the living finish

There’s some chaos in the kitchen this week.

We finally exchanged the plywood counters for recycled chalk board and butcher block, and my friends Adam and Justin have been in here cutting and polishing and gluing. It’s really so beautiful, and I’ll share pictures soon… we’ll have a little kitchen tour.

Also, chaos in my head as I walk in to the kitchen. It’s been a year now since my whole family came into this kitchen together, and we are still figuring out how to peacefully feed all seven of us through the day. Sometimes we are one family, but often, we are two families who live differently. We put things in different places. We eat different foods. There is a long list of ingredients that at least one but more likely two or three people don’t like, and it includes chicken, lamb, fish, cilantro, rosemary, curry, thyme, tofu, soup, rice, shrimp, garlic, hot peppers, ginger, and cheese. I dream of Julia Child’s outlines of cooking tools on the kitchen walls. I do not write because I am organizing, again. I think we need to embark on some pretty serious meal planning. Of course, being the matriarch in the kitchen that I am, I think a lot of things.

I’m trying to let go a bit. I’m working on it.

We certainly have figured a few systems out this year. We have dish schedules and personalized water glasses and napkin rings. We all have different nights that we cook. We have an entire rack in the kitchen dedicated to lunch boxes. Sadie sets the table. My sister clears the table. The floors get swept. The compost gets taken out. My sister, Maia (nearly fourteen now), and Sadie bake together in moments that make me feel buzzed through and through with contentment and pride. Most of the time, there is dinner. Most of the time, we sit at the table after our plates are scraped clean, and we laugh about something or other.

In the the next few weeks, Tuesday nights will start to belong to Sadie. She’s been cooking and baking more over the last few months. She comes into the kitchen, rattled by her sister or my sister, or really anything, and she says, “If I don’t bake something, I won’t calm down!” She pulls out her current favorite cookbook (a recent Martha Stewart specimen), and she starts covering the counter with jars. This often happens when I’m deep in semi-panicked dinner prep myself, and then she and I butt heads. She needs help, or she simply can’t resist using every inch of the kitchen to make her cake. So she is inheriting Tuesday nights. I’ll stay nearby so she doesn’t burn the house down or lose a finger, but this way she can plan and shop ahead of time and have her own night to be the matriarch in the kitchen. I know what it feels like to need that.

Rosie, on the other hand, has had less interest in the kitchen and all that is has to offer. She’s going through one of her times when she wants what she wants and it better be made of bread, and so I bite my tongue and remind myself that she’ll find her way to some other chosen menu. I trust. I trust. She doesn’t seem to be disappearing, and it might just be the world itself that is fueling her. I don’t know what else it could be.

There days when I cook, and the kitchen is quiet except for the radio. I’ve had the good sense to break into a bottle of wine, and the sun streams through the windows. The mise en place is laid out on the counter. A cat sleeps on couch, and the whole house smells like that universal goodness that happens with onions and garlic hit warm butter and olive oil. But more often, I am rushing. I am cursing my poor and inefficient chopping skills. One child is crying because she has just learned that dinner does not consist of bread. The other yells, somebody shuffles by with their hands over their ears. No mise en place. No cleaning up as I go. There is piano playing, and cello, and cats meowing. I have a meeting. My mother isn’t home from work yet. Rosie takes a bag of tortilla chips out of the pantry, gets herself a bowl, claims that this is her dinner. We eat in stages, me shoving a piece of roasted cauliflower in my mouth as I run out the door. That is dinner time with another face.

This kitchen really is the heart of this house, right smack in the center. We might all be running around the center island to find the best way to feed and be fed, but this is where we meet together and take responsibility for who we are and how we express our love for each other. It’s almost as if the room itself is alive.

When my friend Adam was working on the counter tops, he kept rubbing oil into the wood and the slate. He said it was a “living finish,” and that it would grow and change and get more beautiful as it was used. We just have to pay attention, to season and rub oil into the surfaces and to understand that they need care.

I think the kitchen itself might be a living finish. Not slate or wood or cast iron, but a whole space that requires our attention, care, and love. I don’t know what that perfect oil is that will season it and make it shine. Like Tung oil on butcher block and slate. Or lard on cast iron that cooks in at a low heat, making the skillet shine with such confidence that it laughs at any pan that feels so insecure that it must actually label itself “nonstick”.

I think it might just be the act of eating that seasons a kitchen. Cooking, spilling of wine, laughing, breaking of dishes, feeding with grace, accepting with gratitude, washing of dishes as if they were your own baby. Quiet snacks on the late night counter with only a tiny light on to see. Children learning how to caramelize onions, how to whisk an egg. Crying and hollering over the island, accepting that it’s hard. That sometimes we make the hard choice because we think that it’s worth it. We work. We work again, and harder, and we promise to pay attention. And pancakes. Pancakes in the morning when there’s time, but even when there isn’t quite. Because we don’t just have to eat, we love to eat, and the kitchen can send us off into the day with that love in our bellies.

Lemon Ricotta Pancakes
adapted from Ed Levine, Serious Eats (yes, that book)

makes 16 to 18 pancakes

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
zest from one lemon
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 cup fresh ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
oil or bacon fat for the griddle
maple syrup, for serving

1. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar, salt, and lemon zest in a medium bowl.

2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, ricotta, melted butter, eggs, and vanilla. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir with a few quick strokes so that no flour is visible.

3. Heat the oil or baking fat in a cast iron skillet or griddle over medium heat until it shimmers, spreading it over the entire bottom of the pan. Use a 1/4 cup measure to scoop the batter into the pan. You can cook four to five pancakes in a 12-inch skillet, or more if your pan is larger. Cook until bubbles appear and the bottom of each pancake (when you tip it up to peek) is golden brown, two to three minutes. Flip each pancake and cook for about two more minutes. Serve with maple syrup.





  1. says

    My grandparents moved in with my parents, sister, and myself when I was in 5th grade. It took a little while for the eating schedules to get worked out, but eventually everything settled. The best part of this scenario was that my grandparents could help my parents out with dinner on nights they needed to work late or had other plans. And I learned to cook from FOUR people, each of whom had their own specialties. I know you’ll get the hang of it!

  2. says

    I love the idea of a living finish to your kitchen . . . Really, it’s a way to look at so many areas of our lives: rubbing in a bit of oil, finding counter space for both of us to do our thing, knowing when times needs to be set aside for one person to be in charge . . . and resting in the sure knowledge that it all gets better and better. Thank you for the inspiration!


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