The Kitchen is the Heart of the Home

…or so I’ve been told. As a little girl, I remember my working mother walking into the house, smelling of rubbing alcohol, soap, children, and medicinal odors I was too young to recognize. As a pediatric nurse, my mother gained experience and expertise in different settings throughout my lifetime–first as a nurse in a pediatric clinic, then as a school nurse in our elementary school clinic, then as a hospital nurse in pediatric pre-op and day surgery, and finally today as a triage nurse for a specialist (pediatric cardiology). She would come home, surely exhausted and sore, and walk straight into the kitchen. I remember the sound of the light on the stove hood popping on, the way she would murmur to herself in order to focus on the names of ingredients rather than on the insistent whines of her young daughters, her confident and steadily quick pace in the kitchen. My mom seemed a magician–how did she know just exactly where everything was all the time? I could barely remember where I last kicked off my shoes. (A question she also knew the answer to, even though she hadn’t been home when I kicked those shoes off.) How could she just reach into the preheated oven the way she did, not flinching or worrying that she would pull back a burned stub? How did she know that things would still taste good, even if she ignored parts of the recipes? (A skill I sadly did not seem to inherit.) If the kitchen is the heart of the home, then our home’s heart was filled to the brim with magic and love. Maybe they are the same things.

I stayed out of the kitchen most of the time when my mom would cook dinner. She would constantly invite me to stay and help, encouraging me to try out an age-appropriate task here and there. But, inevitably, when I finished stirring those ingredients together, or cracking those eggs, or watching that pot of water come to a boil…I would end up sliding away to return to the television that beckoned or that book I was reading. My sister, on the other hand, would stay and help. I was often jealous when I heard them laughing or talking deeply to one another, certain that I was missing out on something. And I was–I was not part of the family heartbeat when I faded away into voluntary isolation.

As a new mom, I am attempting to overcome my apparent innate discomfort in the kitchen. When I first met my husband, I would prepare an occasional meal for him (usually the only meal I would properly cook in my tiny kitchen would feed the two of us–otherwise, it was all about the microwave for my meals). Generally, I felt at ease with the casserole. The casserole is a lot like baking–you mix all these specific ingredients together, pop it in a preheated oven for a certain amount of time, and voila! Dinner is served. But stovetop cooking? It causes me much stress.

This week I discovered that I will be earning 2/3 the paycheck I had been earning and that we had budgeted. One of my classes was cancelled because enrollment is low. I haven’t wrapped my mind around what this means for our monthly budget, but so far we have started to make little cuts back here and there. Right after our daughter was born, and for most of her little life, we ate out. Almost for every meal. We were both out of our minds with exhaustion, so feeding ourselves nutritious, balanced, home-cooked meals thrice daily was not on our radar. My only care in the world was getting the baby fed, a task in and of itself that turned out to be much more difficult than I ever anticipated. To this day, I am fixated on helping my daughter gain weight, despite her consistent healthy reports from the pediatrician. But I am also fixated on the budgetary bottom line. What is our monthly take-home pay? What can go? What must stay? How can we trim up the “must stay” list?

So, we’ve been cooking more. Eating in more. Which means that our home, whose heart has essentially been fairly dormant recently, is starting to wake up. This past week I have cooked all but one dinner–I will be preparing this coming week’s menu today as well. The recipes have all been new to me. And on those days when I cooked (except Wednesday), my husband has marveled at my culinary confidence. “The Amanda I married wouldn’t have wanted to cook ___________.” “The Amanda I married would have really gotten nervous when she realized she didn’t have enough of ___________.” Yes, indeed my confidence has begun to climb, but I have certainly not reached the summit.

On Wednesday night, I prepared to make chicken schnitzel. I pounded the chicken breasts, watched my butter melt across my hot frying pan, and managed to cook only one breast at a time because of space. The first breast was okay…I had to keep it in the pan a bit longer than the directions suggested because the edges weren’t cooked thoroughly. The second breast…was a disaster. As I prepared that breast (dipping it in the breading, etc.), I hadn’t noticed my butter burning on my pan. I didn’t notice the smoke when I cooked the breast. It wasn’t until my husband asked me to turn on the exhaust fan that I started to suspect something was going on. (Why do I never see or smell the smoke first, when I’m the one standing over the burning food?) I lifted the breast up just to take a peek–despite its pink and juicy interior (having been on the pan for all of three minutes), the breading was completely black. Panicked, I removed the smoking pan from the burner and laid it aside. I turned to put something in the sink…and upon turning around, that’s when I noticed all the smoke billowing from our kitchen into the dining room where our daughter was eating her dinner and into the living room. I cursed. I said unkind things about my culinary abilities. I freaked out. Once the burner was slightly cooler, I pulled out a new frying pan and cooked the third chicken breast. While that breast cooked on much lower heat (and therefore took longer), I shooed our four animals into the bedroom, opened our front and back doors, and held a box fan pointed toward the ceiling while it attempted to move the smoke toward the exits.

My eyes were pink and stung. I thought I still saw smoke for the rest of the night. My husband’s chicken breast wasn’t fully cooked, so he ended up microwaving it a bit longer. My plate was cold by the time I had regained my appetite. (Something about standing in a smoky kitchen will just destroy my interest in eating whatever was burning.) I felt like an utter failure.

But Thursday night, I went back into that kitchen. I made ground chicken stroganoff (recipe courtesy of Mo), and managed to feed myself and my husband in a timely manner (even before the baby had her dinner!). The meal was delicious, as well.

I think I am learning something about the heart of my home. It is prone to bouts of extremism, just like my own emotions. It is vulnerable and insecure. But, it is also a place of reassurance and trust. It is a place where mistakes can be made, unkindnesses uttered, and all sins forgiven by the end of the day. If this kitchen is the heart of my home, then it is still an immature one. But it is learning and growing through all these attempts and failures and successes.

This heartbeat is strong. It is palpable. And I will nurture it into something magical.