My husband and I spent the better part of our 30 years of marriage in a home we bought in Kansas City. It had a large eat-in country kitchen with plenty of counter and cabinet space; in short, it was a home cook's dream.
But my kitchen was never really part of my life. It was like that acquaintance you bump into and then, after a few minutes of small talk, you have nothing left to say. I "cooked" if I had to — processed frozen or boxed meals, or something I could easily throw into the slow cooker — but we spent most of our time in restaurants.
That all changed when, nine years ago, we moved to our 480-square-foot lake house in the Ozark Mountains.
Our tiny home was formerly our vacation getaway. We had intended to retire here someday, but the plan was always to build a larger home and use the cabin one as a guest room and workspace. The recession got in our way, so we decided to downsize our lives — and that meant living with a tiny kitchen.
Luckily, we had designed our tiny kitchen with as much cabinet space as possible, even foregoing the dishwasher for a cookie sheet cabinet and corner built-in lazy Susan. We recessed the cabinets, allowing for storage on top, if needed, and built a half pantry for small appliance storage in the laundry closet.
Still, some things definitely had to go. As my mom had passed away just before our move, I had to make the sometimes-painful decisions to keep only what I really loved of hers and what I could put to use in the kitchen.
Once we were settled, I got to work learning how to cook; out in the boonies, restaurant options are limited, so it was necessity rather than some greater calling — and it was slow going. I knew about as much as I did when I made that first sad meatloaf, really nothing more than a pound of baked hamburger slathered in ketchup. I didn't even know the difference between a garlic clove and garlic bulb.
As I learned to use new tools, such as a garlic press I bought at a new friend's kitchen party, I found myself getting the warm sensation I used to have watching my mother cook. She always seemed to be a part of her kitchen and the kitchen a part of her. I was always awed by the way she moved about so effortlessly, removing lids and stirring pots. She'd stop to inhale a drag from her cigarette and then move leisurely to drain a pan of pasta or cut up items and mix a salad.
My previous attempts at cooking were anything but effortless. In my big city kitchen, my movements were never fluid. I would run around the kitchen in exasperation, spilling sauces and burning meat. My large kitchen in the city seemed to mock my failure, not just in the kitchen, but in my life — one that was built around trying to live up to conventional expectations: Two successful careers financing too big of a house that we were too tired to maintain after too many hours.
My tiny kitchen had precisely zero expectations of me. Here, in my new kitchen, I was surrounded by only the things in my life I really loved (including one of my grandmother's serving bowls, my dad's metal meat tenderizer, and my mother's antique vinegar bottle.)
In my tiny kitchen, I didn't have to run from stove to butcher block to sink. I could rinse vegetables in the sink, turn and chop them on my cutting board, and drop them into a pot, all without taking a step. The simplicity of it all made me feel not harried and overwhelmed, but as if my kitchen was giving me a long, warm embrace — one that reminded me, too, of my mother's.
I now no longer consider it a success if I can present a box of prepared noodles without a catastrophe. I am confident and calm. And not only have I learned to cook — my husband not only finishes his meals, but also asks for seconds — I have learned to love it.