Heading Into the Home Stretch

We are heading into Week 5 of our “life without a kitchen” project, and remodel fatigue is officially hitting me. I have been restless, tired, sleepless, pessimistic and flat-out grumpy over the smallest things, and biting off my husband’s head for having the audacity to relax on the sofa for five minutes after a long day of listening to his counseling clients’ problems.

Caution ahead: this post has a lot of pictures, but they tell the story so please bear with me. 🙂

At least we’re cooking!

I am dealing OK with the cooking-without-a-kitchen side of things—better than I expected, to be honest. It helps to have a few multi-purpose appliances, and I don’t mean Instant Pot. No, we are relying on old-school appliances we already had. The slow cooker that my husband, Les, used to make the thick and meaty bison chili posted yesterday also saved the day for me last week when I made a batch of from-scratch chicken soup, which began with an overnight roast of a whole chicken. A few days before that, I used the slow cooker to make a recipe that caught my eye on my blog buddy Bernadette’s site: PASTA FAGIOLI WITH KALE – not a love story – New Classic Recipe. I had to make a few minor substitutions, but it still turned out terrific—I’ve linked it here, in case you’d like to try making it in an actual kitchen. We have also employed our Cuisinart Griddler for hash brown waffles, panini sandwiches and bacon.

Thankfully, Les and I have both focused on cooking foods that provide ample leftovers, and that has saved a lot of time and effort during these kitchen-less weeks.

Where did all these dirty dishes come from?

But the other concessions we have made to realize our dreams of a better kitchen are, quite frankly, pushing me to the brink.

For example, doing dishes in the bathroom has proven to be the single greatest pain in the ass. I had the presence of mind, at least, to purchase a plastic dish pan that travels to and from the dining room, on a schedule not unlike the trains moving in and out of Penn Station. That was one of my best under-$5 purchases ever. But even that has a couple of downsides—first, the dish pan never seems to be in the location where I most need it, so I am trudging back and forth to opposite ends of the house to retrieve it. Plus, the thing only holds about one meal’s worth of dishes at a time, and that means I am washing dishes three times a day, or else struggling to wash what is in the dish pan because it is too full.

On a positive note, at least I am not filling up the oceans with more plastic.

Thank goodness we are using disposable Chinet plates for most of our at-home meals, so the only things to be washed are pans, silverware, mugs and glasses, but I’m astonished at how quickly those things accumulate. It doesn’t help that it takes approximately five minutes for our water to heat up at that end of the house, but that’s another story.

Let me out! Let me in!

The long-term effects of the kitchen commotion on our pets remains to be seen, but we know the daily impact because we are constantly responding to their physical needs (or whims, in the cat’s case) to go outside. All doors to the kitchen are taped off in protective plastic so the doggy door is not available as usual. Even when the remodel crew is not working, and we are able to roll up the temporary plastic doors, the appliances are situated so that the door still isn’t easy to use. What this means for Nilla, who has enjoyed free, on-demand access to the backyard pretty much since she was a puppy, is that she needs to come find one of us (usually me, given that I work from home) when she needs a potty break. Bless her 13-year old heart, she has only had one incident that she couldn’t wait until her daddy got the leash on and the door opened. That girl is a team player.

And Taz, our sweet-but-demanding calico, is also missing the luxury of doggy-door, but in the opposite way. She enjoys being outside when the weather is nice (and it has been, for the most part), but she will spend hours surveilling the cul-de-sac and exploring the front garden beds, only to clamor at the front door to come inside, so she can use the litter box. As one of my friends put it, “she has standards.” We have only had one nasty thunderstorm since the kitchen project began, and when Taz scurried to the back door looking for protection that day, I had only one choice—to rip off the plastic door, lift the heavy blockage and get that baby inside, much the way someone might experience an emergency surge of adrenaline to lift a Volkswagen off their child. In further demonstration of Taz’s “standards,” this spoiled kitty refuses to drink pure, filtered water from an etched crystal bowl. No, she will only drink directly from the faucet in the bathroom sink—which, of course, is filled with dishes.

Thank God our discussions for getting a puppy this year did not come to fruition.

At least there’s takeout

We have, of course, taken advantage of the many take-out opportunities available to us, and for the most part, we have done so from a few of our favorite local places. But leave it to me to take a simple solution and push it into ridiculous territory. I could have called up a local sandwich shop that makes a perfectly good Reuben, but nooooo. I had to get online and place an order with Katz’s Delicatessen in NYC, paying through the nose for this package, “A Taste of New York,” delivered to my doorstep in huge, insulated boxes.

I’ll have what she’s having.

The shipment included a pound each of Katz’s incomparable pastrami and corned beef, a package of Kosher beef frankfurters, six New York bagels, a loaf of Katz’s deli rye, plus sauerkraut, mustard and full-sour pickles. It did make us smile, because we didn’t have enough time to visit Katz’s on our visit to N.Y. a couple of months ago. The only thing left from the Katz’s delivery is an enormous Kosher beef salami, which we will probably save for Super Bowl entertaining, and that will be here before we know it.

Trial runs in the kitchen

Our first meal from the Katz’s box gave us some disappointing, but helpful, information about the installation of our undercabinet lighting. Without intending to post any pictures of it, I plated up a pair of corned beef on rye sandwiches, along with the giant deli pickles. These pictures were not about the food, but about the orientation of the light strips that are supposed to be helping me with presentation of recipes on Comfort du Jour (not to mention cooking). What do you see here, besides the best corned beef this side of Manhattan?

Shadows. Lots of shadows. After two grueling days in the kitchen, the electrician had installed the under-cabinet lights at the back of the cabinets, rather than in the front, where the action is. Maybe that works for some people, and it would certainly illuminate the backsplash, but in all our discussions of under-cabinet lighting, we had emphasized that we needed task lighting.

On the same weekend, I intentionally decided to make breakfast pancakes on my large, dual-sided griddle, and we set it up on the counter in the kitchen so we could test another feature. The pancakes—made with browned butter, applesauce and cinnamon—were delicious, and so was the bacon we cooked on the Griddler, but I’ll share that recipe another day because the food isn’t the point. The plugmold outlet the griddle was plugged into, which was intended to help us keep cords out of the way, also was not configured correctly and the cord was dangling out into the middle of the counter rather than down from the underside of the cabinet. Plus, the “in-cabinet” lighting strip, which was supposed to be concealed inside the glass-door cabinets, wasn’t. Strike three. We put in a call to Matt, our contractor, to let him know we needed to pump the brakes and fix a few things before we could move forward. That was a rough (and sleepless) weekend for me.

Les and I are reasonable people, and we don’t complain for the fun of it. Thankfully, Matt heard our concerns and even agreed on several of our points. I’m pleased to report that all the lighting and under-cabinet problems were corrected within the week.

And now, the good stuff

We are getting excited to have this project behind us in plenty of time to get organized and start cooking for our favorite holiday—Thanksgiving. With the electrical concerns covered, things are beginning to move quickly. The drywall has been repaired, soon to be sanded for a fresh coat of paint. The overhead wafer lights have been installed, throwing even more light onto our situation, and covering all the task zones of the kitchen. I am especially excited about the between-stud cubby that will host my most-reached-for cooking oils and my salt and pepper mills. And please, for goodness sake, have a look at this backsplash in the works!

Kinda makes that pile of dirty dishes in the bathroom a little more tolerable. 😉

The end of my kitchen as I know it

My husband, Les, and I gave each other a high five on Wednesday morning, when we signed over a down payment for a shiny new kitchen. It is a big decision to chuck it all and start over, especially with such a hefty price tag. But nobody will be shedding a tear in our house when this kitchen goes. We are hopelessly cluttered, land-locked and in each other’s way. I am exhausted from complaining about our shortage of counter space and storage, inefficient flow that is result of a poor original design (who had the idea to put the refrigerator next to the wall?), and especially the lack of decent light. We have talked and dreamed about doing this for a couple of years, and after our year in lockdown, we finally decided that something had to give.

For me, the commitment to remodel is a personal one, and it is scary. I have been down this kitchen makeover road before, and it did not end the way you see the big reveal in so many HGTV makeover shows. I won’t terrify you with the details, but I will summarize my DIY misadventure this way—remodeling projects sometimes reveal hidden truths to the homeowners, and not only in the form of moldy walls or termite infestations.

In a previous life, I had a vision for restoring the kitchen in a new-to-us-but-chronologically-old home. Along the way, several previous owners had “redone” the kitchen, but not very thoughtfully and certainly not in keeping with the 1927 bungalow’s character. Removal of all the old stuff (including five clunky layers of flooring, which exposed the most gorgeous original antique heart pine) was amusing and liberating, but the installation of our new expectations went off the rails, and just kept going. Much of the trouble could have been avoided, but for my spouse’s loyalty of keeping peace with the contractor, who was a social acquaintance. My desperate pleas for reset fell on deaf ears.

As the weeks morphed into months, I watched in silenced horror as my dream eroded into something more aligned with the contractor’s abilities or undeclared time constraints or perhaps his own vision—I’m not really sure—and my confidence in the outcome quickly followed. It was during this excruciating, exhausting project that I learned two important truths. First, don’t hire a friend to do work on your home, especially if you are emotionally invested in the outcome. Second, a home renovation project can make or break a fragile relationship. Frankly, I think it should be a required exercise for people contemplating marriage. In my case, the “big reveal” was a glaring situation of irreconcilable differences. Of course, dear reader, it was never really about the kitchen. Cracks in any foundation cannot be repaired with a fresh coat of paint.

A few years after my past nightmare project began, I made a clumsy exit from the yet-unfinished kitchen—and also from my marriage. I put down roots in a tiny duplex apartment with the smallest kitchen known to mankind. It was quiet (except when the neighbor was home, which is entirely another story) and I was learning how to be me again. When anxious thoughts woke me up at 3 a.m., I calmed myself by making handmade pasta. Sometimes I had popcorn and wine for dinner, and nobody cared or complained. Other times, I invited friends over and basked in the joy of entertaining, something I loved but rarely got to do during the previous decade. I nurtured a sourdough starter and learned how to make beautiful bread. I got better at smiling and my love for cooking intensified.

Not all was lost, and I was reminded of this by a wise, unexpected philosopher who spoke a wonderfully hopeful truth:

She was right, you know.

Fast forward about two years to a vastly different scene, set in a different kitchen in a different part of town. I had been dating Les for a few months and on one evening, after much laughter and a bottle of wine and cleaning up dishes after a meal that we had cooked together in his kitchen, I felt a shiver run down my spine as my mind’s eye caught a glimpse of the future—it would one day be our kitchen. Don’t ask me how I knew, but two years after that, he became my husband. We have had some good times in this kitchen, and Les and I have turned out some incredible feasts, despite our less-than-fab space.

This kitchen we are giving up has no hold on Les, and I am delighted that we are on the same page with the updates we have planned—new cabinets and countertops, a new layout, better traffic flow and the promise of more storage. And lighting, lots of new lighting. We have replaced all of the appliances within the past couple of years, and we are keeping those. Well, except the microwave. In support of my passion for baking, we will introduce my own special space in a presently unused corner. I am so excited!

The contract we signed this week puts our project into the trusted hands of a reputable contractor whose design partners have helped us select some beautiful materials. We hope that we have designed the perfect solutions to our storage needs and spatial challenges. When the work begins at the end of summer, we will be expelled from the kitchen for about eight weeks, and we are doing some creative planning to make that part of the ride more tolerable and, perhaps, even enjoyable.

And we have a few fun surprises that will involve you, dear reader. Our cabinets are bursting with pantry items that we must thin out—and fast. In keeping with our playful personalities, we are turning it into a game, and I can’t wait to share that with you. Les and I will not break under the pressure of this remodel because we will be having way too much fun!

It’s the end of my kitchen as I know it, and I feel fine.

Our new cabinets are going to look great with my beloved gas range! ❤