This is my kitchen, a typical New York City galley. It starts at a sink, followed by a counter, the stove, another counter, a bookcase and, finally, the refrigerator. There’s just enough cabinet and storage space–no more, no less. An old gate-leg table occupies the opposite wall, handy for feasts’ overflow. Too many people have opinionated that the wall between the kitchen and the dining room should be removed. I’m pretty sure the house’s next owner will do just that, for the same reason this appalling suggestion is made to me: Who would want to deny themselves the convivial pleasure of cooking surrounded by an invading horde?
Let me be clear: When that wall comes down, I’ll long be in my grave and just as happy with the solitude there as I am in my kitchen now.
Which brings me to my sister, Sue. I love and admire her to no end, and live for the times when we are together, even if all we do is lounge around all day. But we haven’t seen a lot of each other lately. She travels a lot as an expert in global health, so much so that the family often forgets what country she’s in. So it’s a special occasion when she lands in Brooklyn and has the time to stay over, as she does Friday, arriving just in time for dinner. Hold on to this thought as I allow her into my kitchen.
There’s a very good chance she doesn’t think I have a problem with this. She is, after all, my big sister and our father’s daughter, which means she has to fix things and fixing dinner is supremely nonnegotiable because, like me, she’s our mother’s daughter. We have been bred to feed people, with deep natural skills and learned culinary standards to do it well. Whether I like it or not, I have to accept that she will be wedged in beside me at the stove. Therapists have paid many a college tuition off our genes and upbringing.
First, though, there’s the cocktail hour. I fetch gin and vermouth while she searches for martini glasses.
“Where’s your martini glasses?”
“I like these.”–two old champagne glasses, etched with flowers.
“Get yourself some martini glasses. I can’t find your shaker.”
I retrieve my plastic one from Ikea.
“Are you kidding me? And it’s too small!”
I find a beaker.
“If that’s all you have,” she sighs and resigns herself to stir not shake. (Must purchase shaker before her next visit! But no martini glasses….)
Drinks accomplish, we move to the couch and fall into intense sister gossip–he/she’s doing what, when? How ridiculous! Right?! Wanna hear the latest annoyance from our asinine bosses/co-workers, etc, etc, etc. What should we make for dinner?
There’s nothing in the refrigerator, but a little digging in the freezer unearths Italian sausages and bread of uncertain age They should be fine.
If you do get to be in my small kitchen, you better claim a spot far away from me. I’m down at the south end. Sue’s up north scrounging in the cabinet for tomatoes. She hands me the can but, after opening it and passing it back to her station, it slips from my hands.
Without pause, she nonchalantly grabs a bowl: “No one will know.” I salvage what I can.
(Please note: If that wall wasn’t there, EVERYONE would see me scooping up tomato sauce. Who needs that?)
Back at the stove, Sue begins frying the sausage.
“Why’re you using that pan?” I ask.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“I always use a saute pan.”
In no comment silence, she proceeds to cut the sausage into pieces.
(I stifle myself from sobbing, ‘I love links?!’ )
In goes the salvaged tomatoes.
Sue shifts over to the spice rack where, as is our family wont, starts pulling out spices and herbs.
“This smells good.” She sprinkles in a good size pinch.
“That’s sumac.” (A beautiful Middle Eastern spice, not known to be added to sausage and tomato sauce.)
“Oh, well,” she says and stirs. We taste…actually it’s lemony flavor brightens the sauce! (Reader, please remember to try this.)
While the spaghetti cooks, we open a bottle of wine and Sue sets out plates. I take down a tray.
“What’s that for?”
“It’s for the husband.”
“You serve him on a tray?” A comic book bubble pops up over her head: What’s happening to my sister?!
We eat in front of the TV at dinner to watch the news so we know what are the latest bombs heading our way. “A tray makes it neater for him,” I explain.
And shut up! I am, too, a feminist!
Sue admits she has her own tray for dinner television viewing, and goes on to arrange a much fancier setting than I would ever think of for the husband. There’s a little silver plate for bread and a tiny butter dish, and his silverware rolled up in a napkin. Our mom would be proud.
The spaghetti cooks just right and is sauced. The tray is placed in the husband’s lap. And the sisters settle down beside one another on the couch with the meal we made together.
And, later, the husband cleans up after us.
Disclaimer: No sister was harmed in the making of this dinner and, to prove it, here we are relaxing afterwards under facial masks. She brought them back from her latest humanitarian trip, this time to China. The masks’ directions are in Chinese but we do recognize the word snail on her’s and pressure points on mine. We tell each other we look so beautiful after peeling them off.