Rather than drone on about romantic menus or venues or listing a bunch of places you can go to buy chocolates for your sweetheart, this year for Valentine’s Day we asked a handful of Mainers to tell us about one item in their kitchen that they love. Several – me included – struggled to narrow it down, which I like to think proves there’s more than enough love to go around.
Should it be my KitchenAid? I was just 24 when I bought it, and it was, by far, the most expensive thing I’d ever purchased. It’s boring, old white; back then, this Cadillac of stand mixers didn’t come in snazzy Mint Julep, Lavender Cream or such. It’s got just a few speeds, and the same basic mechanical lever that adjusts them also turns it on and off. I love it for its durability, reliability and simplicity, compared to, say, my TV remote, which has 38 baffling buttons. I ask you! Also, the mixer has been a steadfast friend on many moves, finding spots on kitchen counters in more than 10 apartments in Vermont, New York City, Houston, Boston and Portland. Over the years and the miles, it’s produced thousands of cakes and cookies. That KitchenAid has dispensed a lot of calories and a lot of joy.
What about the German-made plates I use for breakfast and lunch? I love their solid feel in my hand, their groovy, late-1960s shape and their orange-red hue. I bought them on the streets of Philadelphia decades ago. My sister, Carolyn, and I had a tradition of wandering around our hometown the Friday after Thanksgiving. One such afternoon, we met a German woman sitting on the steps of a row house selling items in a box. She was moving in with her fiancé, she said, so culling her dishware. I snapped it up. My plates are an everyday reminder of some happy mashups – Thanksgivings past, the town where I grew up, my beloved sister. I hope the German woman and her fellow found lasting love.
Then there is the goofy bobblehead doll that stands on the windowsill above the kitchen sink, a gift from Southern Foodways Alliance. Even if the kitchen is a disaster, literally a hot mess, or I’ve burned the last piece of toast, its bouncing corncob-shaped head can make me smile.
It occurs to me that I could write an entire essay about objects of love in my own kitchen. I’ve barely scratched the surface. I bet you could the same. The Mainers I spoke with had no trouble looking around their kitchens and finding items – and meaning. They named objects of beauty, of nostalgia, of use and sometimes all three at once. One surprise was how often these objects had something to do with coffee or tea, though I suspect that was random chance. Unsurprisingly, since love and loss can go hand in hand, we heard about loss, too.
“I love this piece you are doing,” Portland resident Sarah Kelly Reid told me, “because kitchens are the heart of the home in so many ways. We all gather there. If there are family events or parties, everyone migrates to standing around the kitchen.”
These conversations have been edited for length and clarity.
CARRIE SCANGA, Portland; artist and Bowdoin professor of art
“On the back of my pantry door, I have hanging our calendar from Pickwick Independent Press, the community print shop. Different artist members of the print shop make the image and the design for each month. For 10 or 15 years now, we’ve been buying this calendar every year, and we don’t look ahead at it, so we don’t know what the artwork is going to be. But we know that when we turn the page at the beginning of the month, we are going to have a new piece of original artwork on our wall. That’s actually my favorite thing in the kitchen.
“I hoard them. I keep them on the top of the pantry shelf, all in the same spot. We are not a hoarding household. It’s just this pleasure, a true pleasure of the ephemeral. It’s kind of a throwaway. It’s not like an amazing artwork that has to be kept. You know what I mean? It’s not an elevated piece of high art. But it connects me to Portland and to artists, and it’s a treat, a monthly treat to unwrap.
“The kitchen is that ephemeral place. It’s a creative space, but things come and go. It’s a place of process, not product. Raw ingredients go in, people gather, food gets made, people eat, the kitchen gets cleaned up. And that’s how I think about the calendar. Our house is full of art, because we are artists. This calendar, the artwork is only supposed to last for a month. It is perfect for the kitchen. It’s by accident that it’s there – but not really. It’s perfectly fitting. It’s beautiful artwork handmade by someone in the community, but it’s not meant to last. It’s very similar in that way (to meals). It feels a little bit like time passing in a delightful way that feeds you.”
RON HARRITY, Portland; musician (in bands Anderson and #admin) and art director at Ethos Marketing, husband of Carrie Scanga
“This is something Carrie introduced me to. I believe it’s a Pennsylvania Dutch tool. I can’t remember where we got it. It’s essentially like a little spatula. It’s metal. It’s very simple. But when we met, Carrie had two of them and they were always dirty and always being used, so we ordered more. So actually, there are four favorite objects. It’s the thing that – for whatever reason – I use it almost every time I cook, which is hilarious. We have four but I feel like I could order more and still use them. I may have to email you the name of this thing. It has a very long name. It’s like the all-purpose something something something. I feel a little sentimental about it, because it’s part of (Carrie’s) Pennsylvania heritage, and that’s how I found out about it. It’s pretty unremarkable. If I showed it to somebody, they’d be like, yeah, it’s a spatula. But it’s a typical Amish style, sort of a sleeper hit.” (Harrity later emailed the name: All-in-one Kitchen Tool Spatula)
EMILY COOK, Augusta; director of communications at Maine Department of Secretary of State
“I have a set of teacups that were my mom’s parents. The bottom says they are ‘real English ironstone from Adams, which is a member of the Wedgewood Group.’ It looks like it was established in 1657 in England. I don’t know how old they are. I got a Nespresso several years ago, and now make one or two pretty much every day. I think it’s funny that these dainty little teacups get my very strong double espresso every morning, but they are the perfect size for it. I have all eight of the teacups and only seven saucers and a variety of other pieces from what once was a larger set. They can’t go in the microwave because they are too old for that. They are really cute, and I love that they are family stuff. I just sort of ended up with them. I think I just needed dishes the first time I was not living with my parents. My mom went to the basement and said, ‘Well, here are the family dishes. Now you have dishes.’ We are not big on throwing things away. I love that something that was probably intended for a much more elegant purpose turns out to be exactly the right size for something a little more strong. But also, it’s something that I literally use every day. I don’t love buying a ton of new stuff when you don’t have to, so something that is so old being so right for today’s world is great. They are not just sitting in some very cute teacup collection. They are still living their useful lives.”
DONNA WALTER, Cumberland; an avid home cook and canner, who began cooking and gardening organically in 1974
“I’ll preface it with saying, I don’t have any sentimental objects left from grandparents, or anything, because they were destroyed in the ’89 earthquake in California, including all my handmade pottery. So it was starting all over again. After that, I thought Tupperware was pretty cool because it survived. Anything that was breakable except for four dishes in the dishwasher was pretty much destroyed. So it’s tough to say favorite thing, because obviously things have changed over the years.
“If it’s in the morning, it’s definitely a Bialetti coffeemaker. It’s turned out to be a favorite ’cause it makes great coffee. Then there is the Cuisinart that my future mother-in-law and and my mother bought together back in 1974 before (my late husband and I) were married, and I still have the same Cuisinart. And the other thing in my kitchen area that brings me joy is a big, blue unplugged speaker where I can listen to music and dance around the kitchen while I’m cooking.”
REZA JALALI,Falmouth; writer, educator and former executive director of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center
“I have a long list, so my difficulty would be which one to talk about. In particular for a displaced person, such as myself, since I came to Maine as a refugee, such objects, even though insignificant at other times – I mean if I was not displaced and I was in my own home country, some of these items that I would mention would not have any importance to me. But living in exile, you try to create this life that is really kind of artificial, to surround yourself with things that remind you of home, the communities you left behind.
“So in that list, I would have a samovar, I don’t know if you’re familiar. Samovar is very popular to this day in making tea. Please remember I am from Iran, and Iran is a neighbor of Russia or was a neighbor of the former Soviet Union, but other than that, we’ve always had this historic not-so-good, not-so-bad relationship with the Russians going back to the 18th century, so no wonder you would find a samovar in every Iranian home – with the teapot on top of it.
“You boil the water in the samovar. You get your tea out. No tea bags here. We are talking about some serious teamaking process. You brew the tea by adding hot water to the loose tea, and placing the teapot on top of the samovar. The hissing sound of samovar has always been part of my childhood – always. The samovar is always on in an Iranian home.
“The last time I was in Istanbul, I bought this gorgeous antique samovar from an Armenian-owned store, and he gave me the whole story how the samovar came to the store. Now I don’t know if he took me for a fool as a tourist, but I love the story regardless. Maybe I paid $40 too much, but do you think I care? As a storyteller, I would have been happy to pay $400 just to get the story.
“Without getting into depth, Turkey was home to many, many Armenian families who have lived there for centuries. As Armenians were leaving Istanbul and Turkey for good (during the 1915 genocide), some by choice, some were forced to sell, and the first thing they would sell were all their household items. The gentleman who sold (the samovar) to me claimed, and I’ve no reason to disbelieve him, that it had belonged to such an Armenian family. As a displaced person myself, I love that story. How only this thing would remain from this community or family or neighborhood who have all vanished. That’s a universal story everywhere.”
Jillian Brazel, Portland; illustrator, marketing/communications director at Fork Food Lab
“I’m looking around in my kitchen right now. I have this little teapot. I picked it up from the Granite General Store in Round Pond when I lived in the Midcoast. It says, ‘Make today ridiculously amazing!’ with an exclamation point. It always cheers me up when I make some tea in it. I tend to use it when I’m feeling down. It’ll catch my eye – I have it out where I can see it – and I’ll be like, ‘You know what? I need to make tea. I need to make today amaaazing.’ I was Christmas shopping for other people, so I wasn’t even supposed to be buying myself anything at that moment. But it was just like, ‘I need to have this.’ It was a total impulse buy. It’s just so cute and so encouraging. And if the bar is too high, you can just cut it off — well, make today ridiculous then.”
Ainsley Wallace, West Falmouth; president and CEO of the University of Southern Maine Foundation, mom, amateur storyteller (Moth story slam winner)
“The thing I love in my kitchen is my cabinets, especially because I hated them at first. We had to move in the heat of the pandemic … from a little house in Portland we had loved and had made our own to an outdated ’90s colonial in the woods of West Falmouth. My dad had died of COVID, and three weeks later, my mom had had a stroke. We were moving to a place with an attached apartment, so my mom could recuperate, and though I knew it was the right thing to do, I was bummed, nowhere more than looking at the ’90s builder-grade kitchen with outdated oak cabinets and green laminate countertops. This house felt like it was at the top of our price range, and so putting more money into updates wasn’t in the cards (and at that time no one was available to do work anyhow!). I felt that the kitchen was the heart of the home, and the centerpiece of this house, and I decided to at least start to make that space feel less ugh and more us.
“Over the years, I’ve become a DIYer and developed my own eye for design. I turned to the internet for inspiration. I found a kitchen with these bold greyish sage cabinets, which I thought were so striking! I had never done anything like that, and I lacked confidence, so I consulted with someone who purports to be an interior design expert. She immediately warned me against the color. She told me that I’d regret not going with classic white. But I just couldn’t let the Pewter Sage cabinets go! So, defying her advice and trusting my gut, I ordered a professional-grade paint sprayer and made trips over to our new house late at night and early in the morning, following an online tutorial to prep and spray these cabinets and drawers. I ordered new hardware. And when I put them back up … they looked just as good as I had dreamt. To this day, I get so many compliments on the color and get asked who did our cabinets.
“So for me, these cabinets signify a lot of things: Trusting my instincts, turning lemons into lemonade, creativity, resilience, taking change one step at a time and my ability to transform a place into a home. Since that time, I’ve done a lot of kitchen updates – but nothing means as much to me as those cabinets.”
SARAH KELLY REID, Portland; co-founder of The Art of Self-Worth, which offers coaching, courses and retreats to help people be their authentic selves
“It’s between two things. I think I would grab my recipe book that’s handmade. My mom made it for me many years ago, with recipes from our family and friends. I think it was a birthday present. I use it all the time. And I love it. There’s even a recipe from my great-grandmother – Scottish mince and tatties. It has her handwriting on it. To see her handwriting in a recipe? It just feels so connected through the generations. I make it. All the time. And I know it by heart, but I still get out the recipe book every time I make it. And as much as I have wanted to write new recipes in (the cookbook). I often just print things out and shove them in. (The recipe book) is so beautiful, the pieces I keep up are a little chaotic. But that is life.
“The other thing is we have three sand dollars on a shelf in our kitchen that’s right above our sink. I found them the day that I thought I was pregnant with my daughter, before we knew for sure. And there are two big ones and a little one. I found them on Higgins Beach, which for Valentine’s Day … my husband and I, our very first walk was on Higgins Beach. We got engaged on Higgins Beach. And we got married on Higgins Beach. And then I found the sand dollars.”
SCOTS MINCE AND TATTIES RECIPE
The recipe comes from Mary Davidson Clark, who is Sarah Kelly Reid’s great-grandmother. According to Reid’s mother, Clark would serve the dish with “tatties” (boiled potatoes) and “neeps” (turnips). The neatly typed recipe was clearly clipped from somewhere, but the version below includes Clark’s additions, noted in her own hand, as well as some clarifying instructions from Reid’s mother. Later generations of the family have greased the pan with olive oil instead of suet.
Suet to grease pan (or olive oil)
1 medium onion
1 pound (2 cups) minced beef, firmly packed (ask the butcher to double-grind the meat)
1 tablespoon flour
Salt and pepper
1 ¼ cups beef stock (or water)
1 level tablespoon raw oatmeal or 1/2 cup breadcrumbs
2 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Chop the onion and sauté it in a frying pan in olive oil (or grease the pan with suet). Add the ground meat and brown, then stir in the flour. Season with salt and pepper. Drain, then return the mix to the pan and stir in the beef stock (or water) and oatmeal (or breadcrumbs). The stock should just cover the meat mixture. Add the bay leaves, nutmeg and sugar. Simmer on low, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, adding more beef stock as necessary to be sure the mix has some gravy.
Serve with potatoes and turnips. Reid said she always serves with peas instead of turnips. “As generations go on, changes are made. :),” she wrote in an email.