When I was a teenager I went with my mother to a thrift store to buy a housewarming gift for the daughter of a friend. The young woman had married a doctor, my mother explained, and had a house full of brand new furniture and accessories. “Promise me you will never do that,” she insisted, “regardless of your financial means. A house furnished and stocked with everything new will never feel like a home.”
My mother’s kitchen was evidence of her philosophy. She had a ratty-looking assortment of instruments that she wielded like Pierre Franey. She had a worn cast iron skillet that had passed through generations, seasoned to perfection. Her other skillet, the one she used to make crepes and pork chops a l’orange and salmon cakes, was a battered piece of RevereWare that was so well-used it had lost its black plastic handle along the way. She could easily have replaced it, but she resolutely refused. When I was in my 20s, stocking my own kitchen for my catering business, I bought her a new set. The set was in her pantry, with the tags still on them, years later when she died. Her tools were her tools, and did she ever use them well.
I’m no cooking expert, but the training I received from the anti-Martha Stewart (my mother) has provided many years of enjoyable cooking, eating and entertaining. In the Betty Larkey school of cooking a solid frying pan, a 3 quart saucepan, a couple of sharp knives, a baking sheet, a Pyrex (or ceramic) baking dish, a wire whisk, some wooden spoons, mixing bowls, measuring cups, measuring spoons, and a cutting board allow you to prepare just about any meal. Add a souffle dish, a pizza stone, a 10 quart stock pot, muffin tins and a couple of cake pans and you’re covered for both the essentials and a few fancier items.
Everything beyond those basics, every little item you collect and put to your individual use, serves only to distinguish your kitchen from a kitchen, and it takes some time to know exactly what tools will serve your particular cooking style. You can buy a full set of stainless pots and pans, and that matching set will look handsome hanging on your walls. Been there, done that, and my mother was still alive then to roll her eyes at me. But your kitchen won’t be fully your own until your collection, like mine, grows to include the tools that make cooking your own pride and joy.
For me those tools include a cast iron corn stick pan, Silpat mats, springform pans, 2 Dutch ovens and a clay pot cooker, plus a few treasures: a walnut chopping bowl that my mother brought back from France, a well-seasoned cast iron skillet from my cousin (who is a marvelous cook) and the Cuisinart electric beaters from a friend – an appliance I would never have spent the money to acquire, but which is so very much better than the Sunbeam set I bought at Target 25 years ago that I was too cheap to part with.
The icing on the cake, at our house, is the set of gelatin molds, also a hand-me-down from my mother. I doubt I will ever use them to make gelatins, but they are frequently put to use as molds for rice or couscous, elevating weeknight dinner to special occasion status. Because pretty things make life more enjoyable, each and every day.