It began quietly enough. I could have sworn I heard muttering among the boxes I’d never unpacked — the ones in the house I’d fled to on the way to ending a marriage. The grown children let me know they no longer needed designated bedrooms or their old yearbooks. Then my BFF since college, who manages senior care in Florida and has therefore seen the future, told me right out loud: You need to move before you need to move.
Got it. That meant downsizing.
I belong to the boomer generation, the majority of whom are choosing to age in place in their original residences rather than moving into something smaller. The downsizing required for such a move means getting rid of decades’ worth of possessions. Trouble is, the older you get the less likely it is that you will deal with divesting yourself of all that stuff. In a study published in the Journal of Gerontology, after age 70, only about 30 percent of the survey sample had done anything to give away, discard or donate things they no longer used. I didn’t want to leave that job for others; see “grown children,” above.
As it turns out, parting with end tables was easy. Dismantling my kitchen existence sliced into my soul a little. It had spread beyond the confines of cupboards to a sideboard, a china cabinet, shelving in the basement and several of those judgy boxes.
Things were far short of a hoarding situation, to be clear. I preferred to view my stockpots, small appliances, canning jars and sets of dishes as the trappings of a cooking life well lived, with options for entertaining and occasional fruit dehydrating.
I feel truly at home in a kitchen, you see, no matter whom it belongs to and its dimensions be damned. So much can happen there. That partygoers in venues great and small always congregate in the room with the refrigerator never surprises me.
I have had the privilege of refurbishing and renovating and planning a few kitchens of my own. The process can be trying in a First World, tiny-violin kind of way. Your meal prep is limited, you rinse dishes in the bathroom sink. Before the paint has dried you will find something you should have done differently. But I never minded all that.
Before I could even think about tackling the 800-pound Larousse Gastronomique in the room, I sought guidance. My pal Cathy Barrow and her husband, Dennis, were living the downsizing dream. Starting with a much greater inventory than mine, she reduced the extent of her kitchen belongings quite methodically. By half. She and her contractor and Ikea managed to create a functional yet tidy footprint based solely on what had been kept.
Her previous kitchen was big and filled with light. A real beaut. But though Cathy had lovely things, did she really need them all? Family heirlooms eschewed by younger kin were sold. Gifted niceties such as ice buckets and cheese spreaders found new homes. On the other hand, her Le Creuset collection earned a display shelf in her new world order, constructed to fit just those pieces.
Organization is key, she said. In her new kitchen, a 20-foot-long bank of plain cabinet doors opens to reveal large pullout drawers that are each filled with a purpose: baking, preserving, silverware and so on.
Those finite storage spaces have not hampered her culinary efforts, as far as I can tell. Cathy recipe-tested her way through a cookbook in this downsized kitchen and, two years in, gives it a thumbs-up. Are acquisitions a thing of the past? When something is added, something else might have to go. “There is not a single thing I miss,” she says.
My new kitchen, in Northwest Washington, would not be custom-built; it is rental, measuring roughly nine feet from edge of front counter to back wall. The cabinets are Ikea laminate and modestly apportioned; apparently, Swedish cooks prefer narrow platters. Still, it was the first room I got settled. A couple of months in, I am happy in the kitchen again. Here’s how:
● I kept one set of wineglasses, a single all-purpose shape. Bacchus will forgive me.
● I thinned out the pots and pans according to the way I cook, with no duplicates in size.
● There are two corner cabinets with turntable shelves. One houses all related ingredients for baking, while the other is just the right size for various vinegars and oils. If I ever over-fill them, they won’t close properly.
● Spice storage proved to be more of a challenge, partly because of the lower cabinets’ inner configurations. I wanted to keep visual clutter to a minimum, so the usual wall racks for small bottles wouldn’t do. It took two trips to the Container Store to find compartmented trays that would suffice; they were in an office-supplies aisle. Two of them hold all the spices I reach for regularly, and they are alphabetized for easy searching.
● “Junk drawer” items have been sub-categorized and disbursed accordingly: What I use most is at hand, while lesser-used items wait in a pullout basket below.
● No single drawer in this kitchen is large enough to accommodate a full set of flatware, so two of them do the job, side by side.
● Canned and dry goods are stashed a few feet away, in the mesh drawers and open shelves built into a walk-in utility closet. The contents are organized by type and situated by how often they are deployed. The one or two platters I kept fit on those shelves, by the way. I got lucky. I’ve always liked a pantry.
About that huge culinary encyclopedia, the Larousse, and its mates: Downsizing my cookbooks was the hardest hurdle. When Cathy was planning her new digs, she made room elsewhere for her collection. I wanted to keep mine close to the action, so for now that means giving up the kitchen counter area where the stools would normally be tucked — another limited space.
Even so, hundreds and hundreds of titles had to go. I didn’t have the heart to count them all. They represented periods of my life, a self-taught cooking education, food luminaries I had spent time with, memories I wasn’t ready to dismiss.
I made myself a deal. Cookbooks I had cracked open in the past few years would come with me. I limited the number of random boxes I allowed myself to open. The first one was filled with Julia Child and early Nigella. How sad I would have been! I donated the rest of the cookbooks to places that will use them.
I can say, having now unpacked all the cartons I brought, I will miss my mother’s copies of “The Settlement Cookbook” and “Joy of Cooking,” because her DNA was in them. When I’m feeling blue about that, I will console myself with her rotary mouli grater, which just happens to make the best egg salad.
Hold on to the things you really love, Cathy said.
Bonnie S. Benwick is deputy editor and recipes editor of The Washington Post’s Food section. Researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this story.