I am always falling in love in kitchens.
Or rather, I suppose it’s not so much that I’m falling in love in kitchens but that I’m always realising I’m in love in kitchens; that the kind of love I love to fall into is the kind of love that’s most at home in the kitchen; a domestic kind of love; an intimate, easy, buttery kind of love.
All my stories start in the kitchen, and all my days, too: fumbling for the kettle in my dressing gown, coffee in the grinder, eyes smudgy behind bleary glasses. I never remember, really, getting downstairs. I think I do it while I’m still asleep, a half-tumble down the stairs and into the grey light of the early morning. I put away the dishes from the night before; stare at the cucumber plants; don’t speak.
I don’t like to see anyone until I’m on my second cup. My flatmate, one of the great loves of my life, says that nobody has ever hated her the way I hate her in the first half-hour of the day.
I fell in love with her in a kitchen, too: my old kitchen, 4am, fluorescent fridge-light, her eating cold leftovers, me pouring boiling water on to a pair of teabags. We were both sort of despairing in those days, and though we had known each other for a long time it was in that kitchen that I knew for sure that I loved her completely. I have never had a kitchen I didn’t fall in love in; I never want to.
There is something about the kitchen that invites intimacy
And by love, I mean everything you think I mean, always, all the time, all of it; I mean love, in love, whatever. There are a million kinds of love, maybe as many as there are people to fall in love with; and a million ways to know that you love a person, and all my great loves have been kitchen loves: domestic, intimate, easy.
See, once I put a knife into his hand and told him to chop; and another time gave her a grater and a block of parmesan and told her to keep her damn hands out of the dinner before it was done, watched her eat fistfuls of cheese behind my back while we both watched him play the guitar and tried to fit harmonies around sneaky spoons of stolen supper because I’m a hypocrite, and because I have always known that a morsel from the kitchen has some kind of secret something that fades away by the time the serving dishes reach the dining table. You will always find me, as the song says, in the kitchen at parties.
I once met a man under the name of Breakfast Bill, and you could always find him in the kitchen at parties. He used to make breakfast, obviously: fry-ups at four or five in the morning, the time when in other cities you might find yourself at McDonald’s or the all-night chicken shop. We didn’t have those there, but there was Breakfast Bill.
I heard about him long before I met him, and I only met him once (frying a dozen eggs in someone else’s kitchen), but I think of him often. I was a little bit in love with him for the sheer audacity of it, and because I am susceptible to falling in love in kitchens, and because kitchens at parties are where the real magic happens: the inner party, let’s say, and also, often, the afterparty. You have the best booze and the best snacks and you can get the best people, too: no timewasters, no bores, no small talk.
I have met so many of my great loves in the kitchen at parties. I used to have a real knack for it, and maybe I still do, but I don’t go to so many parties with strangers any more. Identify the three best people in the room, and the best bottle, and corral them with charm and kitchen secrets. Bingo: inner party, secret party, and after that, after they’ve gone, at the end of the night, the debrief, and the kettle on. Cheesy chips. Toast to soak up the gossip. Then what did you say? Did you see him put his hand on her shoulder? Do you think they went home together? God, that was good. Did you? Didn’t you? God, I’m tired. More tea, more secrets.
My flatmate and I, before she was my flatmate, standing in the fridge’s light at 4am. We should live together. There is something about the kitchen that invites intimacy. I suppose kitchens are a space for intimacy because I will touch with my hands the things that will go in your mouth; I will taste what you taste; I will work for you, or you will work for me. I will make this for you because I love you, because you need it, because you want it.
Would you open their fridge? Dig into their Coco Pops packet?
We measure love, round here, on the Kitchen Scale: a practical method for swiftly and accurately finding out your feelings for a person. Pick a person. Imagine, now, that you are in their kitchen, alone. How comfortable are you? Have you been there before? Do you know them well enough to make yourself a cup of tea? A sandwich? A full-scale meal? Could you make yourself a meal? Would you open their fridge? Would you start digging in the Coco Pops packet? Would you want to? Would they mind?
You don’t need to do this often, you understand. I’m not in the habit of ranking my friends or my loves in this fashion, and yet when someone we loved was dying it became imperative to know who we should call first, who should be there, who should come. When someone is dying you can only have people in the house who know their way around the kitchen, or, at least, who aren’t afraid to try.
The Kitchen Scale, though, is not a sad thing. It’s simply that there is something about an imminent death that makes it vital and urgent and necessary to acknowledge the people that you love. There is something about having seen death close to that makes it vital and urgent and necessary to live: to live properly and well, both hands in the Coco Pops packet.
There are degrees of Kitchen Intimacy, not always linear. In this house I could lay my hands on any implement or ingredient in a matter of seconds, but I would never put the kettle on; in that house I never cook anything except brownies but start foraging for snacks the moment I’m in it. I would use anything in their fridge without asking, therefore they are my dearest friend; I would never even go into his kitchen, therefore he is a stranger to me. I would make her a cup of tea without asking her whether she’d like one or how she takes it, which is in and of itself a profound intimacy of a kind that is almost always taken entirely for granted. To know how someone else takes their tea – tea or coffee; milk or sugar or lemon – is a small and delightful privilege because it’s a fact of too little consequence to be ferreted out except with small repeated acts of care.
My flatmate makes us tea in the pair of mugs that are my favourite pair of mugs because each mug has a companion, not immediately obvious, and I hate it when they are separated. In my head they are two halves of a whole. The giraffe mug goes with the goose mug, which is easy, because they are both Portmeirion gold-rimmed; but also she knows that the grey goes with the yellow, and the houses (mine) go only with polka dots (hers). I have never told her this; she knows because we have made each other, conservatively, 5, 000 cups of tea.
This is what I mean by kitchen intimacy: call it something like cupboard love. There’s no story to this essay; no moral. Only a sort of plea to please notice the things about the people you love; only to please notice that you love them; only to please notice the small things that make up a life because they make up a life; and to enjoy them, while we have time.