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elbows on the table

No Plate Like Home

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This story is part of the Elbows on the Table Essay Series. Illustrations by Tegan Harmonay.

2020 was the year my dishwasher was constantly running and my knives were always dull. My dishwasher, thrummed dramatically in the background of every Zoom meeting and my knives sat in resentful silence as they wondered when I would get around to sharpening them. 

At some point, I started to feel like there were always kitchen chores to do. Plates, bowls, and  cutlery seemed to accumulate in the sink at a suspicious rate. At first I wrote it off as the stress of the year getting to me, but then I realized it was basic math. With my partner and I now cooking 3 meals a day at home instead of 1 or 2, we quite literally had 2 to 3 times as many dishes to do.

All of that chopping was blunting my knives at a pace I hadn’t seen since I was a line cook sweating manically through the dinner rush at Mission Chinese Food six years ago. It was before Uber Eats and Caviar took over the restaurant world, but I still had to deal with crashing waves of delivery orders sending me straight into the weeds every Sunday night. 

In those days– in the breaks between the lunch rush and the early dinner crowd– I’d run my Korin chef knife up and down a ceramic honing rod. This kept its edge in top shape between monthly sharpenings. Not to mention it also made me look and feel like Gordon Ramsay. 

As a professional cook you internalize a flow chart of “what next?” It’s an unceasing current you have to navigate in order to make as many meals as possible in quick succession with a minimal amount of wasted time or movement. 

I’d always assumed this unending scroll of anticipated kitchen tasks and movements was just some quirky neural baggage I’d have to put up with for the rest of my life. But during shelter-in-place my OCD about mis en place finally got its chance to shine.

In the before times, I’d hone my knives for dinner guests just to see the look of awe and fear it put on their faces. But there were no dinner guests after February of 2020. The dinner parties that once held me and my friends and family together evaporated.

Planning and sharing meals with friends, my go-to distraction, was replaced with a sinister carousel of cleaning our kitchen and doomscrolling Twitter to see what catastrophe would be next. 

And neither my partner nor I can stand the sight of dirty dishes. This meant that either she was cleaning in the background of my Zoom meetings or I was cleaning in the background of hers.

8 hours a day, 5 days a week, my partner and I worked from the kitchen table. I could feel my kitchen strain under the newfound weight we were putting it under. Like an athlete who ups their mileage too quickly, a stress fracture or worse might be on the horizon. 

I will admit that this time made me so grateful for the hard-won lessons about organization, cooking things ahead of time, and yes, knife sharpening, that I learned during my tour of duty as a line cook. 

I tried to channel this energy and inspiration at work, doubling down on answering peoples cooking questions on Imperfect’s weekly Open Kitchen Series on Instagram Stories. I shared ideas with cooks as beleaguered as I felt and more about how to make lentils tasty and how bananas can make your stubborn avocados ripen faster. It did feel like we were all in this together, but all separately marooned in towers of sourdough bread and cans of beans we might never finish.

I’ve since moved to a larger apartment where my partner and I don’t have to work from the kitchen. 

But looking back on that surreal stretch of time spent in my kitchen, I keep coming back to the many paradoxes of life in 2020. My kitchen went from my place of refuge in the world to the one place I wanted to get away from. 

Cooking went from a celebratory and performative act for others to a tauntingly repetitive chore. The change was so dramatic for me that it made me finally understand my mom’s reaction when as a teen I told her how fun I thought cooking was. 

“Oh it’s fun once in a while,” she said with a knowing sigh, “But when it’s something you have to do every day, it changes.”

4 Comments

  • Mary
    May 13, 2021 at 5:12 pm

    This is one of those dismaying articles about what a tragedy it is not to go to restaurants and buy take-out. Sigh. Granted, I’m only cooking for one, but I’ve always done most of my own cooking, going out to eat maybe once every other week and seldom buying take-out. 2020 was not much different from 20-any other year or 19-any other year., for that matter, except my dishwasher broke sometime in 2018 and I haven’t had money to buy another. My suggestion to you is to read cookbooks, especially ones which feature healthy recipes of few ingredients. Cookbooks give one lots of ideas and a way of thinking about cooking in an improvisational way. Shop wisely: The chicken poaching stock is the basic ingredient for the broth for the soup the next day. You’ll add a tasty array of vegetables and leftover bits of chicken. It takes very little time to create something pretty nice. If the kitchen isn’t your haven, move into the living room., take a good book, enjoy your soup.. You’re alive and well. You’re innovative and creative. You’re feeding your family healthy meals, the ingredients of which you know. There’s no tragedy.

    Reply
    • Imperfect
      May 18, 2021 at 7:12 pm

      Awesome that you cook so often at home! 💚

      Reply
  • Trisha S.
    May 13, 2021 at 9:31 pm

    I am not a chef; rather, I very much relate to your mother’s statement: “when you have to do it every day, it changes…” I first had this experience when I went from being a working professional to a full-time mom at home with people to feed 3 meals a day, every day. My husband wondered why I saw t mealtimes as a dreaded chore–he always enjoyed cooking as a “creative outlet” from his usual day of work. I had enjoyed cooking once, too, until it seemed there was barely time to clean up from one meal before starting to prepare the next (and repeat)! Over the years we settled into a pleasant routine of me getting the basic meals on the table & him preparing “flashier” meals for family & guests several times a week. We made a deal that whoever cooked, the other cleaned up. This was really only a deal for him; I am a “clean-as-you-go” cook, & he is a “how-many-knives-&-pots-can-I-use” type! The upside was that kids learned both men & women can cook & clean–a plus in raising self-sufficient adults who also know how to cook & clean up! Before we knew it, were just cooking for 2 again, once more a fun collaborative activity, or at the very least, I would be the sous-chef, and he would join in to perform the final magic to transform raw ingredients into the star of the plate!
    Over the 37 years together, this rhythm of nourishing ourselves & others has moved back and forth–“team” cooking when one young couple returned to the nest for 9 months–and then, a reversal of those ‘early childhood’ days, when grandma had to move in with us unexpectedly during the pandemic: I was the full-time caregiver, so he was the one to make sure all 3 of us were fed 3 meals a day 24/7, learning what a tedious chore cooking (& the clean-up after) is everyday for 6 months.
    Feeding self & others can be a chore; yet also a labor of love, & nurture, & table fellowship. Hopefully, we will not soon forget our good fortune to have meals from restaurants again!–and will retain our heightened appreciation of cooking & eating together with others after this long drought!
    Let it never be taken for granted again!

    Reply
    • Imperfect
      May 18, 2021 at 8:02 pm

      Thank you so much for sharing! It sounds like you and your love really have it down with all those years of practice! 💚

      Reply

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