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15 March 2021

Surfaces

 

Surfaces

Several years ago, a careless construction worker ruptured a natural gas line on the other side of our building. The immediate consequence was a shutdown of the gas main, leaving all tenants without working stoves. For those of us unwilling to fall back upon the built-in microwave ovens, it was necessary to acquire a few countertop electric appliances. In addition to a hot-water kettle, I bought a two-ring burner, a frypan, and what was in effect a giant whizbang toaster oven (with a KitchenAid label). Aside from the hot-water kettle, none of these appliances functioned as well as the gas stove, and when, hallelujah, the gas was turned on again (in about three months), I retired the burner and the frypan. But I left the toaster oven in place on the counter. I was sure that it would come in handy.

 It really never did, and I ought to have known that it wouldn't. Long before the gas crisis ended, I learned that this was not the oven that I would have bought had I known more about it. There were too many special settings, for one thing. "Broil" and "Toast" were fine, but "Roast Asado," "Cookie" and "Pizza" induced frowns. For safety's sake, I suppose, all times had to be set in advance. and once the machine shut off it was hard to get going agan. So all I ever used it for, once I had the real oven back, was toasting bread, sometimes four slices at a time, a convenience that the much better Breville toaster couldn't match. But while the top of each slice would look just right, the other (under) side came out streaky, looking half-toasted at best; I learned that this was the side to butter and lather with jam, or to spread with condiments for the inside of a sandwich. Meanwhile, a reflexive revulsion accrued: the giant whizbang toaster oven was taking up nearly two cubic feet. There is no such thing as a normal New York City apartment in which two cubic feet is not the culinary equivalent of an overstuffed recliner. For the occasional four slices of toast I was giving up considerable counterspace?

I'm the first to admit that I'm brilliant. But I do have my dumb spots. I have a problem with surfaces. Surfaces, I seem to believe, exist in order to be covered. If there's a stretch of space, my inclination is to find something to put on it. This seems to be an aesthetic issue, not a neurotic one. I am not trying to reassure myself that I have everything I need. (The non-neurotic truth is that I do have everything everything except /em> tthe one thing that I need.) There are so many items of everyday usefulness that need to be put somewhere; why put them at the back of some cabinet where I'll forget about them when I can arrange them out in the open for easy access? Combined with the blunt reality of a toaster oven taking up two cubit feet, this philosophy means that there is nowhere to put anything in the ordinary course of the culinary day: unpacking the groceries, setting out ingredients, prepping plates for service, and so on. There is only the small patch of countertop between the sink and stove, my precious workspace. 

Between the far end of the countertop oven and the kitchen wall there was tucked away an accumulation of bottles. Once upon a time, this had been an array of oils, vingegars, and everyday sauces, such as Kikkoman and Worcestershire. Over the years, hidden by the oven, it became a backlot of grime and oblivion. The small bottle of Tabasco sauce it takes me about a year to use up the contents of a small bottle; the contents of larger ones, long before the bottle is half-empty, stop being altogether the right color of red was impossible to reach, and I would often, maddeningly, pull out a tube of saffron instead. The woman who cleans the kitchen rightly regarded this alley as a no-go area; if she took the bottles out in order to clean the countertop, she would have to remember how to put them all back. Even I couldn't be bothered to do that. My rule with hiring someone to keep the kitchen and the bathrooms moderately sanitary is to delegate only the jobs that, physically, I can no longer do myself. Preventing the spread of groatiness on normal countertops is not one of them.

Speaking of groatiness: the meat slicer. The Chef's Choice meat slicer is a stout piece of equipment that I bought well over thirty years ago. I should say that it was/em>,, because I have already abandoned it to the porters who cart off our cast-offs. I had been contemplating the move for a long time, but the original thought was to replace the slicer first. I used to use it just about every day. I would buy chunks of ham and turkey and American and Swiss (not to mentions slabs of bacon and pipes of pancetta) so that I could slice as needed and avoid that gooey sweat that sliced meat and cheese begin to excrete within a week of buying them at the deli. It took years to realize that the chunk approach produces a lot of waste, because there is always a sizable bit of end that cannot be sliced, often because it becomes a wedge-shaped lump, but usually because, while too thick for a sandwich, it is too thin for the slicer. Also, you can't really ask for half a pound of chunk; you have to indicate how much you want with your thumb and your index finger a method of extreme inexactness. So I went back to being a normal person and became a very regular customer at Schaller & Weber, across the street, concluding that it is better all round to learn to live with the goo. Particularly since I never, not once, cleaned the slicer properly. I went over the accessible surfaces with Windex and a paper towel every now and then, but there were crusty corners everywhere, and as for the blade...

Getting rid of the meat slicer, once I understood that I was not going to replace it, was almost as uplifting as removing the toaster oven from the counter. The slicer was kept on an industrial aluminum cart, and it did not take long to reshuffle the food processor and the water-filtration pitcher, along with stacks of utility bowls that I'd kept on the top of the toaster oven, on the slicer's footprint.

TThe other day, a big box arrived from Wolferman's, the alternative English-muffin people. A sympathy box, in fact a concept that's new to me. It contained three packages of muffins (four per), two loaves of English-muffin bread, a tea loaf, and two jars of jam (berry and peach). What on earth am I going to do with all this stuff, I thought, even if I start eating it right now? I realized that putting it away in the pantry cabinets would be tantamount to throwing it away unopened, because Kathleen and I are long past the age of discovery when it comes to food. We are not tempted to "try things." Being so picky, we tend not to care much for comestibles that we don't already stock. But how could I fail to make an effort to consume condolences? I would try to eat at least one muffin a day, encouraged by the heap and its dwindling. So the goodies languished where I unpacked them, on the dining table, for a few days. Only yesterday did I move them into the kitchen. The muffins are heaped on the utility bowls atop the cart former site of the food processor while the jams take up a tiny portion of the acreage vacated by the countertop oven. I've just had a citrus-cranberry muffin for lunch. Kathleen and I were raised on Thomas's, and the preference is ironclad. But that only enhances the virtue of eating up the competition. (15 March 2021)

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