x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Kitchen remodel makes me wonder about misplaced sentimentality

Not everything improves with age, and some things go rotten with it, such as memory and cucumbers.

'Old age is tough. Checkout should be 65, max," texted a bitter friend. Having celebrated her 70th with her in happier times, I know her view is temporarily eclipsed. She's suffered some hard knocks lately, but all things must pass. Our relationship is one of many things in my life that have grown richer with time, such as traditional balsamic vinegar or my beloved Santa Fe home, which turns 65 this year.

My house is just a small square thing the colour of dirt, ordinary to look at from the outside, although it can be difficult to see through the juniper coyote fencing, trumpet vines and mature poplars. Inside, it's warm and bright, as something the size of a jewel box should be. But I bought the house for the kitchen, which is the epicentre of activity, both positionally and magnetically.

I can find anything in that kitchen blindfolded. It takes me one hot second to slide an omelette on to a plate (right hand), turn off the burner (right hip), open the fridge (left foot), return the stick of butter to its rightful place (left hand), close the fridge door (left foot) and shovel in a bite. My kitchen is the only place in the world where I can multitask with maximum efficiency. It's a kitchen for a person who's taller and clumsier than average, and it's an extension of me.

A few days ago, in the middle of a starless Liwa night, I got a text. "Call me as soon as you get this. It's about your house." Twelve thousand kilometres away from Santa Fe, I made the call. My hot water supply line, installed incorrectly before I had bought the house, had burst, not due to the -15°C temperatures outside but because of a kink in the line itself. My insurance company was already on board but the corrosion and damage caused by the hot water was extensive. The kitchen would need to be demolished immediately, before I'd be able to get a flight back. Would I authorise that? Yes, of course. Do whatever needs to be done.

The situation with my house could have been a lot worse, I know. There was no tsunami, no hurricane; nobody got hurt or died. Still, I feel simultaneously lucky and stupid. It's hard not to dwell on the implications of coming "home" to a home that is uninhabitable for the foreseeable future and the realisation that my primary source of sanity is, well, off the menu. I don't think I know how to eat in Santa Fe unless I'm doing the cooking.

I read the fashion consultant Yasmin Sewell's advice on how to build a closet and found it similar to the guidelines I apply to pantries: quality over quantity; discard delusions about what items get the heaviest use; reserve 10 to 15 per cent of your space for special ingredients used rarely; and toss anything else you haven't touched in a year.

When I talk about food traditions, I try to be cautious about sentimentality because I think it needlessly warps perspective. Not everything improves with age, and some things go rotten with it, such as memory and cucumbers. I've never been one to hold on to something special, especially when it's edible, caving instead to the urge to tear things open, taste and share.

Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico