A Black Kitchen Spells Calm for Me
We all have our dreams, large and small. A lot of getting out of bed in the morning is fueled by the fear of not being able to pay for the room the bed is in, but also because it's nice to want things. Sometimes it's coffee, which I just have to walk into the kitchen to attain. For a very long time, it was for that kitchen to be black.
I'm not a witch. I should say that up front in an extremely Christine O'Donnell voice, not because I have a single thing against witches, but rather the opposite. I am deeply respectful of the practices of kitchen witches, but that's not what I am, and a lifetime of Gothdom has led me to anticipate the assumption. I’m just, like, making some normcore boeuf Bourguignon and quinoa over here, don't mind me. My inspiration for the black kitchen, as it happened, was Rachael Ray. A decade ago, I had the chance to visit the Every Day with Rachael Ray test kitchen. It was state of the art, with enviable countertops, a riot of sparkling appliances, a custom-built lazy susan, and a million other pleasures clearly conjured by humans who actually enjoy cooking, but the thing that welded onto my brain was the write-on chalkboard walls.
I know that chalkboard walls have become a thing on Pinterest and Instagram, but back in 2008, other people's kitchens were hidden behind a veil of mystery unless you happened to physically enter one, or if a blogger was kind enough to break down their DIY project for you. These dark walls not only made the space feel vast and deeply calming—they were endlessly mutable. Scrawl on a recipe, shopping list, inspirational quote, to-do list, schedule, love note, and with the pass of an eraser, it's gone.
That stuck with me—the notion that not just the act of cooking, but the physical space it happens in can be a genuine pleasure as well. For most of my life, I've just hunkered down in whatever kitchen I was issued, and made do. But finally I didn't have to. Last year, my husband and I bought a place in Schoharie County, New York, and the kitchen was a tabula rasa. It didn’t have appliances and much of it was in disrepair, but there were some solid bones in the form of sturdy cabinets and a pass-through to the room next door. If not now, when?
I meant to do other things over the holiday break, like binge-watch Broadchurch, write a new book proposal, sleep, catch up on email, learn how to deal with an extraordinary quantity of black walnuts. What I did was paint. Layer after layer, taping around moldings and contending with tricky door frames and hinges. My husband and I have many principles in our marriage (creative autonomy, affectionate solidarity, always making sure the ice trays are filled) but just one rule: Don't get on a ladder when you're home alone. I skirted that by using a portable gardening bench so I could mask off the ceiling. He helmed the living room, but the kitchen was my turf and I held it. Podcast after podcast, every station's end-of-year list under the sun, mix CDs I'd made back when people did that sort of thing.
I painted one wall first to see how it went, and when that didn't feel like it was closing in on me, then the next and the next. The cream-colored cabinets popped jarringly against the black, so I tamed them, too. Chalkboard paint on the frames, gloss on the doors (careful around the pulls), more gloss on the kitchen doors, and for extra fuss, chalkboard paint on two of the insets. Each time I saw a nick or a drip, I drew a deep breath and dabbed it with a cloth or brush, telling myself that being obsessed now would lead to being calm later on. And finally, on the last day of the year, I called my husband into the kitchen to look.
“How do you feel in here?” I said.
"Calm," he said, and my whole body exhaled. I'm a person who perceives light with her whole psyche. In the winter months, I feel the lack of sunshine in a physical way, exhausted and dimmed, but in this black kitchen, the light streamed in and blasted the walls to infinity and I felt like I was anywhere in the world but the actual world. It's a while off still, but I can't wait to cook in my new kitchen, fussing for hours over project meals with recipes I've scrawled on the walls, and whipping together things with easy grace from the farms around me when it's too damned hot to turn on the stove. I know it's a lot to ask from a few cans of paint, but it all just felt like I made magic.