Mimi Thorisson, We Meet Again

I hadn’t given Mimi Thorisson much thought at all since I last made one of the pear cakes I make that improve on Thorisson’s original.  But a recent copy of the Wall Street Journal brought her to mind because there was a lovely article about Ms. Thorisson’s kitchen at her house in France. I looked at the article quickly while I was sitting on a bus, and while I wanted to recycle the newspaper once I reached my destination, I actually saved this section of the paper so that I could really absorb the lunacy here at my leisure.

What actually happened was that a bottle of water leaked in my bag, and the newspaper got soaked, and in the end I had to go online and dig up the article in order to more fully absorb Ms. Thorisson’s beautiful house in Bordeaux. Which has fifteen bedrooms. I can’t figure out how many toilets have to get cleaned; I’m trying to remember how many children Ms. Thorisson has. It’s some mind-boggling number. Ditto with the dogs.

But it’s clearly ok. Ms. Thorisson and her husband are not worried much about money or housecleaning. They doubtless have people to worry about that stuff for them. I’m ok with that. (I mean, I’m jealous as fuck, but whatever.)

What bugs the hell out of me, with this article, is the layout of Ms. Thorisson’s kitchen. It’s a really good example of the kind of kitchen that I think about all the time — I have, in fact, been working on a long essay on the subject that keeps slipping away from me — which is, The Kitchen that is Really Beautiful and Really Big and Really Hard to Imagine Working in. They spent $45,000 working on this kitchen, and I can’t figure out where they set the dishes down when it’s time to bring them near the sink for washing; I can’t figure out where they set down the spoon when they’re done stirring the pot at the stove.

I decided to spend some time really looking at the pictures in the online version of the article to absorb what it would actually be like to work in this space. Photo 3/21 gave me some hope, for a moment. I considered the practical, real-life move of keeping the newborn in a pram near the stove. As long as Baby’s not blocking my path to anything, I find this a sensible solution to the “where should Baby go while I’m cooking?” problem. I looked to the marble-topped table, where one of the older daughters is working. “Ah,” I thought, “It’s on wheels! So, that’s smart, actually, because you can do your prep work and roll it further from or close to the stove as needed.” But then I looked more closely. The Kitchen Aid and the Cuisinart are both on that table — both plugged in. So you can’t just blithely wheel the table around. It’s got to be pretty stationery, or else there will be hell to pay (and possibly small children wounded). It was only after a few minutes of staring at this photo that my eye landed on the photo’s caption, which advised me that the young woman at the marble topped table wasn’t one of the older daughters, but was, rather, Ms. Thorisson’s assistant, Allegra.

My apologies, Allegra.

I get that Ms. Thorisson can do whatever she wants, and that she’s cooking for a mob at most times. And I get that these rooms are beautiful. I’d like a giant, curved, corner-fitting china cabinet too, folks. (Not that I have anywhere to put such a thing, but that doesn’t matter, does it?) I really like the purple sofa, though it seems a bit… well, I like to lie down on the sofa when I watch a movie, and it doesn’t seem to me quite that kind of sofa.

What I don’t get is, How can anyone view this household’s kitchen decor and design as actually aspirational, when the fact is, it must be really annoying to cook in such a kitchen? In fact, Ms. Thorisson has two such kitchens in her house. The second kitchen does seem to have some countertop near the sink, but there’s no dish drainer visible. I’m still left scratching my head. It’s all very lovely, but I keep looking at the pictures and thinking, “I couldn’t deal with that. It’s too big. Nothing is convenient to anything else.” If the stove and the sink were close enough to each other, and had a long countertop spanning between them, I’d feel a lot better. (Nowhere do we see the fridge, which also troubles me. )

There’s some other mindset at work, clearly, when people look at kitchens like Ms. Thorisson’s and say, “oooooo, I wish I had that.” I can’t relate. It’s not that I want to go back to the days when I had a kitchen that was (no exaggeration) smaller than the closet on the third floor of our row house — that closet, I turned into a “Fortress of Solitude” for my daughter’s last birthday party, and five young children (aged 8 and under, mostly 5-6) could sit comfortably on the floor in there and color pages from a coloring book. The Fortress of Solitude would make a perfectly workable kitchen, actually, if I had to install one there. There would not be a lot of floor space, but it would be enough. So long as I never had to cook for more than four people, it would be enough.

I think this is the real issue. Our sense of “enoughness” has evaporated. Mimi Thorisson’s kitchen is lovely, but it is far, far more than enough of some things, yet not enough of others. Then again, I guess it should have been obvious to me from the get-go that “enough” isn’t really a Thorisson family mantra. Eight children, ten dogs. Two kitchens. Fifteen bedrooms.

Whereas I live in a three bedroom, 2 1/2 bathroom apartment that my husband believes is more than we need. Perspectives vary widely on what is enough. I realize that, in practical terms, my husband is right. This is quite enough. But I would love to have two more rooms: a study for my husband, a study for me. But it’s a fantasy. I don’t actually believe we will ever live in such a grand space. Some people get to live in grand spaces with endless rooms, and maids to clean them: we are not those kind of people.

After thinking about all of this, and deciding on a whim to see what was out there online about Ms. Thorisson’s kitchen layout, I discovered that a while back, Ms. Thorisson engaged in a large-scale online feud with a cookbook reviewer who didn’t like her cookbook quite as much as she might have liked. She was actually quite gracious about it, though obviously she would have preferred a glowing review. Readers of the review accused the reviewer of sexism, of this, of that, and mostly of viewing Ms. Thorisson as nothing more than a mere lifestyle writer, not a real cook. Well: I have to say, I think there’s something to that; on the other hand, I take the position (that I think Ms. Thorisson would agree with) that the cooking that happens in peoples’ homes is as legitimate a thing to write about as professional cooking. Since Ms. Thorisson has to cook on a scale much larger than I do, I actually respect her cooking: she’s feeding this large family, right? That counts for something. I do think she can be a little tone-deaf in her writing, but on the other hand, who isn’t? Seriously: who isn’t? One of the most conscientious food bloggers I know — and I know her personally, I feel, after years of written correspondence, though I admit I’ve never met her in real life — has gone back, in recent months, to look at things she wrote a decade ago, and cringed. Assumptions about what is possible, and about who has access to what — and coming from the keyboard of someone who’s about as socially aware as a person can be — are rife. But we all suffer from this. We’re all writing from a certain moment’s mood, perspective, position. Who is to say that Ms. Thorisson won’t look back on her work of 2015 in ten years and think, “My god, what was I thinking?”

Ms. Thorisson responded to all of this with a surprisingly even temper, I thought. A lot of gorgeous women in her shoes would have stamped their perfect little feet and said, “Oh my god, you’re such an asshole, Mr. Cookbook Reviewer!” But she was calm and almost good-humored about the whole thing (not that humor is really Ms. Thorisson’s strong point, from what I see). Her responses online to this debate about her work made me somewhat sympathetic to her. Not because I don’t think her life is a bit ludicrous — I do — but I don’t think she’s trying to put over on anyone. The accusation is that her work is not really about food, but about “my life is better than yours.” There’s something to that. But I think she feels she is simply presenting herself as an example of one kind of thing. (An exceptionally attractive, well-dressed, clearly unAmerican version of her kind of thing.) She lives the way she lives, and she presents her life and her recipes in the way she right now wants to present them. She had an interesting aside about working on a TV show which really made me see her in a different light.

Her aside was more telling to me than anything else she’d written. It was reasonable, and made me sympathetic to her. She’s got a cooking show somewhere — I’ve never seen it — and apparently people saw her kitchen tables and complained about them.  She wrote, “….every now and then someone, somewhere, questions my choice of working tables. It seems they are just too low. But here’s the thing. They are my tables, that I actually use. And I’m tall. We filmed two seasons for Canal+ and a number of people commented on the tables. My tables. So they brought in a new table for the third season. It was higher, more comfortable perhaps. But it wasn’t real. When I cook at home, when we make blog posts, we use the things that are already there. Strange as it is sometimes reality looks weird or fake and sometimes when things are faked to look real, they feel all wrong. So I say, let’s keep it real – always, even when reality looks strange.”

I guess this is where I have to agree with her. Her reality is strange to me. It is entirely foreign. My reality would be strange to her. We’ll all have to accept that our realities are strange to one another. On one point, I will differ: it is a competition, Ms. Thorisson, and my pear cake is better than yours. (If you’re ever in town, I’d be happy to serve you a piece. Assuming I have some pears sitting around….)

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