When I was a single carnivore, my cooking style was very simple. Oatmeal and a smoothie for breakfast, maybe a turkey sandwich with provolone and tomato on rye for lunch, a chicken breast grilled on my indoor grill with steamed broccoli and a bagged salad or some fruit for dinner. Most of my meals could be completed in under 20 minutes and included very few ingredients for each meal component. That is how I prefer to cook. Since I became vegetarian 2 1/2 years ago (recently pescatarian), food and cooking has become immensely more complicated for me. Fresh veggies take up a lot more fridge space and a lot more planning to make whole meals out of, especially if you decide to make something which requires a bit more effort. And I’m a baker not a cook. On the left you can see some seitan, chard, and potatoes Ty and I made with friends Briana and Chris. They are the people I cook with more than anyone else (usually in their kitchen) so I thought it’d be good to throw this one in there.
All of the kitchens in my Texas apartments had counter space, full-size fridges, large sinks, newer ovens, adequate pantries, dishwashers, and microwaves. In my Santa Cruz homes, they’ve all been lacking somewhere. The first place had fairly decent shelves for dishes and dry goods, and a not terribly small counter for food prep, though with a toaster oven, coffee maker, etc., counter space easily became scarce. The stove was a 50s-era gas apartment-size model and the fridge was a mini. The first thing I did when I got to Santa Cruz was scour craigslist for a couple of days until I found someone getting rid of a 9-cubic-feet fridge and headed over to pick it up. There was no way I was going to be able to live with a teeny fridge. I dread going to the grocery store like some people dread paying taxes. It isn’t something I want to do more than I absolutely have to. If you don’t have a garden, don’t like going grocery shopping every two days, or you don’t eat all your meals out, a mini fridge just doesn’t cut it. The one holiday party I tried to throw there had to move outside once more than three people had arrived and the house itself mostly served as the vessel holding the fridge holding the beer (see cramped vessel fridge over my right shoulder).
The next place I lived had plenty of pantry space in the form of built-in cabinets and built-in fridge space, long vacant; and the functioning fridge was the largest fridge I’d ever laid eyes on, though completely disproportionate to the size of the apartment. However, there was no counter (save the miniscule space next to the freestanding sink which I had to use for my dish-drying rack), so I got a kitchen table which doubled as prep space. Eating in this space was wonderful. There was a little nook where we had placed my old formica table, with a window looking out over the Boardwalk in the distance and the neighborhood crazies below; Ty and I would enjoy watching the ensuing craziness with an open window and an open bottle of wine. But the part leading up to that could be miserable. The stove was awkwardly placed, the ventilation less than ideal, and we had to clean up at least some before we could use the table for eating our meal.
I know I’ve talked about the nightmare that was cooking in the trailer where I lived with Ty last summer and fall, but allow me to reiterate. We had a mouse-infested pantry and shelves, a mini-fridge which liked to freeze anything pushed to the back, a hot plate that couldn’t boil water, and an extra-small sink that would quickly run out of hot water. We eventually learned to make do cooking there, thanks largely to a reliance on pasta and a microwave. Of course, during this time I gained 10 pounds and forgot what veggies tasted like.
My current home is an amalgam of all the others. The fridge is large and old. The sink is nestled in a corner with about 16 inches of counter space next to it (also mostly used to hold my drying rack). I have a few drawers under that counter space (that refuse to close all the way) and besides that, there is a very strange built-in open shelf area on the wall opposite the sink, which has some very short, deep cabinets beneath, which is the most frustrating space I’ve ever had for a pantry. Luckily, I’m a decent organizer and have amassed quite a bit of Container Store shelving thanks to living in so many apartments with different storage requirements. Nonetheless, preparing food in this space is a challenge and the ventilation leaves quite a bit to be desired.
A week ago, I had four friends over for dinner. My friend Briana and I shared cooking and baking duties, and maneuvering around each other to cook a four-dish meal was kind of a nightmare. We had three main course dishes, two sauces, and one dessert, and I didn’t have enough pots, pans, and bowls for everything. The gravy had to be put in a cup so we could use the same pan to sautee mushrooms. After we boiled potatoes, we had to transfer from and clean that pan in order to steam the chard. And when all was said and done, Briana had to run back home because I only have four dinner plates. By the time we finished, the kitchen was sweltering from the sun and the stove, and we all sweated around the table trying not to pass out while eating our hot meal.
I was reminded of Genevieve‘s description of her New Year’s Eve meal last year. If you were to cut Genevieve’s table right where the wine bottle is, that’s how big my dining table is. It was a tight squeeze getting five people in there and that was with the leaf put into the table. Cooking and eating in small spaces is certainly a challenge. But it is possible, if we are patient enough to make it work. When I visited with Mokihana and Pete in May, I was amazed at how tasty our meal was. It was very simple pasta with fresh greens, and a wonderful bread that Mokihana made in her toaster oven pan. I think the trick is lowering our expectations of what constitutes a suitable meal. When I eat alone, I’m fine munching on some carrots and edamame hummus with an apple and almond butter. When other people enter the equation we feel the need to make things more complex. And I’ll admit that even though I don’t love to cook, I do love to eat, and I love to eat with other people. There really is something about breaking bread with friends.
- Put what you use the most close to you. My spatulas, bottle opener, and whisk get prime real estate.
- Using wall- or ceiling-mounted pot racks are a must for small kitchen living. When you don’t have the luxury of cabinets, the wall is your friend.
- If you can’t compost and you have sufficient freezer space, freeze messy food scraps that would otherwise spend a week rotting in your trash. All my banana peels go straight into bags in my freezer door, which I throw into the garbage on Sunday nights when I take out my trash. The same goes for fridge food that molded before I could get to it. I keep it out of trash purgatory until the last minute to cut down on icky smells (which spread easily in little places).
- Try not to buy more than you can eat. You don’t have room for waste. And if it’s likely to go bad, put it in the open in your fridge so you can see it. Opaque tupperware is no good. How do I know what went into it or when? However, those green foodsaver bags are great if you use them right.
- Use small dishes. I have four full-size dinner plates which I seldom use. For my regular dining habits, I have salad plates and bowls, and I usually use two or three dishes for each meal. Some people would tell you that’s silly and wasteful, but for me, it makes the most sense. Large dishes take up more space. Small dishes can be stacked and nestled and take up less space in a drying rack. Also, I hate having sauces and juices running into the things they weren’t made for (few things bother me more than a soggy roll), so using a bowl for my salad and a little plate for my fish and asparagus is the perfect solution, if a little OCD.
For me, it’s all about knowing how I work. When I still used regular milk occasionally, I gave up buying it and switched to soy, because I knew I would never finish it before it went bad. The same went for cheese, yogurt, sour cream, etc. I also seldom finish a loaf of bread before it molds. Oatmeal, hummus, apples, Tofutti sour cream, frozen veggies, fruit, and fish, canned Amy’s refried beans, etc. are my friends. Having my staples and knowing what I will and won’t use (plus having a kitchen that I like walking into) is the best way for me to cook small.
Amanda is a documentary photographer who just earned her Master’s degree and currently lives in Santa Cruz, Ca. She completed her thesis on the Small Home Movement and hopes to have the project up by the end of the summer on either her long-neglected blog, http://greenaerie.blogspot.com, or her long-neglected photography site, www.aliasgrace.com.