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How Cleaning The Kitchen Can Connect Us To Our Hearth

Blue-glass Ball jars lined up on a kitchen shelf. Credit: Deborah Madison

Blue-glass Ball jars lined up up a kitchen shelf. Credit: Deborah Madison

We don’t really celebrate the holidays, which means that on more than one occasion I’ve just left the country and enjoyed Christmas in Norway or Mexico or Rome.

But over the past few years, I’ve stayed home and shaped Christmas or New Year’s into an occasion for hosting a big, somewhat irreverent meal bringing together all those who don’t have another plan. It’s always the wackiest and most fun party, because we put together people we probably wouldn’t think to otherwise and it always works: Strangers become friends over the end — or beginning — of the year.

But what I anticipate with pleasure is my other, more personal holiday ritual that revolves around cleaning the kitchen thoroughly and getting it ready for another year of hard work. After all, I cook every day, and my kitchen takes a beating week after week, so I look forward to digging out the crumbs that have materialized in various cracks and crevices, washing the glass on my cupboard doors, tightening the knobs on the doors and bins, thoroughly washing all the parts of the refrigerator.

Cleaning the kitchen cleans the slate for the year ahead

Mind you, I do this other times of the year also, but I always make a special effort at the start of the year to do it all at once. After all, it feels good to start anything with a clean slate.

Beginning with the refrigerator, I’m always amazed that the same odd things appear year after year — the chile paste that long ago dried out from lack of use; a fairly new can of tomato paste already filmed with fluffy mold (It always happens, which is why a tube with a cap is a better choice); and, always, there’s a jar with just three olives bobbing up and down in brine. Fortunately I don’t amass many condiments — that would be a sure disaster area. As for capers, which I think you might consider a condiment, this year there were two jars, both opened and both fairly full; ditto with horseradish. How does this happen? It’s among the mysteries of life.

A few years ago we had a pestilence of moths — thousands of them — that had an ugly effect: I had to throw out bags of grains and flours with evidence of worms and refrigerate all those that didn’t. So now my refrigerator is super full — of grains, flours, dried fruits, nuts, oils and vegetables, not to forget wine and cheeses, those double jars of capers, milk for coffee and a bottle of some healthful concoction I once vowed to take.

While all this cleaning is ultimately satisfying, it’s also a sobering exercise, for it never fails to reveal evidence of neglect and lapsed intentions.

The freezer isn’t much better. It’s crammed with big, chunky cuts of grass-fed beef and lamb, more grains, a zillion ice packs that seem too valuable to throw out, dried persimmons and apples and, if I dig down further, packets of frozen tomato sauce and applesauce I need to make note of so they’re used up by the time fresh tomatoes and apples come around again. I try to organize the freezer, but it seems to resist order, as do many dark, out-of-sight places. This is also a good time to check dried herbs and spices in case the life has just gone out of them, in which case, out they go. A January order to Penzeys is not uncommon.

On my many trips to Decorah, Iowa, when I was on the board of the Seed Savers Exchange, I used to stop in little towns along the way in search of old blue-glass Ball jars. They’re tall, handsomely shaped and beautiful to look at, so in addition to my cupboard, refrigerator and freezer, there’s also a number of exposed shelves that hold these jars and their contents of dried beans, quinoa, black rice, red lentils and the like.

While wiping the shelves and the jars themselves clean of accumulated dust, it occurred to me that these jars have become a part of my indoor landscape, more specifically, my kitchen landscape, to the point where I don’t see them. They’ve gone from containing food to being a part of the visual background, like books on a shelf, or the trees in the yard, or the similarly attractive shelves of canned tomatoes and jars of jam.

Warm sponge in hand, I realized that at some point there must have come a moment when I ceased to see these jars and their contents, and that’s when I discovered some of these beans and grains had been dwelling there for quite some time. How long I’m not willing to admit, nor do I necessarily know. I suspect the Santa Maria beans are so old even a long stay in my pressure cooker might not be enough to soften them. And they aren’t the only ones.

I’ve noticed that I’m happiest in my kitchen when the cupboard’s shelves are nearly bare, and the refrigerator is practically empty. In short, when there’s not a lot to choose from come time to cook dinner. That’s often when creative juices start to flow, and it’s also when I really do look in the freezer and am happy to find that frozen soup to thaw. It’s also when those jars and their contents suddenly come into view and present themselves as food with appealing possibilities. What about that quinoa salad I haven’t made in years? Or my favorite red lentil soup? Or that unopened package of Rio Zape beans? Take away some of the competition, and suddenly there are myriad possibilities I’ve merely been overlooking.

It’s an argument for less being more, and for taking a break from shopping. Instead, I use what’s there. And it’s a great way to start a New Year — at any time of the year.

Main photo: Blue-glass Ball jars lined up on a kitchen shelf. Credit: Deborah Madison



Zester Daily contributor Deborah Madison is the author of many books on food and cooking, including "The Greens Cookbook" and "Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating From America's Farmers Markets." Her latest book, "Vegetable Literacy," is a 2014 James Beard Award winner.

2 COMMENTS
  • Amelia Saltsman 1·20·15

    I’m sighing with envy. It’s as though you snuck into MY pantry, fridge, and freezer and discovered MY fuzzy tomato paste, long-forgotten beans, and frozen mystery-ingredients! People talk about “shopping in their closet,” meaning rediscovering clothes they haven’t worn in a long time. Same is true for the pantry and cooking up what’s there before shopping for more. A righteous feeling. But first, you have to tidy the stuff so you can find it! And therein lies the rub.

  • Ann 1·20·15

    I’m with you Deborah. I get great satisfaction from sorting through, getting rid of old stuff and reorganizing. Just transformed my spice shelves. No more digging and hopefully no more duplicates. I like trying new things but hate to buy and only use once. Sorry to say, that’s too often the case for me. Mango powder, Vindaloo seasoning, tamarind concentrate, asefatida, black sesame, and others, all tossed. I wish there were sources for just a tablespoon or two to magically appear when you need it.

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