At the time I was learning how to feed myself in respectable manner, I was living in a four hundred square foot — cozy — apartment that had a very, very tiny kitchen. The kitchen, which had no counters and one semi-functional, hinged at the left “drawer” suspended from underneath one of its three cabinets, was smaller than my parents’ dining table. Ok: maybe this is not true in a literal sense but it certainly felt true. The three enamel-coated steel cabinets, hanging on the wall above the sink and small-scale gas stove were, very handsome. The kitchen was so small that the refrigerator did not really fit in the kitchen though I pretended it did. The kitchen was minuscule but between the enameled cabinets and the black and white linoleum floor I was content with it.
When I moved into this apartment the lack of storage space was not cause for alarm to me because, frankly, I wasn’t savvy enough to be alarmed. Also, I had very little kitchen equipment, but I did have a tall metal cabinet that could serve as kitchen storage (in the living room). I was young and I could Make Do. Shortly after moving into the apartment, I bought from the window display of a local florist’s shop a child-size Hoosier cabinet, which the shopkeeper had been using to display vases she had for sale. In this mini-Hoosier, and on it, I stashed the more attractive elements of the batterie de cuisine I did own. I remember that I bought a number of cloth napkins from the sale basket at a fancy kitchenwares shop, and folded them and stacked them nicely on the little Hoosier and felt very smart. These napkins — maybe a dozen of them — would serve as my napkins and dishtowels for the next several years. The Hoosier, which I painted a pale butter yellow color, was very cheery and made up for a lot of the kitchen’s storage issues.
Here is a description of what I had, in those days:
I had flatware (set of four settings; cheap crap purchased in 1987, navy blue plastic handles) and dishes (four settings; cheap crap made of sturdy stoneware, also purchased in 1987, beige with some vaguely tasteful flowers on them). I had one stockpot (very poor quality, Teflon-coated) and one sauté pan (a college graduation gift from my brother) and one small Revereware teakettle (also a gift, from my parents).
My mother gave me a small coffeemaker, which made it possible for me to make coffee for myself, something I had literally never done before. I thought coffee was something grownups made, and that for me, going to a cafe was quite sufficient. Making one’s own coffee, I quickly realized, was a far more economical move. I took to spending Sunday mornings drinking my own coffee with my newspaper spread out on the living room floor, instead of spending $6 on sitting at tiny cafe tables that never had enough room for the Sunday paper anyhow.
I did have two battered plastic cutting boards (second-hand, both of which still see daily use in my kitchen). I had a plastic measuring cup that was a total piece of crap, which I now use to put rock salt out on the sidewalk in wintertime. I did, thanks to my father and brother, have two excellent sets of mixing bowls, both of which are still complete and still in use. One set was cobalt blue glass — absolutely beautiful — and one set was clear glass, from a French glass company called Duralex. If my daughter ever breaks any of these bowls, she knows, I’m going to have to kill her.
Things I did not have: most things that food magazines and cookbooks assume you have. I did not have a blender. a food processor, a good set of colanders (I had one kind of wobbly blue plastic colander), any good knives, wineglasses, Microplane graters, frying pans, Dutch ovens, decent potholders, a truly functional vegetable peeler. I did not have any serving dishes.
I did not have a rolling pin.
Instead of a rolling pin, I had a wine bottle I had saved after some social occasion, because I thought it had a pretty label. On the very rare occasions when I needed a rolling pin, I used that wine bottle. I had a rusty-ish box grater that I hated, and avoided all recipes that called for shredding anything because I was so reluctant to use this awful device. I certainly did not have a microwave; I did not live with a microwave oven until the spring of 2008, when I had a baby and we bought one because all our friends told us we’d want a microwave to heat up milk and food for the baby. (They were wrong, and we could live perfectly well without a microwave, but whatever.)
I’m writing all this down so readers will understand: I had some stuff to put a in a kitchen, when I started out, but I didn’t have a lot, and what I had was to a large degree junk. If I’d bought it myself, it was crap. If my brother or parents had bought it for me, it was pretty good or very good. (Those Duralex bowls should, by all rights, by shattered into dust by now, but they really are strong as Pyrex.)
And while I had, at this stage, read many, many cookbooks, just for fun, and I had a kind of academic sense of how to cook, I was so depressed by the way cookbooks assumed you had so much stuff on hand, all the time, that I had little faith in my own ability to do anything in the kitchen. I mean, not only did I not have a pantry, or a spice rack full of little jars of weird things, but almost every cake or cooky recipe I read advised, as step one, “Cream butter and sugar in mixer.” Leaving me going, “well, fuck it, guess I’m not making that.” That sentiment, “Fuck it: guess I’m not making that” followed me to the grocery store, and into the kitchen. I was supremely cowed by the whole enterprise.
When I saw the title of this chapter in Home Cooking, my kitchen-naive heart sang:
The Low-Tech Person’s Batterie de Cuisine
Colwin was talking about me.
“How depressing it is to open a cookbook whose first chapter is devoted to equipment. You look around your kitchen. No chinoise! No flan ring! No salamander! How are you ever going to get anything cooked? What sort of person is it who doesn’t own a food mill?”
St. Colwin then goes on to say, basically, “I am one of you.” And the Ramones fan-reader — that would be me, if not you — cries, “Gabba gabba hey! One of us! One of us!”
That opening gambit proved it: I knew that this was a book where, even if I didn’t want to cook anything she talked about, specifically, I would find guidance and inspiration and funny stuff. That last is hugely important, by the way. Laurie Colwin is funny. So I read eagerly.
Colwin explained in this essay that she owned neither a toaster or a juicer. She had a crappy grater, which she cut herself on all the time, and clearly resented (she would have loved a Microplane, though). She had a lot of mixing bowls, a lot of mixing spoons and spatulas, and a whisk. Colwin was, of course, a New York City apartment dweller, and in many cases that means hello, I have a tiny kitchen, so even if I invite you over for dinner it means we’ll probably be eating takeout because who are we kidding. I knew someone who lived in Manhattan whose kitchen was literally in what used to be the coat closet; another person I knew, who lived in lower Manhattan, had a kitchen that was this little wedge of wall kind of near the front door and the only reason there was a counter was that his father had hung a shallow slab of remnant formica, on a hinge, from the wall under a window. New York kitchens bring idiosyncratic to new heights — and my tiny kitchen in my new apartment was cut from that same cloth. The equipment was there, in a technical sense, but nothing about the kitchen was gonna make things easy on me. Well, except this: the rent included heat, hot water, and — excellent news for me — cooking gas. There were certain expenses I didn’t have to worry about, which meant I could try to direct my monies toward making the best of my sucky skills and gear in the kitchen.
In The Low-Tech Person’s Batterie de Cuisine, Colwin encouragingly breaks down a very clear list of the basic shit everyone should have in their kitchen. She admits that there are occasionally specific interests that require special equipment; people who bake, she acknowledges, will probably want particular baking pans. She claims that owning a chicken fryer is necessary if you want to fry chicken in a serious way — I wouldn’t know, since I have never fried chicken, but I’ll take her word for it. “I use it twice a year to fry chicken, and while it takes up space, it is the right tool for the job.” She also grants that there are a lot of specific-task kitchen items that one person will say is stupid and another person will view as essential, and that these things are basically a matter of taste. This is true: Most serious cooks pooh-pooh the garlic press, for example, but I love mine and use it all the time.
So at some level, outfitting your starter kitchen — which can remain “starter” long after you’ve gotten pretty competent at the stove — is a personal issue. But: there are no matter what some basics that everyone’s going to need, and I think Colwin gets this right. I found this list reassuring in 1993, and as I read it now, it still makes me nod in approval.
St. Colwin’s Low-Tech Batterie de Cuisine
You need: Two knives — one big, one small. St. Colwin claims they should be carbon steel, not stainless, but I take no strong stand on the matter*.
You need: Two wooden spoons, a long-handled one and a short-handled one. I would say three spoons might be a good idea — long, medium, short.
You need: Two rubber spatulas, one with a wide head, one with a narrow head. “These last only a couple of years and then the heads come off.” I like the silicone spatulas you can get these days; I don’t think they were so common in the 1980s. The heads should be removed from the wooden handles before washing, because mold and crud will grow on the end of the wood otherwise. Let the wooden dowel dry completely, and let the water drain out of the head, before you reassemble. Just take my word on this one, ok?
You need a “decent” pair of kitchen shears. This is important. A decent pair of kitchen shears is a pair of scissors that works well and that can be taken apart for washing. I have a nifty pair that has rubber over the handles and it is designed so that the two pieces, where they cross, also form a bottle opener. My father bought these scissors somewhere probably in 1978 and they are still in heavy use.
You need two frying pans, St. Colwin tells us: one large, one small. “The small is for cooking two eggs, a child’s lunch, a toasted cheese sandwich.” The big one is for bigger projects, like a pancake breakfast or chicken breasts for dinner. Now: I take Colwin’s point but the reality is I think most of us could get by with one 10″ pan.
That said, I do now own several frying pans, some bigger, some smaller, and I use them for pretty specific purposes. I have a very small shallow one, a Le Creuset pan I found in my grandmother’s apartment after she died, and I use it for melting butter for sauces and I use it to toast spices. I hardly ever cook food in it, but I use it when I need to use a tiny pan to do a tiny job where it’d be just stupid to use a 10″ pan.
You need: Two cutting boards, one large, one small. This should be obvious but just in case it isn’t: you need a big board for when you need to take a big steak and cut it into strips for a stir fry, for when you need to hack a winter squash in half, for when you need to dice long stalks of celery. You need the small cutting board when you’re going to mince some garlic by hand because you don’t have a garlic press, when you’re mincing some parsley or cilantro to sprinkle on top of your avocado salad, when you are slicing grapes to feed to your toddler. I have my aforementioned totally battered white plastic cutting boards that work just fine; I can disinfect them with bleach or rubbing alcohol. People have lots and lots of things to say about the materials of cutting boards; I’m fine with plastic.
You need, St. Colwin tells us, two roasting pans. This is debatable, but for her purposes it seems clear she’s right: “A big one for the turkey and a medium-sized one, preferably earthenware, which holds and distributes heat better for baking eggplant parmigiana, roasting a chicken. Such a pan can double as a gratin.” I have a small number of roasting pans, by now, and I suppose they’re all sort of interchangeable but it’s also true that we’ve learned by trial and error that some are just subtly better than others for certain jobs. There’s one pan I use for roasting chickens and also for tuna-noodle casseroles and lasagna; I feel it is useless for making brownies and I have other pans I use for brownies or other bar cookies. I know this seems arbitrary, but that’s life.
You need: Two soup kettles, one four-quart and one ten-quart. — I’m not exactly sure this is true but maybe it is. I have two 8 quart kettles, Revereware stockpots I got from relatives who no longer cook, and while it seems crazy to have two of the exact same thing, the fact is I’m grateful, all the time, to have them both. I cook pasta in them constantly, for one thing — and if you’re making a spaghetti dinner for more than four people, you need that extra pasta cooking space. Too much pasta in one cooking pot doesn’t end well. But I also use them to mix bread dough, and to hold the rising dough. This saves me money on Saran Wrap and it means I can confidently leave the house for hours on end and know the cats won’t get into the bread dough (I lock the lid to the pot using rubber bands swung around the knob on the lid and around the handles of the pot). I suppose you could say I basically agree with Colwin, but I’m quibbling about the sizes of the pots. We could just split the differences and call it even.
You need: a heavy-lidded casserole, enamel over cast iron or earthenware, for stews, daubes, chili.
I’ll be honest here: I’m not even sure what a daube really is**, but I agree that you need a heavy-lidded casserole for chili or stew or soup. The way I’d rephrase this is, You probably want an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven. It does not have to be the biggest and fanciest Le Creuset item, but a reasonably large pot is more versatile than a really small cute one shaped like an apple or a pumpkin. The round pots are a better bet than the oval pots. We bought a couple of LC pots off the manufacturer’s seconds shelf at an outlet in 1999 and have never for a moment regretted the purchase. Many companies make ones that cost far less than LC. Some of them are kind of junky, friends tell me, but some are just fine, and you should get one that’s just fine and enjoy.
You need: a pair of cheap tongs. For a million reasons. Here’s an example of St. Colwin’s realistic worldview: “Tongs can easily be unbent to form one long arm with which to retrieve things that you have accidentally kicked under the stove, and then they can be bent into tongs again.” In fact, I have two sets of tongs, neither of which can be unbent and rebent like this, but the point is well taken. She is correct that you should have something in your kitchen you can use to root around under the stove to get the things you kicked under there; I use a yardstick.
You need: one all-purpose grater; one tiny grater (which you’ll use for grating cheese for pasta or things like that); mixing bowls; a sharp-pronged fork. Yes, yes, yes, yes. What I advocate for is not a box grater, but rather two Microplane graters, one fine and one coarse. They are easier to store, easier to use, and very easy to clean. In re: mixing bowls — one set is, in my experience, not enough, and ideally some can be used as serving pieces, so snag a set that makes you happy when you look at them. On this count I was all set, thanks to my brother and father. In recent years I have a received a set of red melamine bowls my dad off-loaded to me when he downsized apartments. They were the bowls he used when he made French toast for us a million ago. While the rubber rings on the bottom are cracking from drying out, and I can’t put them in the dishwasher anymore because of that, they are still very good bowls we use a lot. Unlike my blue glass bowls or the Duralex bowls, they have little pouring spouts, which is occasionally a useful feature.
The sharp-pronged fork is, I agree, a very useful implement. It can be used to achieve many small and large goals: you use it to snag the green bean you knocked under the pot (tongs can work for this too), you use it to carve and serve your roast chicken. The fork doesn’t have to be fancy looking. Just have one.
I can very clearly remember assessing my batterie de cuisine as I read this book going, “Ok, I’m not so far off, here.” While it was true I didn’t have a lidded casserole or Dutch oven, my sauté pan was very heavy and it did have a good lid. Furthermore, since it was all metal, I could use it on the stovetop and move it into the oven, just as I would a Dutch oven.
This is not the list you go by when you’re making your dream list of every kitchen thing you’ve ever wanted; this is not your wedding registry. This is your Basic List, this is the list you keep in mind when you’re on a walk on the weekend and it’s tag sale season. Tag sales, by the way, are another thing St. Colwin and I are in total agreement on: you can snag the best and most useful kitchen stuff at tag sales. I have a red and white enamelware cake carrier I got at a tag sale that has been wowing them at bake sales for more than a decade. I have extremely good pots and pans from tag sales and from “Free! To a Good Home!” boxes out on the sidewalk. You simply never know when you might have a change to grab for cheap or nothing an item your household needs, or has merely wanted, longed for, and always viewed as out of reach. One time my husband went to work and found a small LC pot, with its lid, in the lunch room: a co-worker was moving house, didn’t want to keep it, and now it’s ours, and it gets used probably three times a week. Our favorite coffee cups: 90% of them are cups found on the street, either at a tag sale, or just found, abandoned in a box.
All this is to say, Laurie Colwin was, as she should have been, as we all should be, pragmatic as hell when it came to kitchen equipment and how to use it. This is admirable, particularly in our time, when it seems like every food magazine and website is telling us constantly that we need this new amazing thing. You really probably don’t need that new amazing thing, and what’s more, that new amazing thing probably isn’t so amazing. She wasn’t interested in status items for status’ sake. She was interested in getting a job done well with a minimum of fuss. She was, in a way, a more actively domestic version of Peg Bracken, really; she knew that not everyone wanted to invest in cooking as an activity, or work that hard at it, but understood that most of us do, at some point or other, have to feed ourselves. Home Cooking asks, What would be the efficient, good, tasty, not back-or-wallet-breaking ways to achieve this? And What do you need to do it? It’s clear from this essay that Colwin knew how to be simultaneously cheap and lavish, and like any good friend, she’d give you the skinny before you made a mistake.
When I got to the end of the essay, the last sentence left me with my jaw on the floor. Remember: I was too cheap to buy a rolling pin, I used the same two pots to cook every single thing I ate. I didn’t even know what a Dutch oven was, in those days. I was afraid of the Joy of Cooking. What was Laurie Colwin going to tell me that made me feel I could cook?
“In a pinch, you can always use a wine bottle as a rolling pin.”
* The truth is, I have one carbon steel knife, and I fucking love it. It’s an 8″ blade that my dad got God knows when and it wound up with me a few years ago. I took it to Harper Keehn to be professionally sharpened and goddamn that knife has been a pleasure to use ever since. I sharpen it myself every couple of months and I will never own another knife as awesome as that one. But it’s true the blade is not something to be fucked with; you have to maintain a carbon steel blade, and not be lazy about it. If you can’t deal with that, stick to stainless.
**it’s a fancy way of saying stew, it’s a French beef stew cooked in wine, apparently.