As I write this, I’ve been away from our kitchen for about a month and a half. I’m bereft, missing the single row of hand-painted, blue and white Moroccan tiles – a single row because that was all that my husband and I could afford – and the cherry red, enameled cast iron pots and pans from France that are the only upper-arm exercise I’ll ever need and the only fortune that I’ll probably leave behind.
In March of 2020, when our neighbourhood in Brooklyn was a disconcerting call and response of ambulance sirens and bird songs – the latter suddenly much too loud because the usual drone of passing cars, delivery trucks, and neighbors and strangers talking at top volume in front of our building and every other building was eerily hushed – my husband and I looked around us and thought in all truth and honesty, This is where we may die. Our response to a sequestered New York City, its five boroughs becoming smaller with each Covid death, and our inability to do anything about it was to decide to renovate our two-bedroom co-op apartment.
In the U.S., there’s a truncated truism – death and taxes – meaning that death and taxes are the two things that for certain we will all face. In New York City, the iteration is death and renovations, meaning that if you manage to buy a place here, you’ll finetune it, finesse it and carve out every inch of what’s possible within it. The reason is simple. It’s almost impossible to trade-up here. While the worth of our place, for instance, has increased exponentially in the 20 years that we’ve been paying a mortgage on it, so has every other abode around us. The only way for us to get more space and nicer surrounds would be to sell outright and leave the city behind. We weren’t ready. We may never be ready. That’s how you know you’ve become a New Yorker. You can’t imagine yourself elsewhere. Love isn’t the right word. Codependency or addiction is more like it.
What we began to plan, which would begin in August of 2021, when surely the bird songs would have faded back into the city’s soundscape, was relatively minor. We wanted a new, updated bathroom: take out the tub and replace with a walk-in shower (because even if we don’t die in situ, we will undoubtedly grow older and less agile here), add new floor tiles in cheery shades of sky blues and dappled sunlight, and – the following is oversharing, but if you’re still reading this essay then you’ll want to know – replace the toilet with a Japanese model with all the accoutrements of a heated seat, water sprays and soothing puffs of air.
What does an ill-timed bathroom renovation – ill-timed because the pandemic is still with us and it turned out that other New Yorkers, faced with their mortality, also had the same “let’s renovate” response and thus workers and building supplies are in short supply – have to do with an exile from our beloved kitchen? Because of the Liliputian nature of our home, the kitchen is the only possible staging area for the work ahead. So, we were told to pack away our dishes and glasses, move the shelves of cookbooks that I’ve collected over the years, the more arcane and obscure the better, and take all the prints and drawings off the walls, along with the two slightly dented madeleine tins that I’d bought in Paris when I was 16. Teenage me also bought clothes and records, but those tins have stayed with me, while everything else I’ve outgrown. The contractors then sealed up our kitchen cabinets, our fridge and gas range with floor to ceiling plastic sheets held together with jagged pieces of blue tape. It was like a crime scene when we left. With no kitchen, our home was gutted even before the demolition work began.
We headed to a rental apartment belonging to friends of friends in Bed-Stuy for the first month, and now we’re in a hotel in Boerum Hill, both are neighbourhoods nearby to our own in Brooklyn. Our friends and families encouraged us to treat it as a staycation, an excuse to eat out every night and indulge in the luxury of not having to cook, doing the dishes or wiping down the countertops. Upon hearing this bit of advice, I wondered whether our friends and families truly knew us. Did they not know that I named my favourite pots and pans? There’s The Big Apple, Clifford and Big Red. That in lieu of a car, we bought a refrigerator the size of a Fiat compact. That, second only to our co-op apartment, our gas range was the most expensive thing that we’ve ever purchased together? But the monetary value was inconsequential compared to the intention that these items held within them. We brought them together, and together they literally and figuratively held the ingredients of our lives.
As I write this, I’m looking around our hotel room, and I see the bones of our kitchen. Of course, not the appliances, major or minor, nor the many decades worth of food-themed tchotchkes from our travels, alone and together, but rather a very sharp knife, coffees from Italy and Vietnam, where my husband’s family and my own originated respectively, along with two ways to make a very good cup of espresso every morning, and small glass jars of flor do sal from the Algarve region of Portugal and crushed black peppercorns from Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam. The latter we’ve travelled to and the former we think about to assuage the wanderlust that has built up in us since the birds of Brooklyn began their vociferous serenade. But first, we’ll return to, regroup and recharge in our kitchen. We’ll cook a multicourse Vietnamese feast, complete with a glossary of fresh herbs, or maybe we’ll just chop some ripe, end of the season tomatoes, adding olive oil, salt and homegrown basil, which probably have thrived in our little backyard even without us, and spoon this simple sugo di pomodoro crudo over some angel hair. Either way, once we take our first bite we’ll be at home again.
Monique Truong is the Vietnamese American author of the bestselling, award-winning novels The Book of Salt, Bitter in the Mouth and The Sweetest Fruits. She’s also a former refugee, essayist, avid eater, lyricist/ librettist, and intellectual property attorney (more or less in that order).