Updated: Jun 4, 2021
Five writers plumb the depths of their cupboards.
By Mary Elizabeth Dawson, Cy Gilman, Samantha Sacks, Sam Needleman, and Tarini Krishna
It would be easy for me to present myself as having a discerning palate: I don’t get my brie mixed up with my camembert, I know exactly which wine makes questionable sushi taste more expensive, and yes, I’ve been known to indulge in pâté. But like all the best gourmands, I get the greatest satisfaction from much simpler fare. Well, from one dish in particular: popcorn.
If you know any avid water drinkers, you’ve probably had more than one lively conversation brought to a screeching halt by unprompted musings on the nuances of Fiji versus tap, bottled versus boxed. Let’s just be honest: A $6 bottle of Acqua Panna doesn’t taste all that different from curbside puddles. And we’d all drink a jug of bodega wine product just as quickly as a bottle of Château Cheval Blanc, because, really, any undergrad who claims they can taste the difference between cheap and expensive wine is lying. But popcorn ... So many ways to experience such a delicacy. In this realm, form matters far less than method, and one method is clearly superior to the others.
Rather than throwing a bag into the microwave and blasting it to the brink of combustion, more often than not resulting in an acrid clump of char and a frantic trip to take the battery out of the smoke alarm, I prefer a more hands-on method. For perfect popcorn every time, I present the Wabash Valley Farms™ The Original Whirley Pop™ Stovetop Popcorn Popper.
There’s something about swaddling each individual kernel in a blanket of hot oil that makes the popcorn turn out just right. As I stand at the stove, diligently turning the ergonomic wooden crank until I’m rewarded with a symphony of pops, I like to consider my role in the lifespan of those popcorn kernels. (A note to the amateur: It’s best to wear long sleeves when preparing this treat, as the demanding recipe requires one to risk it all in the splash zone. Even as a seasoned pro, my arms and knuckles aren’t calloused enough to withstand this stovetop siege.)
My mom received our first Whirley Pop as a gift when I was much younger, and at such an impressionable age I had no choice but to become one of Pavlov’s dogs, triggered not by a bell but by the distinct noise of the crank and subsequent popping. No, literally, it made my mouth water. Some nights my mom would pull out the Whirley Pop to make herself a snack—undoubtedly, after she thought I was tucked into bed—and after peeking my head out into the hallway to face the waft of salty, savory goodness, I would creep stealthily downstairs, avoiding the creaky spots on our old floors I knew would betray me. Under the guise of getting a cup of water, I would appear suddenly in the kitchen, definitely looking completely innocent, to say, “Oh, did you make popcorn?” Graciously, and probably not fooled by my little performance, my mom would prepare a square of paper towel with a little handful of popcorn for me to enjoy before returning to bed.
As I grew up, stovetop popcorn became my ultimate comfort food. In high school, I would drive home on Fridays, make a bowl, and watch Heathers over and over again. That after-school Whirley Pop took all my academic stress away. When my parents went to a music festival and left me home alone to take care of our dogs, I stayed up till the wee hours eating popcorn and jumping at every little old-house creak. And, of course, the Whirley Pop was always a popular attraction at sleepovers. I was like that mom who wants every play date and slumber party and lunch to have a theme, but the theme was always just popcorn. And talking about how the Whirley Pop looked really “old-timey.” When I came to Barnard, I lost this seemingly small comfort that meant so much to me, and I waited for those breaks when I could come home, flop into bed, and text my mom “do u want popcorn.”
Last August, I moved into my first New York apartment—needless to say, without sufficient planning. I spent my two-week quarantine on an air mattress waiting for my roommate and trying not to use too much data on my phone before our wifi modem arrived. Then came the leak. I stumbled to the bathroom one morning to put my contacts in, emerging only to find several streams of water running directly from the apartment upstairs into ours. Days later, when I started to realize what a mediocre job I was doing at mitigating the damage to our floors, someone rang our unit. I dashed across the apartment to buzz them in—the plumber, I assumed. I was met not by a flannel-clad, wrench-carrying hero, but with a cardboard box. (At least, I thought, I could break down the box and use it to protect the floors.). I was delighted to find my very own Whirley Pop inside, accompanied by a little note from my mom.
—Mary Elizabeth Dawson
I didn’t have a kitchen this spring. We had access to the kitchen on our floor, so by extension, I did too, but I did not have a kitchen. This kitchen was shared by the members of Broadway 13—I don’t remember most of their names, either because I’ve already forgotten or because I never learned them in the first place. The kitchen was a blank space, the site of wordless confrontations between individual territorial claims and the pressures of an imaginary collective. Can I use the bottle of cooking oil sitting on its side in the cabinet? The detergent? How long is too long to keep dishes in the dishwasher? In the drying rack? How much cabinet space is too much to take up? The shelves always seemed half-empty, half-full with scattered dishes and culinary remnants—too sparse to feel truly populated, too busy for anyone to claim one for themselves.
While the kitchen reinforced pre-existing dynamics of alienation and anonymity, the spectre of community remained. Our common need for sustenance pulled us, reluctant, into the kitchen and out of our isolated units; we inhabited communal space and became visible, not only to fellow cuisiniers but to those in the floor lounge, those on their way to the restroom, those calling an elevator. Chance encounters required friendly nods and grunted hellos. Often, when I walked through the hallway, smells—simmering tomatoes and onions, sourdough, garam masala—indicated human presence. One floormate had a rolling wire rack on which to place cooking utensils: Every couple of days, we all faintly heard squeaky wheels and knew he was headed to the kitchen.
My kitchen continued to exist only as a set of fragments, leftovers from pre-Covid culinary life scattered around. Everything I deemed non-essential remained hidden in storage, temporarily useless and forgotten. Everything I kept lost all distinguishing features; their basic functions became their identities. My saucepan was merely a pot: a small-ish metal vesicle, deep enough to hold water. It could get hot and cook food. More precision than that was superfluous.
Even the collection of items that I deemed essential was too large to store in our floor-wide kitchen; my dorm room thus became kitchen, dining room, living room, and bedroom all in one. And there, too, the pieces were not concentrated into a single food-related space but embedded, hidden, interspersed in the fabric of my college life at large. Here I am at my desk: On a shelf upwards and to the right, separated by a metal divider from my coursebooks, is a half-finished bag of dry rice, cans of Trader Joe’s eggplant and stuffed grape leaves, empty bags of pistachios and almonds; immediately above me, tucked underneath my rosin, collapsed music stand, and tuner, is a round wooden box of Maldon salt flakes; to the left of my desk, in front of a stack of New Yorkers, is a small plastic blender, plugged into an outlet behind my laundry basket; to the right of my desk is a minifridge and an even mini-er freezer, usually containing only yogurt, orange juice, and frozen fruit; down and to my left, in my desk drawers, are plates, a bowl, and silverware, accompanied by spare pens, a calculator, and other scholarly miscellanies; my Instant Pot—still flecked with chili oil from the last time our suite used it for hot pot, a ceremony whose memory gives me pangs of nostalgia for an era more intimate and less hygienic—rests beside my bed.
Every time I used the kitchen, I had to transfer whatever equipment or food I might need. I usually took a few trips and moved everything back into place after I cooked and cleaned. That process was not so trivial as it might sound—my feasts were not so easily moveable. I locked myself out of my room amid this in-out-in-out at least once. Mild inconveniences turned into disincentives; determination to continue cooking turned into regret that I wasn’t. I started to make heavier use of the freezer, blender, deli, and dining hall, hoping not to run into any of our floor’s gourmands as I slinked sheepishly toward the microwave.
I kept but one piece of my culinary life in the kitchen. A reasonable collection of spices sits crowded in the corner of one cabinet: large plastic cartons of cumin seeds and turmeric, a small plastic cylinder of allspice, little glass receptacles of Chinese five-spice and nutmeg, packets of Filfel Chuma and Advieh, crumpled paper bags filled with paprika and Ancho chile, all assembled from an international grocery in Hell’s Kitchen, a West African market in Harlem, a grocery store in Washington Heights, H-Mart, Kalustyan’s. I have held onto the spices over various breaks by stuffing them into the gaps in my storage boxes. At the beginning of the semester, I attached a note written on masking tape to the cabinet door: “Spice cabinet / Please feel free to use / Cy :)” I had hoped that my floormates would take me up on the offer, and render my collection useful, even if I probably wouldn’t. To the best of my knowledge, no one did.
My mother instilled in me a deep, deep fear of radiation. As a kid, I was instructed to keep my phone out of my pocket and my laptop off my lap, to ask the TSA for pat-downs instead of walking through the body scanner, and to dart away from the microwave the second it’s turned on.
I would punch in my cook time in a runner’s lunge, then bolt to the other end of the kitchen, as though lighting a short-wicked firework. I’ve lost some of the dramatic flair, but to this day I do not face the microwave head-on while waiting for my food. As it reheats, I take one graceful slide sideways and salivate silently at a prudent distance. Sometimes I run a small errand—I pee, sort through the fridge, open mail. I don’t have a scientific source to defend my inherited skepticism about the appliance, nor have I ever searched for one. Somehow pressing my cheek against the acrylic enamel door as it softly buzzes and rapidly steams feels wrong. In a microwave, food gets hot too fast. It’s unnatural.
While I wish I could remain staunch in my stovetop loyalty, there are some things that simply must be microwaved. One is the heated eye mask I wear each morning and night. Since college began, I’ve been getting incessant styes—pea-sized growths on my upper eyelids that take months to disappear. I point it out to people right as we approach one another, always announcing its presence before someone can ask, “Is your eye okay?” Yes, it’s okay. Purely an aesthetic issue.
The mask came into my life my sophomore year. When I showed my bulgy lid to an optometrist back in Chicago, he told me my eyelid glands were simply prone to getting clogged with oil, no matter how sparingly I apply makeup or how thoroughly I wash my face. He proposed lancing the bulb. I rejected his proposal. He then prescribed to me a twice-a-day dose of microwave usage: The two pillowy pockets of beads he gave me can only be activated by the very radio waves I’ve so long resisted.
In my apartment near campus, the comically large microwave is the defining feature of our kitchen. The massive box hangs alongside our cabinetry, equal in width to the refrigerator. The small monitor at the center of the keypad displays a time one minute later than the stove beneath it. It’s the size of a carry-on suitcase, large enough to fit two bike helmets, a full pizza, or a small dog if you’re willing to push. When you open up the two-foot door, ducking below it as it swings, you find an interior that resembles an open-layout warehouse, with convex silver lunch trays forming three walls around a frosted glass plate in the center.
Around two months into our lease, the microwave started to malfunction. It’s tricked itself into thinking its door is open when it’s really closed, and closed when it’s really open, and therefore will not undergo its heated humming cycle. When you press “quick start,” the monitor flashes “door open” and delivers an insufferable tri-tone ding to announce its failure. This ding is always followed by a human grunt, produced by the microwave’s operator, who must retreat with their cold coffee to the nearby Ikea chair.
When it acts up, we problem-solve. We press each button, open and slam the weighty door, stimulate the damn thing in every possible way. This is our morning symphony, composed collectively: dings and slams and grunts that can be heard from any room in the apartment. On a rare good day, the performance crescendos with little yelps of joy from roommates in the other bedroom, sharing in relief that the appliance, for once, delivered.
I carried my Dutch oven home from the hospital on the crosstown bus. I heaved it across Columbus and 66th, lifted it like Simba over the subway turnstile, and relieved the downward strain it inflicted on my neck by craning to spot the train. On my lap on the uptown 1, its half century’s worth of scratches and dents seemed to dissolve into its mustard-yellow iron. I was proud—if I hadn’t birthed it, I was at least resuscitating it, giving it a whole new life on the West Side.
Really, I was just a party to its midlife crisis. That morning, I’d shown up to my grandma’s apartment with the goods she had requested by email: an iPad charger and raisin bread. As always, she insisted on a disproportionate expression of gratitude, pointing this time to a large pot sitting nobly, if a bit forlornly, on a stack of old newspapers in the hallway. “It’s yours,” she said. “It will be perfect in your new apartment.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
I know this pot well, having lifted it for years. My grandma could only use it when “someone big and strong” was around, and what better muscleman for the job than her 135-pound grandson? I know its circular ridges, its handleless lid, its serif protrusions—MADE IN BELGIUM. I know exactly how much water it can hold before the crossing from sink to stove becomes dangerous, the floor primed for a tap-water torrent. I even vaguely know its provenance: what my grandma calls “the 70s,” which either means one of her beloved New York decades, or one of her beloved New York neighborhoods, or maybe both.
The pot knows me back. It knows the grooves of my palms, it knows that I sneak cumin into everything, and it knows that shallots don’t have to fry for very long before I burst into tears. Most importantly, it knows that it is, without question, the most beautiful thing I have ever owned, and it knows that I know that, too. I knew it when I picked it up from the hallway floor, and I’ve repeated it to myself countless times since. When I do, my declaration doesn’t feel laudatory, just objective and inescapable, even ontological, as if imbued with philosophical gravity: The most beautiful thing I own is my Dutch oven; my Dutch oven is the most beautiful thing I own.
Of the three things my Dutch oven has regularly brought me since our unification, only Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce and unadulterated joy were predictable. What I didn’t expect was the feeling of profound unworthiness that comes in a wave as salty as pasta water every time I use it. These three fruits of ownership form an unbreachable narrative arc: I crave the sauce; I remember that I have a perfect way to make it; and then, somewhere between questioning Hazan’s excessive butter edict and discarding the halved onion, I plummet into inadequacy. I suddenly feel that I’m not meant to be all the things the pot needs me to be: a good cook, a good cleaner, a good keeper, a good father. The warts that protrude where the lid’s handle was once affixed stare up at me, mocking the dishrag-meets-enamel fracas that’s always threatening to ensue when I’m the one skimming the fat.
The pot fit better in my grandma’s green kitchen. How could it not? She has an applesauce maker and cylindrical Fiorucci tins and a wall covered in hanging copper pans. In the cupboard, she keeps a Mason jar full of those old metal admissions buttons from the Met. The pot used to sit for days atop her ancient gas range, residue from a recent stew mingling with its forebears to form a new layer of the interior varnish, which should be a Farrow & Ball color called Golden-brown Schmutz. Each night before dinner, when she’d place her soup bowls in the dormant oven to warm, she’d glance at the pot and assure herself that she’d wash it tomorrow. It didn’t mind one bit.
In my care, it’s no less loved, but its digs are less becoming. It now lives in what I call “the good cabinet”—the one that’s a little bit deeper than the others, whose plywood shelves are a little less likely to bend under the weight of a single shot glass. Its roommates are two Amazon frying pans that shed rubber flakes and oil droplets secreted by late-night gyoza—the equivalent, in kitchenware world, of leaving hair in the shower drain. And when I lift it, I deliver it not to its familiar throne, but to a freestanding contraption that sputters like Edgar’s motorcycle in The Aristocats.
I don’t know how to care for something I love so much. (I can hear it now from the other room—sick of my hyperboles, it’s crying out for its old life back.) I wish I could lean back on generational credentials: My grandma gave you a good life, and I will, too. But at the end of the day—which is to say, dinnertime—it’s about the Dutch oven and me. My Wayfair desk and street couch are passing fancies, but the pot is here to stay, and it’s going to be a while before my grandkid gets to take it for a spin. So when I look down and see that the sauce is ready to taste, I straighten my shoulders. A person can’t care for a pot until they’re really a person, but no one said the pot can’t help them get there.
My mother’s kitchen has three spice cabinets. The first two are lined with two to three rows of glass bottles filled with whole sticks of cinnamon, saffron, bay leaves, and elaichi. Packets of Shan masala and a plastic container with the remnants of my father’s lamentably lost garam masala recipe decorate the bottom shelf. Across from the cabinets is the stove, and underneath it is the spice drawer that holds the stainless steel masala dabba, which has seven katories filled with the spices for our everyday Indian cooking: turmeric, cumin, jeera powder, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, fennel, Kashmiri mirch powder, salt.
Kashmiri mirch is a chili with a deep vermillion tinge that’s deceptive, given its mildness. My Nani usually adds ¼ teaspoon of it to her tadka, which she drizzles into dal. According to her, the hot ghee with roasted cumin and chili enhances the flavor. Like paprika, Kashmiri mirch is often used for flavoring and color, rather than heat. The Indian food I’ve been eating since I developed the motor skills to steal it off my mother’s plate has never been spicy because among the hundreds of bottles of spices in my household, red mirchi—the red chili used to add heat—is nowhere to be found.
But in my apartment near campus, it’s another story. In February, my kitchen was overrun with bird’s eye chili along with the arrival of my roommate, Sana, from Singapore. Unlike mine, Sana’s parents had been putting chili powder in her food since she was barely a year old. It’s not an uncommon practice in South Asian culture; I once witnessed my parents’ friend put dashes of Tabasco in her toddler’s corn flakes to acclimate her to the heat. Red mirchi doesn’t taste spicy to Sana. She dips her French fries into chili padi the way Americans dip them in ketchup. At home, her family keeps a bowl of red chilis on the dining table.
Within three hours of her arrival at the apartment, Sana rearranged our entire fridge to accommodate the bird's eye chili she had personally imported. These fire-hydrant-red chilis are hardly longer than my pinky, but they contain an explosive amount of capsaicin, the chemical that elicits a blistering reaction. Sana placed them on the middle shelf of our fridge, alongside the bok choy and black fungus mushrooms. Another batch of even hotter green chilis went in the vegetable drawer.
The next morning, Sana woke me up early to make avocado toast. As I groggily made my way to the bathroom to brush my teeth, I neglected to tell her to turn on the stovetop’s exhaust while cooking. It’s frequently set off by water boiling or aloo-jeera frying in olive oil. But I was too late: The shriek woke our slumbering roommates as Sana roasted red chilis with garlic and cherry tomatoes to ornament the toast. When red chili is cooked at a high temperature, it smokes, chars, then sets off the fire alarm—in that order, every time.
That evening, to make up for the incident, Sana generously offered to cook everyone dinner. She soaked rice noodles in our huge pasta pot and began to chop garlic, onions, bell peppers, carrots, and her bird’s eye chili to make chili padi (in Singapore, it refers to sliced chili immersed in soy sauce) to add to the vegetable stir fry.
When Sana was finished cooking, she called us out of our rooms that she had banished us to so that we wouldn’t distract her. I opened my door, and my eyes watered instantly. I thought my contacts had dried out, but then my other roommate, Lily, entered and started coughing, too. None of us were accustomed to the suffocating fumes from the red chilis caramelizing in the pan, so we pushed our living room windows wide open and welcomed the brutal February cold.
We sat down, and I ate the noodles cautiously, trying to avoid the thin red circles of chili that looked like mini elastic hair bands. Although I could feel the chili’s gentle nip at my taste buds, I surprised myself with my compliments to the chef: “It’s not too spicy!” Sana raised her eyebrows as I then insisted that my sniffles were due to the open window.
Then, on a late Saturday night, Sana gloriously exposed my charade. Around midnight, she decided to satiate our snacking with a fresh plate of spaghetti aglio e olio, featuring no less than an entire red chili. Of course, my serving contained the brunt of the mirchi.
My lips stung with each bite of pasta, the chili oil cruelly nestling itself into every chapped part of my lips. I craved the respite of a bowl of dahi. Sana tried to hide a coy smile while apologizing for adding a little too much chili to the pasta. Yet, she and my friends couldn’t help but laugh at my pain as tears fell down my cheeks. Sweat droplets shined on the bridge of my nose and upper lip, but still, I continued to eat.
My friends must have thought I was some sort of masochist. I desperately wanted to finish my plate of spaghetti and prove to myself that I could tolerate the mirchi, but I could only manage to eat one singular strand at a time. The 32-ounce bottle of water I chugged after I gave up and the layers of Aquaphor I rubbed into my lips somewhat alleviated the incessant stinging. I viciously scrubbed my hands with soap before removing my contacts, fearing if there was any remnant of chili oil I’d go blind.
A week after Sana left, I checked the fridge to see what ingredients I had to make her wonton soup that I’d been craving. The shelf was empty. All the red chilis she had brought had been consumed by the time she left. But when I opened the vegetable drawer, I spotted one abandoned green chili. This particular chili was too dry to salvage, but since one of my roommates was stopping at H-Mart on her way home, I told her to pick up some more for the soup. It wouldn’t taste right without it.