Blips of hot bacon grease zinged my left elbow before it dawned on me: just move farther away from the cook top. Hell, move to the other counter.
Move to the other counter.
Gott in Himmel, what a concept. The other counter.
I am living in the fourth abode of my adult life. The first was a one-bedroom apartment in the Mount Vernon area of downtown Baltimore. Counter space: about 2 square feet. Length of residence: one full year.
My second: a one-bedroom apartment in the Sunset district of San Francisco. Counter space: about 2 square feet, part of which was tucked underneath a low-hanging cabinet that rendered it marginally unuseable. Length of residence: eleven years.
My third: a spacious Victorian flat in the Castro district of San Francisco. Counter space: about 3 square feet. Length of residence: twenty-eight years.
Each apartment was bigger than its predecessor but counter space remainined stubbornly minimal. And yet I am a guy who enjoys cooking and can attest to some reasonable skill in the kitchen. I have prepared quite elaborate meals in those kitchens with their next-to-no counter space. I practiced a stern spatial economy, acquired an unshakeable habit of cleaning up as I went along, and learned to think carefully about where things needed to be for maximum efficiency.
The Castro district kitchen evolved into an area in which I could reach just about everything I needed directly from that postage-stamp counter space. Well, I had to walk across the kitchen to get the cookware itself, but otherwise it was a stand-and-deliver workspace. I had all my utensils hanging on the wall behind the sink, others hanging on hooks nearby, a few in a container within easy reach. The kitchen actually looked pretty cool, but it was woefully inadequate.
Now to my fourth abode: homeownership of a spacious contemporary single-family detached house in Brentwood, California. To call this a whole different ball game is the understatement of the century. For the first time in my adult life I have a full-sized kitchen that was designed to sustain 24/7 food prep for a potentially boistering, bustling, and perpetually hungry family. Thus there’s a whole lot of counter space, and not just one counter, either. I could, and did, plop a sizeable toaster-oven on one section of one counter. I put a Keurig coffemaker on another section of the same counter. I even allowed a full set of canisters on another counter. One counter is reserved for wine bottles, my prescriptions, and cookbooks along the back. I’ve still got buckets of counter space. I’ve still got unused cabinets. (Me being me, those cabinets are utterly clean and lined with brand-new shelf paper.)
Whereas my previous kitchens either had zero drawers (numbers one and two) or just a few (number three), this kitchen has lots of drawers and cabinets in addition to a walk-in-pantry-cum-storage-room big enough to moonlight as a Tokyo studio apartment. As I was settling into the new kitchen, I realized that I could actually forget where I had put something, a situation that was downright unthinkable in my previous culinary digs. Long habit made itself felt and I wound up with an arrangement that gets the most oft-used utensils in drawers or cabinets immediately near the cook top. Other than scattering the cookware hither and yon—after all, I could dedicate one entire cabinet to serving dishes alone—Gawdamighty you gotta love suburbia—I have managed to set up another stand-and-deliver cooking space for myself even within all that spaciousness. I like it that way. Well, I guess I like it. Forty years’ worth of ingrained habit trumps all.
So there I was tonight: grease popping off the bacon in the 12” cast-iron Lodge skillet just by my left elbow, because I was standing immediately beside the cook top, grating cheese and slicing onions. I had not budged from my customary two square feet of counter space. Instinct born of long necessity was calling the shots.
It took a while and a few minor burns on my left elbow before satori arose: move farther away from the stove. Grate the cheese and slice the onions over there. Hell, make a U-turn and use the long counter on the other side of the kitchen. Spread out. Expand. Migrate. Don’t stand there with your left elbow an inch or so from the edge of a blazing-hot 12” cast-iron Lodge skillet. You can move. You should move. So move. Now.
It was kinda scary, but I proved myself the master of my own destiny. Not only did I move, but I even screwed up the fortitude to do the utterly unthinkable: after I finished grating the Gruyère cheese, I left it sitting there on the counter on its cutting board, while I moved to another place along the counter and sliced the onion on another cutting board. I used up, oh I don’t know, maybe five or six square feet of counter space.
It took courage. It took cojones. But I did it.
And I’ll do it again. Just watch me.