personal essay

How an Apple Tart Taught Me to Embrace a Messy Kitchen

published Mar 5, 2022
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Credit: Photo: Samantha Ladwig; Design: Kitchn

When I have guests over for dinner, most of my friends insist on helping with the cooking part in order to avoid doing the dishes. Not because they’re unwilling, but because after years of witnessing my particular cleaning routine, they maintain that I’m better at it. It’s their gentle way of saying that I make them far too nervous to perform basic cleaning tasks in my home. They’ve watched me, time and again, shuffle their casually dropped bags to their appropriate place, properly adjust their shoes by the door, and — on a rare occasion or two — yes, re-wash dishes they’ve already washed.

I’ve been navigating these impulses since I was little. My earliest memory of getting in trouble as a child was when I was late for dinner because I was too consumed with cleaning a friend’s room. And while I agree with the sentiment that our home is a reflection of our mind, the sometimes-debilitating nature of my intense cleaning habits has often kept me from fully living in my home. The main casualty in all of this being the kitchen — the most used room in everyone else’s house and, historically, the least used room in mine.

Prim and proper, my tidy kitchen on display.

The kitchen in my childhood home functioned as a utility room (meaning: It existed to feed family members and lacked any culinary curiosity required to transform it from a space of purpose to a room of wonder). There were enough picky eaters in the family to tie us to a strict menu. Plus, my mom appreciated a clean home more than a new recipe. I took this approach to food with me when I left home — moving first to Seattle and then to Los Angeles — and at no time questioned it. There was never any need to. Each studio apartment that I bounced from never had a kitchen big enough to allow for complicated meals — one of my rental kitchens was so small, the only item I could fit on the counter was my coffee machine — and ultimately, cleanliness reigned. I opted to master a few low-mess meals and cycled through them until my taste buds screamed for something different, at which point I’d cave and order takeout. When I moved back to the Pacific Northwest in 2017 (this time to a little town out on the Olympic Peninsula whose picturesque downtown closes in the early evening), I started to rethink my plain-but-reliable rotating menu.

And while I agree with the sentiment that our home is a reflection of our mind, the sometimes debilitating nature of my intense cleaning habits has often kept me from fully living in my home.

There is no food delivery service where I live. No Postmates, or Uber Eats, or DoorDash. The only fast food is McDonald’s, and it will likely stay that way. It’s a quaint town made up almost entirely of small businesses, the little bookstore I run being one of them. So my nights were a bit freer than they’d ever been. Not wanting to fill up my newfound time with work-related activities, the easiest place to turn to was the kitchen. (Which worked out well because, again, there’s nowhere for me to buy dinner!)

Unsurprisingly, my preference for a clean surface took the lead in this endeavor and landed me right in sheet pan dinner territory. These quick recipes call for easy prep and few dishes. The mess couldn’t get more minimal than that. Even still, I found myself trying to see how I could use just one utensil rather than two. I opted to drizzle olive oil over the potatoes laid out on the pan rather than in a mixing bowl that would’ve coated them evenly. I was more fixated on the cleanup, and thus the end result was mediocre. But it didn’t matter. The smell of the rosemary and garlic potatoes, however unevenly coated, paired with the rainy scene outside was enough to coax me to try again.

I started expanding my repertoire, from sheet pan meals to chilis to soups. I also tried a few recipes with friends. (Come for dinner and, don’t worry, I’ll do the dishes!) The comforting aroma pushed me toward the kitchen, but with each recipe I discovered that it was my new self-reliant skills that urged me forward. I’ve always admired friends who, when they peek inside their fridge, see the makings of a meal. The more I cooked, the more I started to see how ingredients played together too. Getting more comfortable with food didn’t result in me completely letting go of my lifelong tendencies. I still saw the mess when considering recipes, eventually opting for the simpler version in order to avoid the extra dirty dishes. But then something changed all of that. A customer-turned-friend stopped by the bookstore to drop off a bag of apples from her garden.

Ta da! Sweet success: My rustic apple tart ready to pop in the oven.

Looking back, it was a combination of factors that gave me the idea to try an apple tart. The pandemic, restarting therapy, and the simple-but-kind act of gifting garden-grown apples during a tumultuous time all worked together to overshadow the cleaning-induced hesitancy I usually experience. The apples were special — and they deserved a special recipe.

The next morning, I spent some time finding a good recipe online and printed it out. I cleared and (re)cleaned the counters and gathered the required ingredients. This was the most complex recipe I’d tackled yet, a two-part process that asked for a pastry crust and sweet filling. After mixing the dough, I dusted flour onto the counter and plopped the makings of the crust down. I didn’t have a rolling pin, so I reached for (and disinfected) a slim bottle of olive oil. Instead of pausing to clean the dishes after placing the dough in the fridge to cool, I pushed everything aside and started working on the apple filling.

It wasn’t until I’d folded the apples into the dough and slid the tart into the oven that the mess awaiting me came into full focus.

A messy kitchen is well worth a bite of a self-made apple tart.

I didn’t think — I just went through the steps. It wasn’t until I’d folded the apples into the dough and slid the tart into the oven that the mess awaiting me came into full focus. It was the first time I’d lost myself in a recipe, and while surveying the dishes and messy, flour-covered counter, I realized I wasn’t working through my usual anxiety. With the tart baking, I put everything back as it was, finishing with plenty of time to read and hang out before the timer beeped. 

The apple tart (which was the tastiest thing I’ve ever made, by the way) by no means rid me of my ways, but it was insightful. The main lessons: Sometimes making a mess is worth the treat, and sharing a homemade meal with good company tops a clean kitchen. The tart helped me see that, every now and then, leaving the dishes for the morning is well worth the time spent creating something special.