grand central
March 24, 2006

Some kitchens are built like train stations: all ceiling and central space, long crosses from the sink to the trash can to the pantry, but too few places to sit or work. They are waiting spaces, places where people come crashing together at the day's rush hours. You unwind in them, or rev up, let your focus blur and your mind wander to the mass of people. Even if the crowd is just three roommates or the usual group, the people watching is good.

This is how it is in Poppy's kitchen before dinner. We're preparing a sort of Mediterranean hodgepodge (we have to compromise when we cook together; Poppy wants to throw vegetables on a tray and roast them; I want to toast almonds, roast garlic, mash potatoes and make Skordalia). Lucy is there, eating her quick dinner and reading to us a checklist of symptoms from her psychology textbook. Poppy's laptop is on the table and we're analyzing a week's worth of emails. Molly blows through, on her cell phone and off. Amy arrives early with her own collection of anecdotes.

I've said before that cooking in a family kitchen distorts one's measuring skills. Here, it's more like measuring isn't part of the social order. The space is so communal that the importance of proportion drops away: It's too personal a concern, one that can't be shared with the group. I feel as if I'm breaking the code every time I stop talking or listening to read the next paragraph of my recipe. Better just to measure parsley by how much I can chop while telling a story, letting that rhythm dictate my timing—even if it means microwaving the garlic instead of oven-roasting it.

It's a good lesson for me: that concentration, vigilance and personal pride aren't necessarily the highest order. (As if to prove this point, Poppy nonchalantly reports, as I'm hefting a double batch of inexactly measured Mom's Tabbouleh into the fridge, that she doesn't really like Tabbouleh—but she's let me make it because her friends do.)

Even so, I can't help making my mental checklist of things to adjust next time: The Skordalia needs thinning—the taste is right, but the consistency is more gluelike than I'd prefer. Another recipe suggests making it with yogurt; I think this would give you a different dish, but maybe some proportion of yogurt to potato, or simply less potato. Despite Poppy's reticence for too much preparation or fuss, I'd like to try crisping eggplant instead of merely roasting it. And the Alice White Lexia is far too sweet for my taste.

But on the other hand: Poppy prefers sweet wines.