My kitchen fireplace and me: A love-hate story


Sure, you think you want a fireplace in your kitchen. How homey and warm, how @#%$ when you bang your shin, again, because the monster doesn’t leave you enough room to turn around. (Zofia Smardz/The Washington Post)
March 13, 2012

I have a monster in my kitchen.

In my very small kitchen, this big, greedy monster crouches along the back wall, between the counters, gobbling up space, pawing at me when I pass it, tripping me up on my way from refrigerator to sink, gathering flotsam at its feet.

I try hard to ignore it, mostly. But there are plenty of times — I’ll be scrabbling for someplace to stuff the groceries, or wishing that I had more than a square foot of counter space to chop the veggies for dinner — when I turn to it, fuming.

“Okay,” I shout, smoke shooting out of my ears. “I’ve had it. You’re outta here!”

And it just stares coolly back at me. Because it knows. Sooner or later a guest will come over, and. . . .

“Oh, wow!” they’ll gasp, their eyes shooting sparks of envy. “You have a fireplace in the kitchen! That is just. So. Fabulous. You are so lucky!”

Aaargh.

I have to tell you, this really steams me. I mean, what do they see in this pile of bricks? What’s the big deal about a fireplace in the kitchen?

We have — count ’em — four other fireplaces in our Georgetown rowhouse. But nobody walks into my living room, even when we have a lovely fire crackling in the elegant hearth, and gets all hot and bothered at the sight.

Let them set one foot in the kitchen, though, and their passion for the behemoth — solid brick, five feet wide, 10 feet high, in a kitchen just 12 feet square; oh, think of the lost cabinet and counter space! — flares up instantaneously. The monster doesn’t even have to be lit. They just see it squatting there, and something gets their blood racing — some atavistic cave-dweller memory, or nostalgia for cooking over an open flame, or visions of hunkering, snowbound, before a warming fire. Heck if I know.

And when the thing is lit, forget it. You know how people congregate in the kitchen at parties? Well. For our office holiday get-together, my husband always starts the kitchen fire — after an endless struggle to get enough of a draft going so that the thing stops billowing smoke into every room, that is. (The chimney sweeps say the stack is too short. It’s a malformed monster, on top of everything.)

I would just leave it alone, even though nobody swoons over a blazing fire like I do. Well, maybe my husband, but he’s nearly Nixon-level loony on the subject. Even so, party day is one of only three days (besides Thanksgiving and Christmas) when we actually use the monster for what it’s meant for. Not just as a shelf for all those excess groceries that I can’t jam into the cabinets I don’t have because I have this space hog instead, lucky me.

Of course, we light the living room fire as well. And of course the living room is the site of our glorious 10-foot Christmas tree. The living room is spacious. It has plenty of seating. You’d think that everybody would crowd in there and bask in the holiday glow. But no. They’re all jammed into the minuscule kitchen, stacked like cordwood, roasting in front of that freakish fireplace.

It just burns me up.

Although, okay. I admit that once it gets going, it does provide a dazzlingly roaring blaze. And it makes the kitchen all toasty-cozy. And if you turn down the lights, it’s, well, sort of magical. . . .

And it reminds me, maybe I felt differently in the beginning. Maybe I vaguely remember a little hot flash of a thrill myself when I first spied the kitchen hearth during our house hunt. Maybe I thought, how charming and old-fashioned. Maybe, when my young nephew peered into the kitchen with its derelict appliances and pronounced it “beautiful,” I got that he meant the fireplace. Maybe I thought that we were meant for each other.

But that was before I had to live with it. Twenty long years. Put up with its temperamental ways. Get creative about storage. Prepare meals on a counter the size of a cutting board. Try to avoid banging my shins into the two-foot-high threshold that jutted into the room (taking up even more space!). After about five years, I finally persuaded my husband to tear off those extra bricks and lower the threshold (so that now I just stumble over it). In the 15 years since, I’ve been working on getting the rest of it out of my life.

I almost managed it. A couple of years ago, when we started planning a major kitchen renovation, I actually convinced my husband that we could tear out the fireplace. After all, it’s not even original to the house, like the other hearths. It was installed around the ’70s (no wonder it’s so ugly). He was grudging — Nixon, remember? — but even he was fed up with the insufficient cooking space. Yes!

I spread the news at the holiday party: Enjoy the fire, guys, it’s the last year. It was like igniting a conflagration. The fevered moans. The groans. The reproaches. No, no, no, they cried. One young woman declared herself “heartbroken” at the prospect of the fireplace going up in smoke. It was the first time she’d ever seen it.

Well, too bad, I thought, heartlessly.

But then the economy went sour. Money got tighter. And kitchen renovation, alas, moved to the back burner.

So here I am. Still living with the fireplace. Still stacking groceries on the threshold. Still banging my elbows into bricks when I toss a salad or slice the bread.

And still turning periodically to the monster, all hot under the collar, and vowing, “You’re going down one day, mister. Watch your bricks!”

And then a guest will come over. . . .

Smardzz is the interim editor of The Post’s Travel section.

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