Define an area as "safe" and use it as an anchor
On the architecture of temporary kitchens
Mess Hall is back! I’m so excited to announce the rebirth of my briefly dormant cooking newsletter, now on Substack. This monthly essay will always be free, but paid subscribers will receive twice-monthly, advice-heavy posts that cover recipes, cookbooks, and your burning kitchen questions. Through this weekend, yearly subscriptions are $40 instead of $50 (a steal!). I hope you’ll consider upgrading if you haven’t already.
Just over a year ago I loaded up my car and drove down to Corsicana, Texas, for my first-ever writing residency. I spent a month living with two other artists in a former Oddfellows lodge: cavernous ceilings, a wide creaky staircase with a whopper of a banister, a roof where I’d watch the birds flock around loudly as the sun rose or set. We slept in twin beds that looked like church pews. You’d have called them monks’ quarters if they weren’t so expansive.
The living room had big windows whose light and shadows marked the passing of hours along a dining table that easily sat ten; off of it was a kitchen whose windowlessness made it feel not dank but precious, cozy.
Each morning I’d wake up before the sun and creak down the stairs to the kitchen, get a cup of tea going, and make a snack: two fat medjool dates, pitted and gunked with as much almond butter as their little bug bodies could carry.1 Tea made, snack made, I creaked back up the stairs and sat down at my desk, where I’d spend two hours attempting to write while the sky brightened over the view from my window.
There in our little art cocoon, meals organized my day, and the partial pantry I’d brought from Brooklyn shaped my palate and my memories for the month. I found unexpected delight in becoming a marginally different eater: I finally made sardine rice in the rice cooker (h/t Fran). I fell in love with Julio’s seasoned tortilla chips and made sure our fridge was never low on store-bought salsa verde.
I never buy sliced bread at home, but I giddily bought a bouncy sleeve of English muffins at HEB each week. These became the base of many lunches that I’d dress up in my trove of sauces and condiments: Brooklyn Delhi’s Tomato Achaar2 smeared over scrambled eggs, or one of my beloved Basbaas sauces under a hefty mash of avocado. Quick meals, but still pleasurable breaks from my toil upstairs. Nothing punishing. Some of these things I took back with me to Brooklyn; some of them stayed in my Texas memory. I took almost no photos of my food that month, which feels fitting.
Just as I was trying on a temporary creative identity (person who is writing a book), I shifted into a slightly different version of my kitchen self. Maybe it’s the same as constructing the perfect vacation wardrobe: fabricating a brief but considered temporary aesthetic. Just as a bold caftan may define a week of memories from a Grecian isle, my Texas pantry drew a decorative border around a patch of place and time.
In my Brooklyn kitchen I am too often driven by pragmatism: I’ve got to use up the rest of my carrots before they go flaccid; I should really eat some soup to clear some space in the freezer; I’ve got to make something for dinner that will make a good studio lunch tomorrow. A temporary pantry vacation can reset the way we cook, eat, plan meals—it can make us more inventive, less stodgy, upon returning home.
I’ve just arrived in Massachusetts, where I’ll be spending another few weeks working on the book from my parents’ house. I was imagining I’d bring along an inspired new pantry, but the tote bags full of fridge bottles I brought were mostly constructed by necessity: the last of my harissa and tahini, a long-forgotten baggie of pequín chiles, a bag of shiro miso I’ve had unopened for a year and must finally turn into dressing. A solid jumping-off point for a few weeks of meals, but nothing that’s going to inspire a remarkable shift in my cooking life.
What I have brought, though, is a battery of cookbooks, and already these have proved to be the temporal guardrails for this month’s interim kitchen. Most have been sitting on my shelves for months or years, rife with Post-its but barely cooked from: Lara Lee’s Coconut & Sambal, Bryant Terry’s Vegan Soul Kitchen, Meera Sodha’s East, Angie Rito and Scott Tacinelli’s Italian American.
I’ll eventually write something here about how the algorithmification of cooking websites has made it too easy not to look at or learn from physical books; one of my “resolutions” this year is to try to reverse course on that front, to make my recipe sourcing more analog and less lazy. I have so many cookbooks at home that searching through them for dinner can feel daunting; a constrained set of titles, then, is far more generative, since the panic of choice is alleviated.
Thanks to the temporary library I’m cooking from this month, I’ve already found a new favorite tofu recipe, made homemade kecap manis, made my boyfriend bring me two dozen long red chiles from the city so we can whizz them up with garlic and shallots for a sauce to coat deep-fried soft-boiled eggs. It makes me feel like I’m building my pantry out of desire and choice rather than being led along by it on a leash through each mealtime. And through the little jars of stuff accumulating in the fridge, I’m able to break out of the habits that often keep me in an endless cycle of cacio e pepe and kimchi fried rice.
On a whim a few years back I bought Oblique Strategies, a set of cards made by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt in 1975. Each card offers a suggestion that could help someone experiencing a creative block. Have I used them enough to warrant the purchase? Maybe not; some are a little too oblique for me. But pinned to my office pegboard in Brooklyn is one that reads “Define an area as ‘safe’ and use it as an anchor.”
I hung it there in hopes that I’d learn to respect the sanctity of my office. Since arriving in Massachusetts, though, I’ve only thought of this little motto in the kitchen. Taking time away to work on this project is a great gift, but it also invites countless anxieties. On both trips, the kitchen has been my anchor, the place where I can find something useful to do with my hands when I’m spiraling about what’s happening on my computer and in my brain. Working with a newish kitchen or pantry or trove of recipes only makes that anchor stronger: on my best days, I can convince myself I’m doing something special here.
This is the sort of snack that reminds me of my days spent reading healthy living blogs. I will never fall out of love with the caramel-sticky pleasure of eating a date but, as a friend once said, this snack is at its worst when someone claims it tastes “just like candy.” It doesn’t; it tastes like a deconstructed Larabar. (My favorite dates come from Kalustyans.)