In Defense of Imperfect Kitchens

I’ll always feel guilty for selling my grandmother’s dutch oven at a yard sale.

Before any sentimentalists start judging, please understand that it was during a time when I was moving halfway across the country. Any nonessentials in my life were getting purged out of, well, necessity. I was also in my mid-20’s, which in this era of delayed domesticity meant that I was a full half decade away from residing in a semi-functional kitchen. At that point, bringing a dutch oven to a city where kitchenettes and takeout were almost the norm (NYC, where else?) seemed absurd.

Also, as my reasoning went at the time, I could let go of the dutch oven because it had a chip on one edge. The traditional fire orange glaze had been marred at some point, leaving a small hint of cast iron at a corner. To an optimist this gave the dish character and strength. To a semi-pessimist it demonstrated a need to be gently placed in the giveaway pile. Rest assured, it found a new home very quickly.

If circumstances were different- if I hadn’t moved my belongings in a minivan, if I had figured out how to rent a place with a functional kitchen earlier in my adulthood- I would like to have that dutch oven in my current kitchen. It would serve as a memento of another time in my life; the small chip a reminder of the passage of time and the people I loved who have been gone for quite some time now. Plus it can be nice to honor the imperfections that live amongst us.

In the era of Instagram, I find myself ogling too many pristine kitchen photos. Photos of impossibly perfect locations where the design is award-winning and the food is local, fresh, and picked straight from central casting. If there is a sign of anything being out of place, it’s out of place in an elegant, barely accidental aesthetic. The one strategically placed crumb, for example, or a linen napkin faux-carelessly tossed in the corner of the frame.

After years of living in small, NYC rental kitchens lacking details like prep space, storage, and full-sized sinks (including one without an oven), my current kitchen is, luckily, finally functional. Unfortunately it is also very used, outdated, and unphotogenic. The objects housed there are mostly in the same condition. My cutting boards aren’t glowing with a healthy wooden sheen, my plates were not lovingly picked out from an upstate NY antique shop, my serving dishes are never ever ready for photo shoots. Still I want to keep my unique, possibly homely, overused but functional kitchen items around. Why? Because they have served a purpose and continue to serve a purpose, an important one, which is to make meals for me and my family.

One not-beautiful part of the kitchen is our rice cooker, which is almost 5 decades old. My father in law brought it with him as he traveled to make a new life in the US as a college student. My husband refuses to get rid of it, mainly because he swears it does a better job than any of the newfangled, computerized, self-timed versions out there. It has the worn-out but still-usable look of an old classic novel that was your grandfather’s in middle school. The cord is most definitely a fire hazard, which is why I stay in the kitchen while it’s on.


Another uninspiring kitchen object is the mixer. It’s not what you would automatically picture in a Kitchen Aid- this one isn’t bathed in a bright color such as royal blue or cheery yellow, only a stainless steel exterior. It is strictly utilitarian in it’s purpose. It has a dubious past – the mixer’s origins are from an ex-boyfriend from an ill-fated period. At the time I broke it off unceremoniously, he was furious- with good reason, I’ll admit – but for some reason he wouldn’t take the mixer when he left. “It was a gift, you keep it,” was his response. I wanted him to take it, to have a reason to remove it from my house, but I also saw no purpose in removing it myself. It had a purpose. Instead I tried to remove the history of the object while keeping it in my possession. It has no history, I would tell myself. Any signs of a story was removed with a (fictional) removal of the (never-present) color shellac coating. In the end it turns out erasing the past is easier said than done.

I still feel like my my grandmother’s dutch oven would fit in perfectly with the other quirky kitchen objects in my possession. Luckily I have other ways of holding on to her memory. In the meantime I’ll continue to find a way to appreciate the worn-out, lived-in items in my present-day kitchen. A place where small enamel chips are a badge of pride, and imperfections are a part of a our own history and humanity.