The Kitchen Rules
1. No loud chewing or slurping.
While living in China, I ate more noodles than I ever have in my entire life before then. One day, while eating Lanzhou noodles with my friend Tao, he told me the Chinese theory of eating. Noodles especially, he said, should be eaten quickly and as loudly as possible. The more noise you make the better. According to Tao, making a lot of noise while eating proves to the cook that you love and appreciate their food. It is one of the greatest compliments you can pay them. While visiting my friend Wang Hui in Changsha, in the south of China, her parents fed me many delicious and strange foods. One night while eating a soup made with a special worm that was supposed to improve your health, Wang Hui’s mother asked a question that made my friend laugh so hard she almost choked on her rice. Her mother wanted to know why I ate like a ghost.
“It’s how my mother raised me. She wanted to raise a polite girl so she taught me never to talk with my mouth full and to always clean my plate. To keep my elbows off the table and say my prayers before dinner. In America, it’s not considered polite to slurp your soup.” I said.
“In China,” Wang Hui advised, “you eat too quietly. My mother says it’s like inviting a ghost to the table.”
In my kitchen we are polite. We do not slurp our soup. But if we really want to, we walk three feet into the living room and slurp away.
2. Always clean up after yourself.
My mother hates it when my dad cooks. She is always complaining that he puts too much garlic in everything, or he fries everything in too much oil or he has to dirty every dish in her kitchen. However, my mother’s greatest frustration with my father’s cooking habits is that he rarely cleans up after himself. She hates coming home from work to find a kitchen of dirt-streaked counters and a sink full of nasty, unrinsed, unsoaked dishes. Sometimes my father remembers to clean up after himself. Not all the time.
“Your father made spaghetti sauce with that immersion blender and left the kitchen in a terrible mess this afternoon!”
“I wish your mother would appreciate it when I cook for her.”
“I appreciate the cooking, but not the mess left behind for me.”
“I had to run to work!”
“You put too much garlic in the food!”
I’ll be hearing this argument for the rest of my life.
When I was an undergraduate student in Ohio, I shared a dorm floor and small kitchen with at least twenty other girls. I had beautiful ideas of what a shared college kitchen might look like from movies and books. I figured it would be pretty big and we would all descend upon it on the weekends to make cookies and run around in leopard print slippers and ponytails while listening to 80s music. The reality was a college with a problematic budget and kitchens with appliances at least twenty years old—at least something was from the 80s. The reality was a community of girls who rarely cooked for themselves, preferring the convenience of the college cafeteria. The reality was a population of women who oddly seem to have been raised without the Clean-It-Up Gene. The reality was a grimy kitchen with dirt and sloshed dried food so thick it had a permanent smell. Since it was the residents’ responsibility to clean their own kitchen I decided to persevere with a bucket of soapy water and two sponges and rubber gloves. It took a while but finally the counters were clean, the stove wiped, air freshener in place, and fridge wiped down. The only thing left was the drain, and this is where my journey met its terrifying end. Something was clogging the drain and when I reached my hand in to figure out what it was I pulled out a lot of gunk—mold, leftover decomposing pieces of food, some of it recognizable as ramen noodles, hair, coffee grounds, a tea bag, a Barbie doll leg—and a kitchen knife that slashed right through my rubber glove and into my thumb. That was the day I learned a lesson about sticking my hand into an unknown drain. That was also the day the RA closed the kitchen on our floor for the rest of the semester as a punishment for whoever dropped a knife in the drain and left it.
I am not always the nicest girlfriend. I am most definitely a kitchen cleanliness stickler. I nag my poor boyfriend constantly about cleaning up after himself in the kitchen. I don’t want another repeat of a knife in my thumb. I don’t want to complain the rest of my life about being with a man who never cleans up after himself in the kitchen. I remind him now so that eventually he will wipe the counters when needed, and put food into Tupperware instead of leaving it out all night till it gets bad, and clear out the bad stuff from the fridge. My boyfriend will be messy no longer and we will both be very happy.
Two years later: My boyfriend cleans the kitchen. I don’t ask him to.
3. Always put the dishes away ASAP, either in the dishwasher or in the cupboards.
When doing dishes with my Brazilian friend Karina in China, I learned a thing or two. An obsessive cleaner, Karina was adamant about washing the dishes as soon as she finished eating. She did not want crusted gunk on her pans or tea stains in her cups. In contrast, I grew up with my mother’s method of the washtub. My mother piled all of our dishes into a large tub sitting by the sink. When the tub got full once or twice a week, my mother would do all of the dishes at the same time. While in China, I came up with the best of both worlds. I kept a washtub, where most of my dishes would go after rinsing, but I also learned to wash the dirtiest pots and pans right away. In my kitchen I have a dishwasher. I didn’t use it until my boyfriend came to live with me. Now there are always so many dishes that it is just easier to use the dishwasher. I feel lazy. In my future kitchen, I hope I don’t have one.
4. Never use paper or plastic utensils.
I know that when I was a child, my mother used real plates and napkins and silverware and cups. I don’t know when she started switching to paper. I think it was paper napkins first. She got sick of washing the cloth ones so much. Mom started using paper and plastic utensils because she decided we didn’t care enough about the nicer things. What she doesn’t realize is that I loved my pink crayon cup and the plates she always used with the big red flower in the middle. I do not use paper plates. I do not use paper cups. I only use paper napkins every once in a while. I do not use plastic silverware. I love the dishes that I collect from thrift stores. They do not all match, but they have at least one other partner and they are all special, unique. I wouldn’t trade my nice dishes for all the paper and plastic in Los Angeles.
5. Wear an apron.
Cooking with mom was a privilege. It was fun to put on an apron and dump chocolate chips into stainless steel mixing bowls, or hold the electric mixer on low, or practice cracking eggs into an old plastic margarine bowl. I always wanted to wear her pretty white and black patterned apron instead of the ancient, faded strawberry one, but that was mom’s apron. Mom’s apron was the special cooking apron. The one we all hoped to be handed on a snow day in the kitchen with the oven on 350 Fahrenheit. My continued tendency to spill all over everything I wear, even though I am careful and perhaps not even eating anything spillable, means that now I have two aprons for different uses. There is a thin apron for simple, relatively clean kitchen work. There is also a thick, quilted apron for very wet, very oily kitchen jobs. I’m not taking any chances with stain. Both of these aprons have become just as special as the one my mother used when I was a girl.
6. Always use a napkin correctly.
Before the switch to paper napkins, I can remember the Wahl family eating homemade pizza on Sunday nights with what I now assume was actually old washcloths. I loved to be first to snag the napkins from the pantry to set the table so I could choose my napkin first. I always managed to find the least ratty one for my own place. The pizza was always greasy and the old washcloth napkins were so fuzzy that there tended to be more grease and napkin fuzz spread around our mouths than on the actual washcloths. Now I am more careful with what I eat and my relationship to the environment in general. Those days of cloth napkins were happy ones for me. So when my friend Adam brought me four nice napkins he creatively borrowed from his job, I was very happy. Finally I wouldn’t have to use paper towels as napkins! My friend had beat me to the punch and brought me some lovely napkins. There is only one problem. My boyfriend thinks his shirt is also a napkin.
7. Don’t break the salt owl.
I bought it in Chinatown in Vancouver, Canada. I was walking around slowly, missing Asia and missing my boyfriend who had just dropped me off that morning for a visit to my friend Sarah Elizabeth who was in a famous film school there. I wandered into a cheap market on a side street that had all sorts of things from Asia for very cheap prices. I was scanning the dishes, looking for some of those wonderful deep Chinese spoons to add to my kitchen’s collection when I saw him sitting on a counter next to a mass of vinegar dipping dishes. My salt owl. He is tiny and fat and lovely. He is white and brown. You can lift his head off of his body and fill the empty space with salt. There is even a teeny tiny spoon that sits inside so you can scoop salt out for your food. Oh, he is perfect! He reminded me, in a cuter way, of the spice containers I had in China with lids and handles and tiny spoons. Everyone had some of these in their kitchen and they kept all the seasonings they used most often in them. It varied depending on household but the most common things you’d find were: salt, MSG, chili pepper, chicken bouillon, and maybe some kind of five-spice powder. I love my salt owl. The person who accidentally breaks this salt owl will find himself or herself in an emergency room very quickly. I don’t have the money to go all the way to Vancouver just hoping to find another. This salt owl is my little reminder of everything I miss and love about living in China.
8. Don’t get drunk. Unless you’re cooking, and then only after you’ve cut everything up.
Need I say more? I have a first aid kit, but it might not be enough.
9. No burping or flatulence allowed.
My dad and brother are the kings of odor. I have never smelled so much gas coming from two people in my life. Boys will be boys and these two are no exception. My childhood was spent running from the aftershocks of loud farts in the house. As teenagers, the cousins would all converge upon our poor grandmother’s home and hold burping contests over cans of Pepsi and red cream soda. The one place that we were all safe was when we were sitting around the kitchen table at dinner. No one ever seemed to do these things when we were all sitting around the table having a meal together. It is the magic of the kitchen. The kitchen reeks of a different kind of significance that demands a measure of propriety from even the most pungent offender.
10. Clean the microwave.
I learned how to clean the microwave from my mother. My mom’s method of cleaning the microwave was to put a bowl of water on the turntable and set it for five minutes. As the water boils, condensation forms and makes it easier to scrape the gunk off the sides and ceiling of the microwave. I use a similar method. The only addition I have made is to add lemon or lime juice to the water. That way I get all the condensation and all the lovely citrus scent.
In graduate school I didn’t even own a microwave until I met my boyfriend. It’s easy enough to heat up leftovers on the stove for one person. A microwave was not a necessity in my life and I got an odd sense of satisfaction and freedom from living without one after so many years of relying on one. Besides that I’d been seeing a lot of articles in the news questioning the health and safety of microwaving your food. My boyfriend remembers our first meal of leftovers together as particularly annoying.
“Where’s your microwave?” He asks, bowl of cold soup in hand.
“I don’t have one.” I slide a saucepan onto the stove. “I’ll heat your soup up in this. It’ll only take a minute.”
“No. It’s really better this way. Healthier. And I don’t mind a few extra dishes.”
The next day he arrived at my house in the afternoon to go grocery shopping with me. We stopped at a department store first and he steered me directly to the appliance section, stopping me in front of the microwaves and planting my shoulders firmly and squarely in front of the one he wanted.
“Without a microwave, this is never going to work.”
11. Clean the refrigerator.
My parents have a tendency to forget what is in their refrigerator. Sometimes when I come home I find things at the back that have expired six months prior. My goal when visiting my folks is always total fridge annihilation. The same was true when I spent the summer with my boyfriend at his cousin’s house in Alaska. The house was under construction and I was the only one without a job so it fell to me to keep things as neat as possible. Boys do not keep their refrigerators clean. By the end of the summer I had tossed the junk and the moldy expired stuff and bleached that fridge twice. Between all the kitchens and all the cooks I know I have learned a lot of lessons. I keep my fridge well wiped and all the food rotated so that I’m extremely aware of expiration dates.
12. Update the grocery list.
When my Mom goes to the grocery store, she calls my dad every five to ten minutes to ask if he needs anything. She updates him by what section she is currently in and asks for any requests. Usually he insists he doesn’t need anything. This habit of hers gets annoying when you’re with her, particularly after you realize that my father trusts her so completely with the grocery list that he never really feels like he needs to ask her for anything. This weekend we ran out of onions. My boyfriend and I eat an unholy amount of onions. There is no greater annoyance than running out of onions when you don’t have a car and there is six inches of snow on the ground and more coming. No one wants to walk to the store in that. It is always important to have a fully stocked house.
The second year I lived in China my flight back from the US was delayed so I arrived at my apartment so late at night that there was no one from the school to meet me at the airport. The secretary from the school’s Foreign Affairs Office had told me that since I would arrive so late with the delayed flight she would put some groceries in my furnished apartment for me so it wouldn’t be totally empty. Upon the kitchen table was a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, a couple bottles of orange juice and no dishes in the house but chopsticks. After the hour-long taxi ride out to the rural suburb in which I was to live I really had to use the bathroom. I had a five-hour flight’s worth of soda in my bladder begging to exit. I entered the bathroom and realized the secretary had forgotten something else—toilet paper. It was so late in China by that time, that all the stores were closed and all my neighbors were asleep and all I had was notebook paper. This does not rank amongst my top ten pleasant bathroom experiences.
These incidents have taught me the value of a well-made shopping list. Now I know that when I use the last of something it should immediately go onto the grocery list. I do not want to have to run around for hours looking at the various household goods I keep to figure out what is needed in my house or take the risk of forgetting something important.
13. Do not bother the chef when she is cutting things with the large, incredibly sharp, red knife.
My boyfriend has a habit of coming up behind me in the kitchen and hugging me or kissing me on the cheek. This is particularly nice in theory but problematic in practice. Often I don’t hear him coming and he startles me at inopportune moments. For instance, when I’m cutting something with our sharpest knife—the one with the red handle—or stirring something that is boiling, or gingerly peeking underneath the lid of a pan full of searing hot oil. This tendency of his to sneak up on me in the kitchen was the catalyst for purchasing my second apron, which is extra thick in case of spillage. I have many ideas for expanding my basically nonexistent current early warning system. Future plans involve putting a bell around his neck so I always know where he is, or perhaps tagging him like a shark on the Discovery Channel. At the very least I learned to keep glancing over at him every few minutes so I can ascertain his whereabouts within the apartment and determine whether or not sneak-up-age is about to occur. This only has about a fifty percent success rate.
Suggestions are welcome. I’m willing to revise.
Erin Renee Wahl's work has appeared or is forthcoming in: Sterling, Dirty Chai, Blackmail Press, Spiral Orb, Cirque, and others. This year, she is a monthly contributor to Michigan Quarterly Review's blog. She currently lives and works in Fairbanks Alaska.