The kitchens I like the best are rarely magazine ready.
A few days ago, we spent the afternoon and evening at our friends’ beach cabin. They lived down the street from us, years ago, a brood of thoughtful children and their dedicated parents. When we moved into our first house on Vashon, we only had one car, so when Danny started working at a restaurant again, I was home with a toddler. I felt a little alone until I met these neighbors. My friend often came down the street with her 4 kids to play. (Her two oldest were out of the house by then.) We walked up there. We shared soft pretzels while I worked on the recipe, ate fruit salad at the island in their kitchen, and shared notes of exhaustion. It’s hard being a parent sometimes. It’s good to have kindred spirits nearby.
Krissy and Lee gave us great counsel on adoption as we were going through the process, all those years ago. They adopted four of their children. These children plus the three biological children make for a big, happy family of 7 kids. (Their youngest arrived just before Desmond did.) There’s no difference in the way those children are raised, whether they came from Haiti or look straight from Finland. They are family. It’s part of why I love them.
They moved to Minnesota a couple of years ago, around the same time we moved to another house on Vashon. We’ve missed them. Thank goodness they come back to the island every summer for 5 weeks, to spend time at the beach cabin.
Krissy’s grandfather built this cabin on the beach during WWII. He built it by himself, bringing materials from Tacoma across the water, one boatload at a time. When Krissy’s father was 11, his father taught him how to build and together they constructed the loft house where the kids sleep, and then the tool shed. He passed that knowledge onto Krissy, then her husband Lee. It’s rustic. The furniture inside is worn. The kitchen is tiny, with plywood on the walls. Quarters are tight. You have to park at the top of the hill above the small row of houses on the water. Everything that comes into the cabin has to be walked down a winding gravel path to the beach. This place will never be in Sunset magazine.
We felt so at home there.
The kids spend the summer on the water. A few moments after we arrived, Lucy was leaping onto this floating raft with her friend. The older kids, naturally the protectors and parents by proxy for the younger kids, know how to steer the motor boat and paddle the kayaks. Krissy’s oldest girl in the house, Aleia, the sweetest most polite 13-year-old you’ll ever meet, told us that she regularly gets wet, dries through, gets wet, and dries through every single day. Out the window, a view of Mt. Rainier across the water. The big kids paddled and splashed. The littles played with the red and yellow toys on the grey sand. We all stood talking, watching them, catching up.
Essentially, nothing about this kitchen has changed since the 1950s. I love the old Ball jar canning illustration, the copper mold, the worn blue spoons. This kitchen has been lived in, for decades. As Lee told us, “There’s a bunch of things we could change. Work to do. But then we look at it and think, why?”
I will always feel happier in a kitchen like this than one with gleaming countertops and the newest appliances. This kitchen has good juju, the years of summer cooking, the hands helping, the generations of families making meal after meal to feed their kids. Give me this kitchen every time.
Danny started cooking as soon as we sensed that the kids couldn’t stand the wait anymore. We’d promised them gluten-free corn dogs. Half the kids in this house, and both moms, have to be gluten-free. We hadn’t spent any long-afternoon time with our friends in more than 2 years. We wanted to feed them.
There’s something about water that soothes me. Standing at this humble stove, waiting for the oil to heat up, made me so happy. There were no words. Just our friends, the kids, the water, the kayaks, the little guy with us whom we only dreamed of when Krissy and Lee lived down the street from us. This was a gift, this afternoon.
The kids came running. They grabbed slices of watermelon, a bit of the bean and tomato salad Danny made, handfuls of potato chips, bunches of grapes. And two corn dogs each.
Corn dogs are kid food. Hot enough out of the oil to still crunch but not so hot to burn. Crisp crust. Hot dog. Dipped in mustard or ketchup or sriraca mayonnaise. There’s really no point in going into complicated sensory descriptions of a corn dog. The only thing that mattered to these kids is that everyone in the room could eat them. (We made the batter with soy milk, for Woodson and Krissy, who can’t eat dairy.) Did the adults eat them too? Heck yeah! Once or twice a year, corn dogs are about the best food ever.
This is why we created our next cookbook, American Classics Reinvented. Danny and I really thought about the kitchens like this one, where meals are made for water-exhausted children who need to be fed. We wanted to make the food that families miss, like the blackberry cobbler Krissy’s grandmother made each summer. (She brought out the pan every cobbler has been made in. I’m going back before they leave to help her make it, gluten-free.)
We listened to the requests for dishes that people missed. We played and failed and laughed and took notes and made 130 recipes the way we wanted them to be, without gluten. We wanted to give people the chance to keep their food traditions, the collective memories of families and communities.
In December, we share cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning. On Easter, we spoon up scalloped potatoes. And this year, in the middle of summer, tilted a bit toward fall, we ate corn dogs at the cabin on the beach.
I’m pretty sure we will again next year.
We’d like to give away one copy of our new cookbook, plus two boxes of our gluten-free flour, so you can start cooking and baking right away. Leave a comment about what your kitchen is like and what it means to you. A winner will be chosen at random by next Wednesday, August 19th and notified by email.