The (Kitchen) Island of My Dreams

Sara Dickerman cooks compulsively in Seattle, WA. She is the author of Bon Appétit: The Food Lover’s Cleanse and Dried and True: The Magic of your Dehydrator in 80 Delicious Recipes and Inspiring Techniques, and she has contributed to Bon Appétit, Saveur, The New York Times, Food and Wine, Seattle Magazine, Sunset, and Slate, for which she won a James Beard Award. 

The centerpiece of my newly remodeled kitchen will be an island, ten feet wide and three feet deep, its top finished with suede-like soapstone. 

When people ask why I like to cook, I’ll often say something about the power a meal has to bond us. “At the table, we are knit together in shared sensory experience and in conversation.” I’ll say something about how good it is to cultivate real connection in this day and age when so much of our experience is mediated by screens. “Whether you’re eating take-out pizza or a blistering Thai curry, when you sit down with a group, you are committing an intrinsically optimistic and social act.” 

I believe all of these things I say. The cooking itself, though, is something different. 

For me, preparing a meal is isolating, even when I’m surrounded by people. After the Dickermans all return home from our busy days, I stand behind the counter while my husband checks his emails and my son and daughter play in the kitchen. I’m there, but I’m not there; I’m separated from everyone else by the island (the old, ugly one, the tiny one in our current temporary apartment, and, ultimately, the showstopper soapstone one). The kids beckon and I chop, the dog whines and I stir, Andrew squeezes past me to get some ice from the freezer and I bristle like a cat. This is my side of the island. Sometimes he’ll kiss me anyway, amused at my squirming as I try to keep trimming the green beans. 

Cooking gets cast as a maternal craft, but I rarely feel less nurturing than when I am making dinner. Instead, I dive deep into a little drama of my own creation: Have I pulled the cannellini beans off in time to keep them creamy and plump without falling apart into mush? Will I keep focused enough to roast the parsnips to a lovely acorn brown without carbonizing them? (Not always.) Will this combination of spices produce a curry that matches the one I tasted in my imagination earlier in the day? What about that one leftover sausage that’s sitting in the fridge? How will I work that in with everything else? In the end, what I put on the table is certainly something I hope brings us all closer, but sometimes I worry about how deep I can bury myself, mute, in the meal-building part. 

Growing up, debate between my older sister and my father—usually about AIDS policy or South African divestment—was a dinnertime sport. My brother was the jester; he would crack us all up with stories like that one about how he hijacked his school’s morning announcements broadcast and turned it into a not-entirely-sanctioned comedy routine. The artists and scientists who regularly gathered at our Sunday dinners had lived lives in far-off places such as Hungary, Holland, India and China. Everyone was more interesting than I was.

So I started cooking. With some handiwork, I could get the attention of my family without having to master the nuances of the McNeill-Lehrer news hour.  It started with cookies and cakes, made with I’m sure more maternal supervision than I remember, but by the time I was nine or ten, I took care of Sunday brunch myself. Pancakes earned me my first-ever compliment from my brother.  

With that, I organized my mother’s cookbook shelf and flagged the next recipes I wanted to tackle. It was the height of the eighties and I moved through the trendy foods of the day: tortellini pasta salad, chicken with raspberry vinegar sauce, and one particularly fetching mocha Bavarian, which is an airy molded mousse with piped whipped cream flowers on top. These were among the first projects that I felt like I could conceive of and see through to completion on my own. (My first job, perhaps not surprisingly, was with a caterer who served chilled raspberry soup and baked brie at all the local country clubs.)

To this day, when I don’t know where else to turn, I cook. When I’m less productive at the computer than I’d hoped, dinner is my out, my one opportunity to get something done right. That deadline might not have been hit, but the tacos are righteous.

Once I can use the new kitchen, I hope I can also be more inclusive. Maybe in the fresh space, at least periodically, I’ll loosen up and let the kids help me chop. 

I don’t know, though. That island is going to be so beautiful.