I’m sitting at my desk in my study with a cup of coffee, catching my breath for a moment while Dingo has his morning nap on his bed at my feet.
My new book, “Blue Plate Special,” an autobiographical account of my life in food, is, as of yesterday, finished, edited, copyedited, and off to production; I’m hard at work on a second nonfiction book, the co-written memoir of a brilliant, fantastic female chef; and my next novel is hovering in the wings, under contract and 15,000 words in, waiting for me to return to it.
Meanwhile, our entire kitchen and dining room have recently been gut-demolished down to the joists and beams and brick. I can hear the contractor’s guys banging away down there, taking down the old posts from the wall that separated the dining room from the kitchen. We’re planning to make it all one big room so we can talk to guests at the table in the dining room while we cook. We’re putting a gas insert into the small dining room fireplace; we’ve always wanted to be able to have a fireplace in the kitchen, but this is close enough.
We sold the old, clinical melamine cabinets, the cold-as-tombstones granite countertops, and less than stellar appliances on Craigslist; people came and carted them away and gave us money for them, which struck us as a great deal. In their place will be wood and copper and butcher block and tile. Brendan found a hardworking, straight-talking guy up in Poland Spring who takes barely-used appliances out of rich people’s summer houses when they trade up for new ones; he resells them on consignment out of his barn for a fraction of what they would cost new. Later on today, he’s delivering our new butter-yellow Viking stove with gas burners and electric oven, plus a Bosch dishwasher whose didactic beeping thing he’s dismantled for us, and he’s keeping his eye out for a stainless steel Viking fridge with a bottom freezer drawer.
We’ve both been working (which is to say, writing) ourselves into puddles of melted butter to be able to pay for all this. Brendan has even more projects afoot right now than I do; we’re both a little dazed and burned out, but we have no regrets, at least no big ones. Buying an old house is exciting but daunting and something of a lifetime commitment, although my mother has assured me that it won’t always feel quite so overwhelming.
When we first walked into this house in October of 2011, we were struck with starry-eyed wonderment at its beauty and elegance. It wasn’t for sale; the downstairs apartment was for rent, but Brendan, who had found the listing, insisted that we go and see it anyway, on a hunch. We’d already looked at twelve other houses in Portland, and none of them was quite right.
“We can’t afford this place,” I said sadly, dazzled by the original plasterwork, the white fireplace mantles with decorative carving, the tall, graceful staircase. “There’s no way they’d sell it to us even if we could.”
Thanks to Brendan’s persistence, it turned out that the owners did want to sell, after all, and their asking price happened to be exactly the outer limit of what we could afford. Reader, we bought it.
Our tall Italianate brick house survived the 1866 Great Fire in Portland; we’re not sure what year it was built, but this much we do know. It has changed hands many, many times. Prior owners include several old, established New England families. In the 1920s, it was owned by a woman named Jennie Stein. It was a boys’ school for a while and later a Goodwill House for adults with Down syndrome; at some point, a sprinkler system was installed and the downstairs bathroom was made wheelchair-accessible.
By the time we bought the house, its decor was a sad testament to bad 1990s taste. The instant we had the deed in hand, we ripped out the shiny cockroach-colored Brazilian cherry from the foyer, kitchen, and dining room, and the ugly stained tan wall-to-wall carpeting upstairs and on the staircase. Under about four more layers – of linoleum and tar, cheap birch tongue-and-groove, and plywood – was the original pine and hemlock subfloor, beautiful, strong planks we had sanded and polyurethaned.
We found an awesome contractor who built window seats and cupboards and bookshelves in the two rooms upstairs. We found a clawfoot tub in the basement; he installed it in our bedroom. He also took out the yuppie upstairs bathroom with its MRI-like shower and horrible blue tile floor and enormous fall-of-Rome sink and put in an old-fashioned bowl sink set into a maple counter, a tiled shower, and a pine and hemlock floor. And he painted over the terrible institutional cold sky blue on every wall in the house: forest green in the study; deep blue in the bedroom; warm gold in the parlors; and warm off-whites in the foyer and staircase and hall.
Somewhere along the way, many decades ago, the house was divided into two apartments. We live in the first floor and front half of the second floor and rent out the back half of the second floor and entire third floor to the most excellent tenants in the history of the universe, a young couple whose presence in the house, along with their young female mutt, Tug, Dingo’s pal, makes it feel warm and happy and alive. Often I hear faint laughter and music from their half of the house and Tug’s racing paws upstairs.
This house was designed in a long-ago era of sweetness and light. The ceilings are very high, even on the second floor; the light-filled double front parlors have floor-to-ceiling bay windows and little fireplaces with tiled hearths and beveled mirrors over the mantles. We’ve half-jokingly nicknamed the place the Yankee Palazzo, because we feel like New England dukes in here.
Maybe we’re superstitious, but the place feels animate and sentient to us. And it seems to us that the house is extremely happy with its makeover – despite all the dust and noise and upheaval, the air feels even sweeter and lighter in here than when we bought it.
Demolition Kitchen breakfast
The contents of our kitchen now sit in boxes on a moving blanket on the living room floor and are also piled on one of the couches and the table in the bay window. We have nothing to cook with but a toaster oven and an electric kettle. For a fridge, we’re using our unheated entryway, the tiny tiled space between the two front doors. We wash our cups and plates and silverware in the downstairs bathroom sink, which clogs easily.
Toast two pieces of Canyon Bakehouse multigrain gluten-free bread in the toaster oven. Slather crunchy peanut butter on one slice and drizzle honey over it. Slap the other piece on top. Eat on a paper plate to catch the melted honey.