On the Side | New kitchen requires emotional renovation

Posted: June 13, 2007

Eventually, I suppose, I'll figure out the light switches - which ones dim the high hats, or flip on the hanging light, or the under-cabinet strip, without which the dangling potholders and spatulas would spend their lives in perpetual darkness.

Our kitchen makeover - hardwood floor to ceiling to knocked-out wall - took six months, about twice as long as we'd counted on, which seems about average. It's finished now, as much as these things ever are: I still want to have a Vermont blacksmith we know bend cast-iron hooks for the pot rack.

But while I can't say I'm not happy with its fresh face and clean lines, its big stone sink and the way the vent hood's downlighting makes the stove alcove glow like a hearth, it's not quite what I'd call "mine." Not yet.

You pattern after awhile in an old kitchen. You know the precise flick of the wrist that clicks a door shut (without slamming it), how far to pull out a silverware drawer (without jarring it), where to grab the chef's knife (without looking).

So I should be patient, I guess. I'll learn the new light switches, parceled out over three walls. I'll know without hunting all over that the quiet beep means the freezer door is ajar. That the chef's knife - and its siblings - have moved under the microwave.

But there's emotional patterning that goes on, too. And that may take longer: We'd lived with our ramshackle kitchen for 20 years. Our granddaughter made her first egg sandwiches, standing on a stool at the old counter.

It was swaybacked and gapping at the wall; fake butcher-block Formica beyond the end of its natural life. So, good riddance. In one sense.

The new counters (and capacious farmhouse sink) are honed soapstone, sensuous to the touch. But their resume is skimpy; they're in need of personal, not just geologic, history.

Some history can be retro-fitted: My late aunt's memorial chalkboard hangs in an alcove of honor. The big crockery bowl from our North Carolina friends softens a bookshelf. A bouquet of worn wooden spoons mutes the gleam of the new toaster oven.

Still, I tiptoe around, a little afraid of the place. It's too new-car new. It requires humanizing nicks and spills, although I did explode the top off a tub of hot dressing I was shaking, christening the window screens and the spice shelves above the sink.

One month (well, for about three months) you're in a no-cook zone, your pots packed away, your kitchen a dust bowl. The next, you're trying not to scuff the counter making slaw with the mandoline.

You realize, in the process, how little you really need to get through the day - an electric frying pan, a picnic table outside for a cutting board, a shower to wash the dishes.

And you realize how much (once you get started) you want - one of Galbraith & Paul's hand-silk-screened hanging lanterns, the copper kettles that a retiring chef is selling, a backsplash of mottled, small-batch subway tile.

But money can't buy what I need most of all: the comforting bumper of patina. Which I assume will take care of itself after a few dozen assemblies of Italian rice salad, and lemonade squeezings, marinated shrimp dishes and deviled eggs and pots of caldo verde.

And eruptions of hot dressing.

That ought allow me to relax, and find serenity, to stop registering the seductive width of the grout lines, and fretting about chipping the soapstone.

I'll know where the kosher salt is hiding, and that the soup ladle has moved forever to the other side of the stove.

I'll have a bead on the garlic basket, and know instinctively the hot spots in the new Jenn-Air oven.

When that day comes, I'm sure my kitchen life will regain soft focus, and reveal its soothing pattern, offering the refuge not of a rut, let us pray, but of something more along the lines of a groove.

 Read more about Rick Nichols' kitchen at

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