a gift from a Turkish carpenter, and the wooden wine box under the chopping board “has served for several years as a box to keep cutlery.” They own two insulated mugs, which they use for water, juice, cup-a-soup, and wine.

Lauren Quinn’s Phnom Penh kitchen piqued my interest when I read that she’d figured out the poop she was finding in the morning was from geckos, not rats. She also reports: the kitchen is “super small, with limited counter space and a one-burner camper stove. I refill canisters of gas for about 30 cents apiece, and one usually lasts me a week…I don’t actually have anywhere (cupboards) to put my dishes, so they live on a wicker shelf I bought.

“The window faces north, which gives these killer breezes, but it doesn’t have a screen and the old slats won’t close all the way — which, in this city, means that dust and dirt are constantly flying in, and all my dishes are perpetually covered in a thin layer of dust.”

So she washes everything before (and after) using it, but reports that on the upside, she lives on the same power grid as the US embassy, so the power to her fridge never goes out.

* * *

I’M NOT ENCOURAGING YOU to take a wrecking ball to your kitchen island and subzero refrigerator, should you be so lucky to have them. But know that a crappy floorplan and limited space don’t have to kill your cooking juju. People all over the world, including many of your countrymen, are whipping up feasts in spaces smaller than your dining room table.

Though, in the interest of transparency, I have recently moved to a larger apartment, and in it, there is a kitchen so large that both the dishes and the refrigerator live inside. My glass-breaking is at an all-time low, and I recently succumbed to consumerist glee on the cusp of writing this piece and bought an immersion blender.

Which leaves me with the question: do I loathe the cult of the American kitchen, or am I really just disgustingly, glass-breakingly jealous?

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