#65 - on tiny kitchens
And if enoughness is possible
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My second apartment in New Delhi was about 450 sq. ft. It was on the top floor of a walk-up building right across from Defence Colony market, where you could buy the creamiest hummus and a variety of imported cheeses. The apartment was my partner’s at the time and I had moved in about a year after we met. What we lacked in square footage, we made up in a spacious rooftop where you could catch a flaming sunset every night and have parties where you only knew about 20% of the guests. The kitchen was about 1.5m long — somewhere in-between a hotel bathroom and a closet. There was precisely enough room for a fridge, a sink, a cutting board and a two-burner hot plate.
I was equally shocked and not shocked by the size of the kitchen. Years of going to New York and staying at different friends’ places had shown me that you were lucky to have a kitchen at all and that a sink doubling as a stand for a cutting board was ‘normal’. And yet somehow we made it work — rolling handmade tortillas for a jackfruit taco night when my sister was in town and making a pumpkin pasta sauce from scratch for a non-traditional Diwali party.
In general, I have a variable cooking temperament. I really enjoy cooking when I feel like it and have the time and space to go slow, listen to an audiobook and enjoy the process. Like a proper auntie, I love feeding people. Last summer, when we co-lived with another couple for 5 months, we each took turns cooking dinner from Monday-Thursday; cutting the labour by over half, and creating the conditions to experiment and delight one another. We all enjoyed the structure so much that even after moving out we kept up weekly community dinners - feeling like we had hacked the common domestic challenge of who takes on the labour of daily cooking - while reaping the benefits of good food and connection. But as soon as cooking starts to feel like a monotonous chore, I start to resent it and lean on C to take the lead (he is absolutely the primary cook in our relationship).
Still, I dream of having a big, bright and beautiful kitchen. My Pinterest board is filled with hundreds of dreamy ones; some have cottage-like wooden beams with forest green cabinets, and others have wabi-sabi type cement countertops with delicately dried wildflowers. Meryl Streep’s kitchen from the 2009 movie, It’s Complicated, where she plays a pastry chef who secretly starts an affair with her ex-husband, played by Alec Baldwin (pre-accidental shooting and fathering 7 children), is the one that lives in my memory filed under ‘yes, please.’ I’m not sure if it was the perfect studio lighting, the fact that there were always baked goods on the counter, or if the visible cookware created the warmth and openness where Meryl and her three daughters would gather — but the Californian-French-Tuscan-inspired kitchen in the movie represented what home should or could feel like.
Over a decade ago, I went to an exhibition at the MOMA in New York, called Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen which tracked the evolution of the kitchen with our shifts in engineering ingenuity and attitudes towards eating, family, gender and domestic labour. Tiny kitchens were common when it was not a place for gathering, but rather the sole domain of the woman of the house, who was responsible for all matters related to food. Of late, tiny kitchens can be found in most new condo developments — a design decision that often confused me when C and I were ‘casually’ real-estate shopping in Toronto. Many of the units, irrespective of the number of bedrooms, had half-sized fridges, dishwashers and stoves (or no stove at all) compactly lined up against a wall and referred to as a micro-kitchen. The rationale for this design, as Corey Mintz reports in a 2019 article on TVO.org (hyperbolically) called, Do homes without kitchens mark the end of human civilization? is that the developer’s target market either does not cook or simply warms up food.
I have definitely gone through life periods where I bought lunch every single day — not being able to muster the organizational skills to pack one. So, I get it. But, if I am being honest, I hold *some* judgment towards those who can’t cook. Not because everyone has to like cooking, but more so because it is the basic building block of survival: we all have to eat, mostly three times a day, and nutrition plays such a crucial role in our well-being and vitality. How do non-cookers get by? Isn’t it expensive? Doesn’t it taste gross after a while? I’m definitely projecting.
Though the most common contemporary reason for not cooking is our culture of busyness and long working hours, when Mintz asked around he gathered some other reasons too - like the pointlessness of saving money when homeownership is inaccessible, not having the skills to run a kitchen, dining out being a hobby, groceries coming in too large formats for single folks, and deciding to enjoy life now since a pension is unlikely. Cooking being replaced by food delivery apps (a multi-billion dollar industry) and pre-packaged foods on the one hand could suggest a future where kitchens are rare, shared or replaced by elevators strictly for takeout to make its way through high-rise buildings. On the other hand, the ‘quick and easy’ solution could mean a loss of intimacy, cultural memory and appreciation for our food and with that, an ignorance around the connection between seeds, land, water, farmer labour with climate change risks, as Dan Barber writes about in the Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food. What we eat and how we eat account for the biggest source of climate emissions. Food wastage from houses alone is the single largest contributor to landfills, and addressing it would be considered low-hanging fruit in reviving the environment. In this way, could tiny kitchens be what we need to moderate our buying and consuming habits?
The Delhi kitchen would not be my last tiny kitchen. At our Riverdale flat on the top two floors of the house, it might have been closer to 1.8m - with a great deep sink and half-sized dishwasher. C and I could not be in the kitchen at the same time without something inevitably spilling or breaking. During the pandemic, when we were cooking non-stop, the tiny kitchen was the source of lots of tears. Then there was the apartment with no dishwasher or counter space; the one with no island and a half stove; the one with a sink that couldn’t fit a large salad bowl, and this most recent one in Mexico City, where the fridge can’t open the whole way. Given my aspirations for a big, bright and beautiful kitchen — this string of tiny kitchens often feels like a massive prank from the universe.
And maybe it is because recently I have been able to laugh about it. Because what I have realized is that even in a tiny kitchen, I am so nourished. Even in the most non-Pinterest circumstances, I eat like a queen. And in each kitchen, I have cooked and shared elaborate meals with people I love, finding creative and resourceful ways around the small space; making the final outcome an even bigger achievement. And even more, every dish, mug and tupperware stored is delightful and purposeful in the Marie Kondo way.
After finishing a community dinner at one of our places in our apartment hopping experiment over the last year, five of us squeezed into the tiny kitchen - one washing dishes, one drying them, one putting them away, one transferring leftovers and one standing in the doorway chatting - a moment that captured the intimacy that small and cozy spaces emit. Whether we notice it or not, every design decision has an impact on how we feel in space, and therefore, what we remember.
Enough is a pretty unpopular concept inside a life of capitalism and consumption. We, myself included, rarely talk about what is enough - lest to be seen as someone settling and not striving, doomed to descend class. The thing is, there can never be enough under capitalism since the economic principles of supply and demand suggest infinite growth and relativity. What is a ‘tiny’ kitchen anyways? Perhaps we could develop a framework to offer a close-to-objective concept based on needs and functionality - but ultimately the person who cooks on a single hot plate in a 100 sq. ft dwelling would see my concept of a tiny kitchen as a luxury. The strangest thing about capitalism is that an entire world of consumption exists for you as your wallet expands and contracts. I can buy a toaster for $10 or $1000 — one will have more design elements and confer status — but both will give me a version of crusty and warm bread.
The conversation of tiny kitchens is part of a larger narrative around minimalism and #vanlife, which some link to the privilege of the wealthy choosing to live in a small space and being able to buy back that which you get rid of easily should you need to so, as well as romanticizing homelessness and poverty. Will I take a bigger kitchen if the opportunity arises? Probably. Can I live without it? Probably.
My reflection on tiny kitchens is less a declaration and more a recognition that I can be content with what is real in the present. I can find a true sense of enoughness. And, that despite the size of our kitchens, houses, and bank accounts, humans are constantly driven to make magic and give love with exactly what they have.
P.S. Where do you feel a sense of enoughness? Have any tiny kitchen anecdotes? Share in the comments below!