The other night I was cooking dinner. Nothing fancy—I hardly ever do that. A pot of water sat on the stove, coming to a boil for pasta, and potatoes were roasting in the oven. I was standing at the sink, looking out the window as I washed the lettuce for salad. And I started thinking.
My grandmother would have been 101 a few days ago. She was born in China, where her father worked as a professor. Her mother surely had kitchen help in Shanghai, and maybe Grandma never had to to help in that kitchen. She spent her teen years, the 1920's, in Berkeley, California. She probably helped in that kitchen, which must have been decently equipped. There was running water and regular ice delivery for the icebox.
Later, though, Grandma lived in the country, outside Sebastopol, California. They didn’t have running water, at first. The stove was fueled with wood, wood that she or her husband or sons chopped outside. A refrigerator? There’s a story about that icebox, and the pig’s head that went bad in it. I think the whole ice box ended up somewhere in a gulch.
Funny, then, to think about what convenience means in today’s kitchen. To some people, it means zippy heating in the microwave. For me, convenience is synonymous with a can of tomatoes and a bag of pasta in the pantry. Having a dozen eggs in the refrigerator means I can whip up an omelet, or even just scrambled eggs. Or fried. If there are a few onions in the basket I’m happy—the tomato sauce is halfway there. Sometimes I find an end of bacon in the fridge, and there’s always a hunk of parmesan.
But I rarely remember, or appreciate, the ultimate convenience in my kitchen. Unlike Grandma, I never had to chop wood and build a fire before cooking dinner. I also never had to go outside to pump water for cooking and cleaning. My (modest by most people’s standards) 2011 kitchen has convenience up the wazoo.
If I’m washing salad or making tea, I just turn on the water, and it pours out of the faucet, for as long as I want it.
There’s the dial I turn that miraculously makes fire under whatever I wish to cook.
I really need to clean this burner!
And below it, an oven which heats to the exact temperature I request, making cake-baking a reasonably exact undertaking. Theoretically my oven will even clean itself, if I would only remember to lock the oven door and flip the switch.
And there’s the refrigerator, huge already compared to the one we had when I was a kid, which allows me to buy more than I possibly need, keeping it cold through no effort of my own.
And above it is the freezer. I don’t have an automatic ice maker. But as long as the person who used up the ice took advantage of our running water and refilled the tray (ahem!), I can reach into the freezer and grab some ice cubes. How easy, then, to greet the evening with a gin and tonic.
Now that’s convenience. Convenience that obviously takes a certain amount of resources. Convenience I should remember to appreciate more often, and to use less wastefully.
Here’s a link to MOMA’s exhibit, Counter Space. I’d hoped to see the show, but didn’t get to New York for it. It’s worth exploring—I’m especially taken with the Frankfurt Kitchen, and a reminder of how little you really need to cook a good dinner.