Today’s post comes to us from pie maven and writer Kate Lebo. An acclaimed author who has also judged the Iowa State Fair Pie Contest, Kate gives us a peek inside her current kitchen, discusses what makes a kitchen a kitchen, and shares a bit about her traveling pastry school.
I used to think of my kitchen as a refuge. Then I started losing kitchens.
The first two losses weren’t a big deal. I moved to a bigger city, then from a studio to a house.
The third hurt. That was the kitchen where I learned to make pie, roast chicken, grill vegetables, braise ribs, and bake bread.
The fourth was the worst. It was the worst kitchen (which I loved above all others because the effort to make it functional created the kind of affection/frustration bond one feels when rehabbing a stray cat) and the worst move (my rent was jacked up, I didn’t want to go).
After that, losing kitchens got easy.
I moved to a trailer near Mt. St. Helens for the summer to finish the manuscript for my cookbook Pie School. When it was time to hand back the keys, I attempted to beat sadness with a gratitude ritual. Thank you countertops, thank you fridge, thank you oven, sink, and cupboards. It totally worked.
After that, I borrowed kitchens for a couple years. They were never mine, so they weren’t mine to lose.
This kitchen, the one I’ve photographed, is my first very own kitchen in years. It fits one person at a time. While I cook, my partner likes to fix us Manhattans and sit on a stool across that counter on the right. For dinner, we eat at a cream and gold Formica table that’s been at home in all my former kitchens.
See? Some things you can take with you.
I don’t know how long I’ll be in this kitchen. In the meantime, I make it work. My lost kitchens taught me that a kitchen doesn’t have to be comfortable to be good. The kitchen gets good when you get comfortable with it.
Also: Kitchens are irreplaceable. There will always be another kitchen.
It’s been three years since I opened Pie School, my traveling pastry academy. The cookbook came out last year. Since then, I’ve got the traveling part mostly down. Two clear tubs full of pie equipment live in the trunk of my car, so wherever I am, Pie School goes too.
Traveling includes the art of keeping your shit together—by which I mean your belongings and your brain. There are losses to endure there, too. Somewhere along the way, the pink Pyrex pie plate my mother gave me when I first started to bake disappeared. If anyone out there has it, I’m offering a $50 reward, no questions asked. One year, when I was making pie backstage at the Sasquatch Music Festival, somebody real sneaky (and probably drunk) broke into my equipment, bypassed the rolling pins, and stole the super nice chef’s knife my ex had given me. My new partner is not-so-secretly glad to have the opportunity to buy me a new one.
Which brings me to another thing I learned from my kitchens: favorite cooking tools are extremely personal, and they can move with you. Not like tattoos. Like jewelry.
My “jewelry box” includes cast iron. Ten years ago I bought this pan as gift for myself at an antique store in downtown Vancouver, Washington, my hometown, which is the uncool city just north of barely bearably cool Portland, Oregon. This pan changed the way I cooked because it was my first piece of cooking equipment that deserved sentimentality. What I mean is, the best way to clean a cast iron pan is to cook in it again. It’s a tool whose quality increases with use. You can see our history together in the seasoning of the metal. It’s all over the pan.
My cast iron is too heavy to travel with, so it’s not vulnerable to loss or theft. Knock on wood.
This bit of ephemera will remain safely preserved too. It’s one of Sylvia Plath’s first poems, published in Ladies Home Journal in 1953, X-acto’d out and framed by yours truly, as you can see by the crooked frame. Plath published in literary magazines and women’s magazines. She valued both audiences. At the time, Ladies Home Journal shared her interest in cross-genre publication, and so in 1953, at the height of the cult of domesticity, poems by an American master co-exist with baby advice and Coffeematic ads.
It’s a reminder to me that art belongs in domestic spaces, and that domesticity can be serious material for art. Food is food, pie is pie, and the kitchen is the hottest room in the house, but they’re also vehicles for strong feelings and new ideas.
This is the line I walk as a poet and essayist who bakes pies and writes cookbooks and owns a Pie School. It might look like a double life. It doesn’t feel that way.
Hands are the best, most important tool in the kitchen, and the most mine. We didn’t use my hands for Pie School’s photos, probably because of that unfortunate tattoo you can see there on my wrist, but the model looks so much like me she fooled my mom. In the photos, she touches the dough exactly as I would. Which means, I like to think, that my pie dough instructions work.
The secret ingredient to pie isn’t an ingredient. It’s your hands. It’s how you touch the dough. That’s why we have the cliché of learning pie at Grandma’s side. We need to be there, watching someone make this food and practicing it ourselves to really understand how to do it well. As easy as this technique is to demonstrate, it resists being written down. I love that about pie. It’s a gesture. Literally. It reminds me of what cookbooks do when they’re done well: teach us what we didn’t or couldn’t learn from Grandma or Dad or friends or the food cultures we live in, and help us value the foodways we can’t afford to lose.
Kate Lebo is the author of two cookbooks, Pie School: Lessons in Fruit, Flour, and Butter (Sasquatch Books) and A Commonplace Book of Pie (Chin Music Press). Her essay about listening through hearing loss, “The Loudproof Room,” originally published in New England Review, is forthcoming from Best American Essays 2015. Other essays and poems have appeared in Best New Poets, Gastronomica, Willow Springs, AGNI, and Hobart. She lives in Spokane, Washington.