The wonderland of things

“So let me postulate a situation. You’ve got a young married couple, all dewy-eyed and lust-crazed, moving in to their first house. It’s not a bad house, because her father helped with the down. So they stand there in the their first real kitchen. Say marble countertops, built-in dishwasher, electric not gas stove, which is an abomination but never mind. There are boxes on the floor filled with kitchen stuff. It’s time to unpack.”

I pause for a breath. Scott looks at me expectantly. We’re having lunch in the Sidebar, a fine Oakland establishment across the street from Lake Merritt. Scott knows a lot about design, probably. Scott knows about a lot of things, some of which may not be things. I picked him to listen about kitchens. Lucky him.

“So here’s my question: How do they decide where things go? That pair of scissors, for instance. Where does it go? The flatware drawer? The tool drawer with the screwdrivers and the one hammer? Maybe it doesn’t even  go in the kitchen. Maybe the scissors belong in the home office. Which brings us to the garlic press, the wastebasket, the kibble container, the fruit bowl, the baking powder, and so forth. Where do they go? How do you decide?”

“How do you decide?” asks Scott, stressing a different word in the sentence.

“Me? How do I decide? Mostly I’m not the decider in the kitchen. But I think some of it has to do with how our parents’ kitchens were organized. I’m sure that very few mothers actually explained why the colander goes where it goes, but, you know, kids. They internalize things, and pretty soon the colander is in the baking drawer because that’s where Mom had it. Which is too bad, because the colander belongs on the occasional pot shelf.”

“The occasional pot shelf?”

“Where the pots you use only occasionally go. The big one you only bring out for stew when company is coming, the little sauce pan that’s rarely used for sauce. As opposed to the every day frying pan or the useful pot for cooking pasta. Clearly, some of the decisions are based on some kind of frequency-of-use algorithm. But others…”

My voice trails off. I’m at the limits of my pre-lunch speculation. I take a ruminative bite of polenta. I love lunch. When I was starting out as an editor, lunch was always the time for idea development. Plus, it was usually free. I don’t imagine you kids have heard about expense accounts, but they were one of the loveliest flowers of the old capitalism. Now everybody eats kale chips at their desks, finished off with their ninth cup of coffee of the day. I remember when a nice veal piccata and a glass of white wine was a routine treat. I —”

“My arrangements are always logical,” Scott says. “For instance, all the things with pointy ends go in one drawer. Knives, scissors, that sort of thing.”

“What about the meat thermometer? That has a pointy end. You could kill someone with a meat thermometer.”

“That goes in the cooking drawer, with the pot holders and the measuring cups and the small pile of folded recipes. The treasured recipes, of course. Mom’s meat loaf,  the chicken dish my wife learned in college, the infinitely elastic lasagne. Are 17 people suddenly coming to dinner? Let’s have lasagne!”

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Can you find the cherry pitter? The knife sharpener?

I could see that Scott was getting into it. I could see that he enjoyed making lists of kitchen thingies. Buying kitchen implements — a wooden spoon, a whisk, a pepper grinder — doesn’t really even seem like consumerism, although if you add up the cost of all your utensils and containers and one-use appliances — popcorn popper, anyone? It’s basically a hair-dryer with a top — it would probably be more than a Meneghini refrigerator.

(I just looked. A Meneghini La Cambusa will set you back a cool $41,000. But it’s a damn good refrigerator.)

“Of course, my arrangements are darned logical too. I think everybody thinks their own arrangements are logical. Those scissors I mentioned? That was not a hypothetical example. Tracy thinks the scissors belong next to the sink. That is of course ridiculous. They belong over in the prep area, where boxes and bags require opening. But, you know, other people. They sure are protective of their opinions.”

“So what happened?”

“We bought another pair of scissors. We needed an anti-bickering strategy.”

(Research indicates that we have five pairs of scissors in the kitchen. We also have a cherry pitter, an egg slicer, a lemon squeezer, a potato masher, a funnel that used to belong to Tracy’s mother, and a large ashtray in the shape of Dodger Stadium. We also found this:

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Does it fly? Is it used in witchcraft?

Which, who knows? Not us.)

It was Scott’s turn to meditate. He chewed his Cuban roast pork sandwich. “Is there a point here?” he finally asked.

“I had an idea that I’m pretty sure is not new, but it came to me in my own little head, so I like it. Everybody’s a designer. Everybody has dozens of design ideas that they don’t know they have. Like, some people favor symmetry. They’re always discovering an object that must go in the center of the table or wherever, and then arranging objects on either side. Bonus points if you’ve got two of something — porcelain rabbits, say — and put one on either side. Other people prefer a more subtle aesthetic approach, while still others like random scattering of stuff,  because that makes life more interesting. It’s hard to say where these preferences come from. Family patterns, sure, but there are plenty of examples of people who grew up in a symmetrical household and became militantly chaotic as soon as they left home.”

“And how does this relate to the scissors?”

“Just this: I have no idea where my preference in scissor location comes from. I could make up a reason why it’s logical, but that would be post-hoc hand-waving. It comes from the same place as my fondness for cacti and my love of old cars. It feels hard-wired. And, I, well, think that’s interesting.”

Scott smiled. I know he thought it was interesting too. “Want some coffee?” he asked. I was pretty sure he was hinting that he would enjoy a discussion of coffee worship and its attendant grinders, pressers, steamers and beans from the north slope of Mount Confundida in Costa Rica. But no, he just wanted coffee.

Photography by Tracy “You really want me to take a picture of our table?” Johnston

Not so much into chaos: Michelle Mizera

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54 thoughts on “The wonderland of things

  1. It doesn’t much matter where you put stuff as long as you can find it easily. That’s why using Mom’s plan makes sense. If you’re used to the colander being on the baking shelf why not continue doing it? But of course if both partners cook and (hopefully) have different mothers they’re apt to have different preferences and bring in all sorts of organizing principles just to support them.

    But in my relationships (exaggeration alert) all the arguments have been about cleaning up. If someone cleaned something and put it away, we were so grateful we didn’t care where they put it.

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  2. Thanks, Jon, for this refreshing little sojourn from the constant omnipresent media coverage of our surreal national meltdown. Sometimes it takes a little shot of the pleasantly mundane to keep one’s perspective in a healthy place. Keep up the good prose!

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        1. A churning paddle for an elite cream maker. Not unrelated to Chuck’s hypothesis. And I agree with Ted it’s upside down.

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    1. Brought back memories of my childhood kitchen. My mom was a home economics teacher, in addition to human relationships and child guidance. She cooked well and always. Of course my pans and cookeries go pretty much where mom’s did.
      My scissors go with the knifes. So do the pliers.
      Dewy eyed and lust crazed……heaven. Or a brief stop in.

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  3. But woe betide he who, after 60 years in same locale, attempts to improve upon the locale of the pitter. Once it’s placed there’s a period of about 2 days when placement is open for discussion. After that? Discussion closed.

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  4. Thanks for a great piece. It strikes at the heart of human relationships. The most important thing to understand about a shared kitchen is that it allows one the luxury of feeling that if everyone put things where I think they should go, the whole place would work a lot better.

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  5. I think about that more often than my friends and family might think. We remodeled sometime in my late 30’s and I decided where things would go. On the left side of the stove (I insisted on gas) all the pots and pans in regular use plus everyday utensils like knives and stirring spoons and spatulas. On the right side those pots and cooking things used more rarely plus baking pans. Further to the right is an antique Hoosier cabinet with the rest of the baking stuff. If you bake often you have to have a Hoosier.

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  6. Dishes and glassware near the dishwasher for ease in putting away, baking supplies near the counter with room to do the work and room for your mixer, pots and pans near the stove. Please, please tell us when you find out what the object is for as the suspense is killing me.

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  7. What a fun trip down memory lane. I do put many things in similar places like my mom but for some un known reason she kept the bag of flour in a lower cupboard with some pans. Seemed like she was always cleaning up messes from my younger siblings getting into it –I did not repeat that mistake.

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  8. Here’s the part I like: “Everybody’s a designer.” I feel the same way about music — everybody’s a musician — and only a lucky few of us are even aware of it, let alone give ourselves credit for it.

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  9. I think it’s for slowly mixing a sauce, like a Hollandaise or Béarnaise, in a saucepan, double boiler. But it needs a shaft, like a dowel with a set-screw in it. It looks like you could turn it only counter-clockwise, or the shaft would fall out. Or, it’s a rotating comb for a noodle-haired terrier.

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  10. As I read this article, I found myself reflecting on a corollary topic: How we shop at the grocery store and what we buy. When I left home I found myself buying many of the brands that my mother always had in the frig or cupboards as I was growing up. Over the years since leaving home more than 40 years ago, this has lessened as some brands have gone out of business or been discontinued. And taste changes, too.

    I also set the table the way my mother taught me, and I even think I follow a pathway in the grocery store as I select items that is similar to the grocery-shopping journey I went on with my mom. I remember when my daughter told me, a few years after she left home, that she had lots of the same foods in her frig and cupboards that I have in mine. A warm feeling went through me, as in, “Guess I had some influence, after all.”

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  11. I recently moved my non-bathroom scissors from the office drawer to above the microwave because I found I was mostly using it in the kitchen for cutting open packaging. I’m evolving.

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  12. Dude…I’ve was being entertained by you at lunch for all those years. You quit, Nevius quit, Chip Johnson quit, even the crazy making right wing lady columnist quit along with some others. Herb Caen, Charles McCabe, and all those guys kept working/writing almost until they were at death’s door. Otis Taylor is a pretty good replacement, and thank the Goddess for Scott Ostler. I peruse the Pink sheet on Sunday just for Mick LaSalle. I’m not even a movie guy, just like his writing. Every day at lunch, while working my way through the Chron, I wonder about this. What changed? Why have all you guys quit? signed: Your faithful Reader in/on Sausalito the Waterfront, aka Other Dude

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      1. Ah yes — the proverbial “offer you can’t refuse,” which has disappeared so many wonderful Chron columnists over the years. You, however, are the only one with the good sense to start a blog, and for that I am eternally grateful…

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  13. Everything that doesn’t go with anything else (like the old metal band-aid box with birthday candles in it) goes in the firch drawer (that’s what my friend Flo called it, but whatever you call it, you have one. Maybe not in the kitchen, but somewhere).

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  14. “We bought another pair of scissors. We needed an anti-bickering strategy.”
    Ultimately it doesn’t matter where it goes, as long as you can find it and not bicker.

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  15. We have a pegboard in the basement stairs. Many pots and pans and widgets are hung there. Nobody in the family ever puts anything back in the same place twice. Keeps things stirred up. I have a black iron skillet that never leaves the stove and I cook 90% of my food in that, because I always know where it is – others find it too heavy to carry around so it stays where I leave it.

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  16. When I moved, I did not unpack the kitchen. I had all the boxes in there and when I needed something I paid attention to where I subconsciously expected it to be.

    My newer kitchen has a Drawer of Meat Torture, Drawer of Vegetable Torture, and Drawer of Cheese Torture.

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  17. I just read a book called “Viking Economics” by a sociologist. For the first time since the election I feel cheerful about our future. His thesis if that America, like Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, can set up a single-payer health system that isn’t age-related, can eliminate tuition from public universities and colleges enabling people to graduate debt free and, for that matter, to return to community colleges and academic ones mid-career for retraining without piling up debt, and that we can provide day-care for working moms and dads. He’s a big believer in non-violent protest. Who knows? Maybe we can make the Democratic Party similar to the Social Democrats and Labor parties in the “Viking” countries instead of the Republican Party Lite.
    Plus I had never seen a picture of an ashtray in the form of Dodger Stadium before! Life is good!

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  18. This caused me to make a little tour around the kitchen because, you know, things end up where they are. So: the one-cherry pitter (elegant, sophisticated) goes in the random but often-used utensil drawer, while the 6-cherry pitter (ridiculous, bulky) goes in the deep drawer with all its bulky friends. The closet in the little room off the kitchen is the repository of Things We Use to Make Stuff We Never Make (that giant fish steamer, for example). And the cabinet above the refrigerator that no one can easily reach is home to that sushi-making set we bought in Japan before we had kids (daughter is 34) and the large casserole that the house’s previous owners left here. 29 years ago. And so on.

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  19. We lived in a very small apt. when I was a child, with little storage space (like, none) and two drawers. Everything from electric tape, hockey puck, string, lacrosse ball, scissors, were kept in “the bottom drawer”. I think this was the best system ever, and I am slowly getting back to it. There is such a thing as too much storage space. All we need is one kitchen bottom drawer to hold anything we need a place for. So simple.

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  20. I like “anti-bickering strategy”; we use the same approach but I never named it. (My husband calls it Just Buy Another One.)

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  21. Very helpful! Just moved into a new kitchen with plenty of storage and had much storage anxiety…now I know that I placed everything perfectly 😉

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  22. Definitely hardwired: The deep structure of Where Things Go, the universal grammar of Putting Things Next To Other Things. Needing further study: what does and doesn’t go on pot racks; just because you *can* hang something, should you?

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    1. People have different kitchen aesthetics. If you’re a serious cook or want people to think you are, maybe you need the pothooks, the wooden counter-tops, the griddle on your stove, etc. If you’re really rich and want people to know you are, you get the designer gizmos du jour. If you’re more traditional and want a homey kitchen, you hang a few crocheted banalities on the wall and put everything away after cleaning up. Et cetera.

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      1. Actually, homey do not require crocheted banalities. My homey kitchen has pictures of West Oakland residents, plus Mexican folk art, a Mary Robertson painting and a drawing entitled “Cowboy Singing for the Intelligent Woman.”

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        1. Fair enough. My list of kitchen aesthetics was not meant to be exhaustive or inclusive of all the variants. And I doubt that drawing is as interesting as the title, but if it is, wow.

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