I crushed garlic, mint, rosemary and lemon for lamb chops with this heavy mortar and pestle last night, and noticed how the kitchen is feeling more familiar. I’m posting below something I wrote last June about the experience of being in a kitchen created by someone else. The tools are gradually starting to feel like mine, helped by the addition of measuring cups and spoons. But I’ll never get used to not having a clothes dryer.
I am cooking in my lover’s kitchen.
The kitchen flows, everything at my fingertips. Set up by someone who felt pots, burner dials, heat, spices, knives extensions of her body. The way I relate to my road bike, gear changes flowing out of the impulses in my calf muscles. Cutting boards exactly where they should be, little bowls of salt and sugar ready for finger-pinches of the perfect amounts, well-used cookbooks stacked full in one cupboard. Another cupboard crammed with the esoteric spices of Indian, Chinese, African cooking. Tiny mysterious bottles hand-filled. A slightly worn, heavy mortar and pestle in easy arm’s reach to crush little seeds I don’t recognize. A broad five burner range, powerful jets ready for precise calibration of heat.
Two cats curl around my feet, looking at the familiar cupboard for their food. The male one yowls, his squeaky voice already well-known to me. “We keep the spoons for scooping catfood here,” says my lover, pointing to a little jar on the windowsill. “We try not to get them confused with the people spoons.”
The “we” is immediately, simultaneously, jarring and expected. “We.” The kitchen was set up by my lover’s wife, who died. She was the one who placed each of these jars on the shelves, chose the wooden spoons, thumbed through the cookbooks, produced lavish, creative spreads that guests raved about. I’ve seen a picture of her, glass of wine in hand, reflected in the mirrored backsplash wildly sprayed by a frenzy of cooking. She was beaming.
This is her kitchen, her life woven with my lover’s, more than a simple half of the “we.” “We like to keep this side of the upper dishwasher rack for big spoons and that sort of thing, the small utensils on this side.” Knives placed side by side for years, carving out a life that only is at all because it’s sculpted in tandem.
I am a competent but not inspired cook. I am too short for this kitchen, have to look up at almost everything. Looked yesterday fruitlessly for dried parsley to add to the cobbled-together ratatouille I was concocting. “We usually grow that in the garden, I guess,” says my lover.
Yesterday, I added salt to the tomatoes and zucchini on the stove, and realized too late I’d dipped into the little sugar dish instead. The salt one has flowers, the sugar does not. Exasperated, I tried to compensate, looked for vinegar. Found white wine, balsamic, red wine, malt in the special, ingenious pullout cupboard for tall bottles. The sugared and vinegared ratatouille turned out piquant. “It improves it, honestly,” he said.
Tonight, I’m making lamb chops. “I’d really like some lamb,” my lover had said, lightly. His arms just a little restless, empty. I’ve never made lamb chops before, but stopped at the supermarket after our day of birding and walking. Lamb is not really a Canadian staple. Googled a recipe, realized too late there was no lemon in this kitchen five miles from town, have substituted lime. A leap of faith.
I pull out the heavy mortar and pestle. I’ve never used one before, but it just seems right. I crush garlic and fresh rosemary together, make a little paste with the lime and thick strong olive oil. Brush them thickly on the chops. Investigate the oven that seems tiny to my Canadian eyes, have to go online again to convert the Celsius settings to my Fahrenheit brain. Flick the professional grade burners into life, fuss to find the right settings.
My lover snaps garden peas while I trim asparagus, start to boil potatoes. “Are you going to peel those?” he asks, his slightly forlorn tone implying he hopes I will. I remove them from the already hot water, scrape their sides, toss them back in, poking them warily for the perfect point, take them out to cool while I chop garlic.
How does this warming drawer work? How can there be three different types of baking paper? What’s the difference between mint jelly and mint sauce? Where the hell are the serving dishes?
Potatoes in the oven, I sit for a moment with my lover at the dining table, sipping a glass of wine he’s poured. We bite into radishes he’s just pulled from the garden, dip them in the little dish of salt. Fresh white bread and butter. He looks happy, restlessness relaxed as he fits into a flow he knows.
The meal is perfect. The potatoes are crisp and savoury, the lamb infused with the traditional — rosemary, garlic — and the unexpected — lime. The peas and asparagus are tender enough for my English lover. The female cat winds around my chair, watching me.
There is crafting in this kitchen, food as artistry, food as connection. Shaped by someone else’s creative reach. Infused, larded, with the decisions a couple reaches wordlessly in day to day movement against and around each other.
Cooking in this kitchen, my own artistry is flicked into life, the marinade on the lamb more lush, the potatoes both sharper and more tender. I create with more grace than ever before. My lover eats, happy and grateful, familiarity and novelty spun into balance.