life

Goodbye to All That

11 November 2013


[The view from Alamo Square Park, November 2013.]

And so we left – closed out the apartment in which I’d lived since June 2006, first with my college boyfriend, then alone, then with DW after we got engaged and subsequently married – with a few last coffees at the Mill (note: the chocolate chip cookie with sea salt is to-die-for), a quick breakfast at the Grove on Fillmore, and some walks in the Panhandle thrown in for good measure. It is bittersweet, yes, but I’ve belabored that point already more than once and I think it’s time to move for the time being. Life is going along as it inexorably does and so the door has been closed figuratively and literally on that portion of my life; after all, we can’t keep things as they are forever and that’s a good thing. Now the wee one and I are spending the month in Sebastopol, which means some back-roads runs for me, some trips to the coast for her (and, well, me too), Hardcore Espresso coffees whenever I can organize myself to get down there, brunch at Howard’s, etc. etc. Then it’s back to Casablanca for what comes next.

All of that is well and good and I will no doubt be detailing it all as it occurs. I have some thoughts of doing perhaps an ebook (?) type of a thing once I’ve been living in Morocco for awhile and feel more settled, with recipes, photos, essays … But before all of that, before my thoughts turn to Thanksgiving (this year I’ll be lucky if I can manage to eek out a vegan apple pie and vegetarian gravy), whole wheat persimmon muffins (yay or nay?), and the upcoming 20+-hour plane trip with a 2-month-old (!!), I wanted to finally write a post about my cucina, the tiny space where I spent so many mostly happy hours. It was pretty small by house standards — about 6 1/2-by-9-feet, or 60 square feet — but fairly large by apartment standards; its saving grace was that it was a walk-through, meaning it was open on both sides, one of which spilled directly into a small dining area. The counter space was decent-ish, but the constant bane of my existence was the oven. I wrote a funny article about it ages ago when I was doing an apartment living column for the San Francisco Chronicle but as time went on it ceased to be funny when 350 on the dial turned into 325 internally one day and then 400 the next. DW finally got me an oven thermometer while I was testing recipes for my cookbook so as to ensure accuracy. The fridge wasn’t full sized. The cupboards were nothing much to speak of. And yet.

I’ve never had much space in kitchens … ever, really. After college I moved into a 2-bedroom apartment in Washington, DC, for a year with a friend and then into a studio in Adams Morgan for another four, and neither one had much kitchen space to speak of. Still, I cooked and cooked. I think I really came into cooking during those early post-school days — finally I had a job that allowed for a bit of disposable income; my brother worked for a year at an organic farm in Virginia and encouraged me to avail myself of the farmers’ market for the first time; I realized I loved having people over to eat. I used to ‘call’ impromptu Sunday dinners earlier in the afternoon and would invite all my local friends (and their friends) over to cram into my small space. I never minded the lack of room; whatever I had I made good use of and that was that. I guess I felt the same way about my San Francisco kitchen, too, though a bonus was that it had a lot more light and I definitely appreciated that.

My friend Clare, she of the apple cake, has been telling me for a long time now I should post photos of my kitchen. I’ve meant to, of course, but never quite got around to taking any until, yes, the very last day we had after the movers came. Story of my life! This means it was empty except for a few cleaning supplies; try to envision it full of many pots, pans, cutting boards, baking implements … you get the idea. I hope these few photos, even of the emptied-out space, give a general idea.

I baked five wedding cakes in that oven as well as countless taste-tests; I baked probably hundreds of cakes, many of them for birthdays, most of them for ‘just because’; muffins were turned out on the regular, along with cookies, sweet breads, the occasional scone. And then, of course, dinners: for friends, for everyday weeknights. How many pots of quinoa did I produce on that little stove? (How many times did I curse the faulty pilot light?) How much produce did I lug in from the Saturday farmers’ market, ears full of jazz and sipping on my morning cup of coffee?

Oh, sigh. Oh, wistfulness. There is something to be said for small kitchens, it’s true: you must by necessity pare down. Everything is right before you and within easy reach. You maintain a certain amount of pride at what you are able to get accomplished with the limited resources you have. But mostly you just make do, because what other choice is there? Not to cook? At least for me that was never an option.

My kitchen saw me through many transitions: my move to San Francisco, my moving into a new (and wonderful) time of my life where I felt truly at peace and content for the first time in many years, my leaving full-time work to focus on my cookbook (with Sierra in tow, though I didn’t initially know it back in January when I was churning out flourless oat shortbread cookies dusted with sea salt and peanut butter cupcakes topped with milk chocolate frosting), through the packing and moving out most of our stuff to North Africa, to those exhausting, heady days at home with a newborn. I cook for necessity and I cook for sustenance and I cook for comfort (same goes for baking) and in the end it matters little where the actual act takes place. I have a huge and cabinet-filled kitchen I will soon be cooking in for the foreseeable future, and so I will make that most of it, too. As long as I have a good knife, a few big bowls for mixing in, a cake pan and a few pots and a wooden spoon I am set wherever I go.

So good-bye, little kitchen on Golden Gate Avenue with the rattly windows and the sound of the foghorn that kept me company as I cooked dinner so many nights. Good-bye whale weather vane that I could see spinning in the breeze atop a house a few blocks away when I took a break to pour a glass of wine (or brew a cup of tea). Good-bye crummy oven – I shan’t miss you at all. Good-bye fridge that either was too hot or too cold; never quite right. Good-bye, finally, to all that. I will miss you but am rather
glad to see you go. After all I do not want life to stay in predictable – albeit lovely – stasis. I want new smells and ingredients and adventures, as many as I can gulp down.

I hope I have left that kitchen well prepared for the next cook, the faint scent of all those vanilla cakes and lemon buttercreams and strawberry jams still lingering just a little bit for its next inhabitant. And so on we go to the next thing.

  • kate 14 November 2013 at 12:19 pm

    That stove looks a lot like my current one, and I commend you for baking all of those wedding cakes in it! Packing up an apartment always has a bittersweet kind of quality, but I hope this will make you feel more connected to your Moroccan kitchen… and if vegan pie becomes a “thing,” you will have a head start.

  • Janae 14 November 2013 at 9:56 am

    What a sweet homage to your little kitchen. I hope your new kitchen will bring you as much delicious food as this one did. I look forward to reading about your new adventure! Good luck with everything!

    (Also, don’t worry about the flight with the baby! My daughter was born abroad and I flew home to CA with her (starting at 2.5 months) about every six months, often by myself. It’s when they get to crawling/walking that it becomes a bit more of a challenge. You can do it! Flight attendants also tend to be really helpful on the long flights, especially when the baby is super cute, so you should have no worries :)

  • Lisa 11 November 2013 at 7:30 pm

    I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, some of my greatest memories of you are in that kitchen, laughing with a glass of wine, washing dishes while a little bit tipsy, sneaking bites of cheese and swipes of chocolate frosting. But by far my warmest memory is the first time I came over. I had only been with book club for a few months and didn’t know many people in the city and you threw me a small birthday celebration. I walked into your warm kitchen filled with all its delicious smells and a few of us toasted, late into the night, to my next year with souffle and champagne. Your kindness and love astounded me as much then as they do now. Goodbye little kitchen on Golden Gate, I’ll miss you, but mostly I just miss you, Nicole!

  • sonrie 11 November 2013 at 5:18 pm

    What a wonderful goodbye to your home, now on your way to your new home. And, my kitchen is not much larger than yours! Happy Thanksgiving to come and safe travels.

  • Pam 11 November 2013 at 5:15 pm

    This is lovely, Nicole! I have such admiration for you and look forward to hearing about the next chapter. I love stories of small kitchens. I think at some point most of us have had the opportunity to cook in one. My friends and I had wonderful dinner parties 40 years ago–all of us cooked in little more than a cubicle. As my wise friend, Ruth, always says, “A high-end vanity kitchen does not a cook make!” Wishing you and your sweet little family the very best!

  • Lesley 11 November 2013 at 2:46 pm

    Well it is pretty incredible what you did with a tiny space and a really unpredictable oven. I guess that is a good metaphor for what’s to come, though, as all things that stretch us tend to be.

    I look forward to seeing your next kitchen. xo

  • Douglas Wallace 11 November 2013 at 2:12 pm

    Dear NS, that small sink, the cutting board, the cranky oven, the mysterious refrigerator, and the homemade wood storage thingy combined made up a motley crew of sorts of subpar and reluctant sous chefs, who, with your coaxing, patience, and occasional lashings, helped you to create spectacular meals. This little cucina was an extension of you, and all your best characteristics: your good nature and generosity above all. If you were Merlin, the cucina was your wand, perhaps a wand which occasionally sparked wayward magic — thus requiring some healthy NS cursing — but a wand that almost always aimed true. NS + electricity + natural gas + water + Nature’s spectrum of Her bounty = immeasurable possibility (and who knows what else…) Love, DW

  • connie 11 November 2013 at 1:15 pm

    Bittersweet and beautiful post. I have a small kitchen with little counter space, an island on rollers in the middle which is the heartbeat and a big oven that replaced the 1957 Westinghouse (husband said it looked like the dashboard of a 57 Chevy !) in 2008. I adore this space as it does not allow anybody in there to help unless they are very used to doing the kitchen dance…a few good friends who do not take offense when I direct them to the side or out ! Primitive campsite cooking, teensy galley cooking, big or little, outdated (dislike that adjective !) updated…whatever the space, you Cucina Nicolina will forever create wonderful cooking because you are never without the love that makes it all so special and tasty. Hope you continue to post updates and yes on the persimmon muffins…mmmmm ! Thank you for all the times on the bay and beyond. You introduced me to quinoa on NPR..forever grateful ! Bon Voyage !

  • Laurie 11 November 2013 at 10:56 am

    I recall doing some of my best cooking years ago on a small stove quite like that. It was the photo of your cutting surface that moved me. In my middle age, I have such an overabundance of stuff. Everything feels oversized and unwieldy now. I’m reverting back to manageable sizes. Cannot imagine having the energy to bake with a little one (she must be a good snoozer). Happy adventures to you. I’m looking forward to your cookbook and whatever else you’d care to share.