The Genteel Vagabond


Illustration: Tram Nguyen


The first time Lucy saw my kitchen, always looking on the bright side, she cooed, “It’s so cute and retro!” And while I appreciate her positive spin, “cute” was not the word for it. The “retro” part might be appropriate, as the kitchen had long been overdue for a remodel, since its last update seemed to have been during the Reagan administration. And even then, the homeowners only chose the crème de la crème of what the industry euphemistically calls “builder’s grade” cabinets in this great sickly beige color, and fake wood laminate countertops. Over the years, I painted the walls, hoping that the canary yellow, pale gray, soft black, and then finally what I’d optimistically dubbed “Le Corbusier green” would somehow counteract all that beige laminate and fake wood. It didn’t. It was like putting lipstick on a pig. We did switch out the appliances eight years ago, because they had stopped working. So there’s that. But since then, the kitchen remodel was put on the back of our priority list, usurped by things like fancy Italian cheese graters and mortgage payments and dental work.

I had resigned myself to poorly designed cabinets that were falling apart, didn’t hold much, and never opened properly; they were functional enough, and I could deal with them. I filed away a pretty new kitchen with other things that I would never possess, like a sassy little mini horse named Oatmeal and the ability to dunk basketballs. Until one day, my prayers were answered in the form of a leaking pipe in the kitchen of the unit above us. Literally, a sign from above! With water damage on our floor and cabinets, and the potential for deadly mold lurking in the forefront of our minds, now was as good a time as ever.

I was looking forward to what seemed like infinite storage options (42” cabinets-what what?!), and for the first time in my adult life, a dishwasher! I think I probably spent what felt like a third of my day washing dishes. This new appliance would be life changing, I was sure. I’d have so much time, get so much done. Instead of just buying stretchy pants from Target, I would put them to good use at the hypothetical gym I’d join! I would finally finish Middlemarch! Maybe I’d pick up Esperanto! Who even knew?

Just before the remodel, I spent a few days in D.C. hanging out with my 11month and 4-year-old nieces. (Some things that I have learned: Babies are filthy little angels that will put anything in their mouth, and Play-doh videos are huge among the pre-school set. Oh you don’t know what a Play-doh video is? You must be old like me. Try googling “Play Doh Sparkle Princess Ariel Elsa Anna Rapunzel Disney Frozen Glitter Glider Magic Clip Dolls”. That one has 135,000,000 views. No, that was not a typo. 135 million.) The D.C. metropolitan area is, in my opinion, severely underrated as a food destination. The city itself is home to a lot of boring steakhouses and other aggressively mediocre places old, white, politicians like to frequent. But locals know that the good stuff is in the suburbs of Maryland and Northern Virginia, home to an incredibly diverse immigrant community, and where you can find delicious, authentic food from every ethnic minority imaginable.

My brother is the kind of food obsessive who owns and regularly uses a blow torch in his cooking. For breakfast every morning, he made me perfect, custardy soft-boiled eggs in his sous-vide machine, “the only way to cook eggs,” he claims. In between Play-doh videos and Chuck E. Cheese, we spent a lot of time eating really well, and often: from bowls of hot, decadent Kim Chee Jigae cooked by my niece’s grandfather, made with the spiciest, funkiest homemade kimchee; to roast pig belly at a family reunion, the fat rendered so expertly, the skin crisp and airy, with the most satisfying crunch; to sticky rice puddings drowning in sweetened coconut milk.

On my last day, Romeo was preparing our place for the construction crew to come in and do the demo on the following Monday. He texted me: “Just made a week’s worth of beans and pasta. Welcome to army week.”

I was game. I would be getting a new kitchen out of this, I could deal with a little discomfort. At first it was not so bad. I set up a little fruit bowl still life on our dresser, a few bottles of wine and glasses. It was like staying in a hotel! When I told Lucy about my little arrangement, she laughed and like a smart person asked, “Why don’t you just get takeout you big dumdum?” Well, duh, that would be the obvious solution. But I felt like I needed a break from eating out, after the previous weekend’s feasts. I demolished Romeo’s beans and pasta in about two days. Meanwhile, our entire apartment was covered in a fine layer of drywall dust and reeked of chemical fumes, and we were pretty much confined to our bedroom, with no working stove for the foreseeable future. I demanded that Romeo put down the can of beans. We were living like those asshole bohemian squatters from the musical Rent, but there was no reason why we should eat like them, and I had two heating implements at my disposal: an espresso machine and a toaster.

With the little wand for steaming milk and some pantry staples, I improvised a pretty respectable miso soup. We ate a lot of salads, and even more beans (this simple chickpea recipe from Molly Wizenberg is a staple at our house), but my favorite thing that I ate that week is this jazzed up avocado toast. It’s ridiculously easy, delicious, and requires that you use only one plate, which is a definite selling point when you are washing your dishes in the bathtub. Also, it is rich with healthy fats; convenient if you do the self-flagellating New Year diet thing. I ate this for many days in a row, and at the end of it…I just wanted a hot meal. I made a resolution that I would never eat an avocado ever again. Or beans, for that matter. But a few weeks later, after the dust has cleared, the construction workers have left, and the old laminate has been dumped in Lake Michigan, I sit in my shiny new kitchen, gazing lovingly at my miraculous dishwashing machine, and reach for that avocado. 


Makes 1 Serving

2 thick slices of good, crusty, Italian bread
1 garlic clove
1 4.25 oz. can of smoked sardines* (optional)
1 small ripe avocado, sliced
Pickled ginger
Soy sauce
A few sprigs of cilantro, chopped
Lime wedges
Fresh cracked black pepper

Toast or grill the bread until it is golden, and rub a cut garlic clove on the pieces. On each slice, place few sardines and half of the avocado, mashing lightly. Then layer a few slivers of pickled ginger on top. Season with a few shots of soy sauce and sriracha to taste. Garnish with cilantro, lime juice, and fresh cracked black pepper.

*Pro tip: You might want to avoid contact with other people for a while on account of the cat-breath, an unfortunate side affect of consuming tinned fish. If you are not a fan of sardines, feel free to omit them.

3 Comments Write a comment

  1. Everything you had at your brother’s house sounds delicious and so does that avocado toast. I might have to put on four coats and go to the store. As for the Play-doh videos, I guess I’m too old (which makes sense), and I hate to be all Anna Wintour, but some of the styles were very redundant. Enjoy your new kitchen!

  2. Elle, The Play-doh videos really make me question my career choices. Why bother cobbling together all these freelance gigs to pay the rent, when I could just make haul videos for three year olds?

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