“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!”
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:
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.
Not so much into chaos: Michelle Mizera