I’ve cooked in four different kitchens the past four years: standard apartment kitchens, the kitchen of an old mansion, the kitchen whose oven became my primary source of heat during the coldest Pennsylvania winter.
In our very first basement apartment in Charlottesville, I noticed that the oven gave off a strange smell whenever it was turned on, and then finally, it stopped working. I called our maintenance man. He solved the problem by discovering piles and piles of dog food, shoved into the bottom of our oven. We don’t have dogs. I have no idea what kind of tenant decided that the back of the oven was the perfect place to store dog food.
Our apartment at Chatham was a fun one to cook in. We lived in a mansion converted to a dorm, and our kitchen was the old prep kitchen. It hadn’t been cleaned out before we moved in, and was a mine of old artifacts: a wheat grinder, old serving trays, and even a 1950s television shoved into the pantry. One of the walls was covered in beautiful wooden cabinets with glass doors, but the wood had warped so much over time that I worried the doors would fall off whenever I opened the cupboards. It was in that apartment that we learned to cook for crowds on a mini stove, shop every few days to accommodate the small space, to not scream at the sight of cockroaches and to ignore the constant drip of the sink.
In this house, Andrew promised me my dream kitchen. I couldn’t wait to have counter tops that only we had used, flooring we had put in ourselves, and an open layout where we could talk to guests and cook at the same time. I spent hours scrolling through Pinterest pictures of subway tile and butcher block, islands and farm house sinks. Call me shallow but there are few things more comforting for me than a looking at a picture of a kitchen that is pristine and well organized. Pretty teapots and decorative soaps just make me feel like nothing could go wrong in the world.
We began working on our kitchen the first weekend we moved in. Andrew and my brother Matt took out the half wall that divided the kitchen and the dining room, while his fiance Liz, my father-in-law Jim, and I got to work spray painting the cabinets white. (Side note: I completely scored the jackpot in the in-law department. My father-in-law and future brother-in-law painted our entire house, and Liz spent an entire day cleaning out bathroom gunk with me. If that is not love, I do no know what is.)
We peeled up three layers of linoleum and put down tile, with the huge help of Andrew’s talented uncle. We bought butcher block from Lumber Liquidators. We refinished the hardwood in the dining room, and Kevin and Jim painted the walls. Kevin and Andrew cut into a wall in the dining room and found there was space for a built in. Last week, we invited Kevin over for dinner and then ambushed him with our subway tiling project, and our kitchen was complete.
I love my new kitchen. It is a dream to cook in. I love the butcher block, the farm house sink, the window through which I can look at our hydrangea and laurel bushes. The island is the perfect height for rolling out dough, and I love that when Andrew makes us breakfast in the mornings, I can sit at our table and have a conversation with him. But through all this, I have discovered something else: the kitchen is the heart of the home, but subway tile is not. I don’t think I’m any happier cooking in here than I was in our previous kitchens. When we eventually move from this home, I’ll remember making jam for the first time, and the way the aroma of sticky strawberries filled the house for days. I’ll remember attempting fried chicken. I’ll remember sitting around the table with my entire family at Easter, signing everyone up for timed shower slots because our sewer exploded. I’ll remember Andrew’s mom coming by for coffee and cake, when we were unexpectedly joined by our Yorkshire neighbor. I’ll remember the hours I spent at my dining room table, writing while the sun streamed in through the window. I don’t think I’ll remember the subway tile or butcher block itself as much as sitting on it to glue it to the cabinets and talking with Kevin late into the night while he and Andrew stuck it to the wall. The kitchen is the heart of the home because of the things that happen there. A kitchen doesn’t need subway tile and new floors to be the place where life happens.
But it sure is nice to look at.