Friday, January 28, 2011

When Home is the Kitchen... an Interview with Food Writer Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan

Six-and-a-half years ago, Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan’s husband Maxwell started a blog called Apartment Therapy. His mission is ‘helping people make their homes more beautiful, organised and healthy by connecting them to a wealth of resources, ideas and community online’.

When the blog began, Sara Kate was a food writer. She says, ‘We both believe that if you talk about the health and vitality and style of the home, you cannot ignore the kitchen and the cooking that goes on there.’

She began writing a weekly food column for Apartment Therapy. ‘When I had time, I wrote more. I was also doing freelance print writing. At a certain point we held our breath and took the leap for a dedicated cooking site. That was five years ago. We haven't looked back.’

And so began The Kitchn, an inspiring blog filled with food information, recipes and kitchen tours. With more than one million readers, it is obvious that many of us believe that a kitchen is central to our feelings about home.

For Sara Kate, her favourite kitchen is the one she cooks in now; ‘It's where I feed my family every day. It's not fancy. I have a pretty crappy 24" stove and a small refrigerator, one drawer, two upper and one lower cabinet all along one wall. Then a long Ikea butcher block for chopping and serving. But from it I sustain my daughter's life and her love of food, so for that reason, it wins.’

‘My least favourite kitchen was probably the one I had in a shared apartment before I was married. Roaches, ants, you name it. New York City shared living at its best.’

Having a small kitchen means that Sara Kate is forced to ‘pare down constantly. I don't have anything that I don't use.’

What she loves most about the kitchen is it’s ‘(tiny) skylight’. ‘I can watch the sun pass, sometimes a full moon, and pelting rain. I also love that the "bar" (butcher block) allows people to be in the kitchen with me without being in the way.’

Anytime is a good time to be in her kitchen; ‘Whenever something is cooking. Also, that time when the sun passes over the skylight. The light is magic.’

Although the family has a small, round dining table, they have most of their meals at ‘the bar’.

Since becoming a mother, Sara Kate’s feelings about her kitchen have not changed. ‘It has only reinforced my belief that cooking is one of the most important things we can do for our children.’

For Sara Kate, the kitchen will always be the heart of the home; ‘It feeds us. We need that to be alive, and we also get so much pleasure from it.’

As for a favourite meal to cook in her kitchen? It’s Sara Kate’s mother’s Italian Wedding Soup.
‘When it comes to soups, I can easily say I have a hands-down favorite. My vote for this soup is heavily influenced by nostalgia; it was one of the first real meals my mother fed me when I was a baby. The legend is that I'd slurp it loudly and the broth would dribble down my neck and into my clothes.

The recipe was handed down to my mother, and adapted at each stop, from a man named Fran, whose daughter was my first babyhood friend. I don't really remember Fran — he passed away when we were still tiny — but he lives within me every time I make this soup. Now I feed it to everyone — from my own little person, who also slurps and dribbles it, to Saturday night company, who usually use a napkin.

We always call it Italian Escarole Soup, but it's also known as zuppa di scarola, or Italian Wedding Soup because it is a traditional course at Italian nuptials. It is simple to prepare, but has enough flourishes — herby meatballs and a last-minute addition of cheesy egg ribbons — to make it special enough for guests.

Italian Wedding Soup is highly adaptable; try other greens like kale (as I did in the photo below) or chard, add grated lemon rind to the meatballs and some lemon juice to the broth for brightness, or consider spicing it up with some ground red pepper flakes added with the onions and garlic.’

Italian Wedding Soup

Serves 6-8

3/4 pound ground organic meat (chicken, turkey, pork or beef)
1/2 cup dry bread crumbs
3 large eggs
1/2 cup grated Romano cheese, divided
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano (or 1 teaspoon dried)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 medium yellow onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
8 cups chicken stock
1 bunch greens trimmed and torn into bite-sized pieces (about 6 lightly packed cups)

Combine the ground meat, bread crumbs, 1 egg, 1/4 cup of each cheese, oregano, salt and pepper in a bowl. Mix thoroughly, then form the mixture into 3/4-inch to 1 1/2-inch balls. You should have 20 to 30 meatballs, depending on how large you form them.

In large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium high heat. Add the meatballs in batches, and cook, turning, until browned all over, 3 to 5 minutes. (If they are still a bit pink in the middle, don't worry, they will continue to cook in the broth.) Set them aside on paper towels to absorb excess oil.

In a 4 to 6 quart soup pot, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil over medium high heat. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until onions are tender and garlic is soft, but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Add the greens, reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the meatballs and cook another 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine remaining 2 eggs and remaining cheeses in small bowl and stir with a fork to blend. Slow pour the egg mixture into hot soup, stirring constantly. Cover and simmer just until egg bits are set, about 1 minute. Season to taste with salt and black pepper, maybe even a squirt of lemon juice, and serve immediately in a low bowl if possible so the meatballs are visible.

To re-heat, simmer gently over low heat.

To receive more of Sara Kate’s recipes, cooking tips and stories, subscribe to The Kitchn here.
To follow Sara Kate on twitter, click
To find out more about Apartment Therapy, click

Sara Kate also has a new recipe book coming out next week, February 1st. Good Food to Share is available here.

Photos of Sara Kate and her kitchen © Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan
Photo of Italian Wedding Soup and recipe reprinted courtesy of The Kitchn

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

When Home is... the love of windows

Installing a bay window as part of our mini-renovation has led me back to my childhood suburb. While we can’t stay in our home while our bathroom is replaced – yes, I know others have and used the builders’ site toilet, showered with a camp shower and all that but I chose not to be so adventurous – we are staying in my grandfather’s home. After he died, it was decided that the house should stay in the family as a base for relatives who don’t live in Sydney, and conveniently now for a bathroom-less granddaughter and her family of five.

So here we are. Around the corner from the house where I grew up, down the hill from the local chemist where I worked on Saturday mornings aged 14 and the newsagency where I worked during my HSC year.

I’ve only returned here intermittently since moving away when I was 19, so it feels very odd to be living here again. All the shopkeepers have changed, but the shops have stayed the same. There are substantially bigger houses and more 4WDs than in my day but the eerie feeling of de je vu follows me around every street corner. And never more so than when I walk passed our old family home.

We lived on a street that is a bit of a dogleg around other more direct roads, yet I find myself following its bends and slowing down outside the house no matter what direction we are travelling in.

The house has changed a little in the last 16 years. The pine trees my parents planted in the front garden are no longer and there is now a large garage in the once gravelled driveway. But the back paling fence, the pink oleander hedge and the brass plaque on the back gate warning of a dog remains as though we’d never left.

Yet, what catches me every time I look at the house is my old bedroom window. High up in the attic, my bedroom was a haven for a teenager – far away from everyone else – and the wide window its focal point. The three leadlights were on the side of the house and I spent many hours on the window seat beneath it reading Dolly magazine and Sweet Valley High books, studying, looking down the driveway of the boy who lived across the road (who turned out to be gay but neither of us realised this at 15) and chatting to friends on the cordless phone.

I haven’t thought much about those years until this week and today, as I notice those windows open, I wonder who now inhabits that bedroom. Is it another teenager who feels suffocated in suburbia and spends hours on that seat dreaming of the big wide world that waits outside those windows?

And will she find herself, years from now, wishing for another large window and window seat where she will still want to sit and dream?

Friday, January 21, 2011

When Home is… Through a Window

It was the bay window that did it.

At the end of the year, after a variety of builders all came back to us with pretty much the same – huge – quote to add a bathroom and bedroom upstairs, we realised our renovation dream (or nightmare) would stay just that.

Instead we decided to redo the bathroom and repaint. The house is now in need of some general maintenance and there were no more excuses to put it off. The New Year holiday period for us was spent inside bathroom and tile shops, trying to work out which toilet roll holder would work best with our towel rails. (The Oxford, it seems.)

But then we happened to visit a restoration yard and happened to accidentally lean against what turned out to be a beautiful, curved, multi-paned bay window. A window we could use in our kitchen/family room to create a much needed dining area; one that could have a bench seat built in underneath and become the focal point of the room.

It was love at first sight for both of us: not a pane of glass broken or a piece of rotting timber in sight despite its 100-year age. It once had curtains blocking off the outside world as all the curtain hooks remain. There is also a piece of old newspaper stuck to a pane with yellowed sticky tape. Aside from that evidence there are no other clues to suggest its former home. I wonder, was it the window in a formal living room? Or perhaps the master bedroom?

The owner of the restoration yard had forgotten they even had it until we almost knocked it over and because it’s curved rather than square or angled, found it hard to imagine the era of house it has come out of.

It doesn’t really matter; it’s history will now evolve with our home and our family.

And so our general house maintenance has come to include the installation of this window and bench… Will it add value? Who knows. I doubt I’ll ever want to sell the house now anyway.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

When Home is left... then returned to. An Interview with Author Kylie Ladd

Australian author Kylie Ladd published her first novel, After The Fall, two years ago. Focussed on the impact of an affair for two couples, her novel explores much of what ‘home’ means in the context of a marriage and how ‘homeless’ these characters feel once they are all, in their own way, betrayed.

When I approached Kylie to discuss her thoughts about home and relationships, she and her family had only just returned to Melbourne after being away for a year. For now, thoughts about home are closely tied to her personal experience of travel and very soon our conversation moved completely away from her fiction.

With her second novel out in June, we will have another opportunity to return to the world of make believe. For now, Kylie is firmly grounded in reality...


Having lived in her home, located in the inner north-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, for the last 17 years, both Kylie and her husband Craig loved the house as soon as they saw it; ‘It’s an Edwardian/Federation mix, with lots of lovely Edwardian detail (eighteen foot ceilings, fretwork, leadlight) but also the odd quirky Federation touch, such as the art deco ceiling roses. I loved it at first sight.’

‘My then-boyfriend Craig and I had only been house hunting for six days when I saw it. Though it was out of our prescribed area and a whopping $40,000 over our price range - an enormous sum in 1994 - he agreed to look at it, did so without me, made a lower offer to the agent half in jest, and an hour later we owned it.’

I remember us lying in bed that night, unable to sleep – he hadn’t checked the stumps and I had no idea how I was going to cope with a laundry situated in the old stables at the rear (the trough was the one the horses used to drink from). But to our great relief the house was in fact sound, and has been a big part of our life together... Craig proposed to me on the day we moved in.’

Today it is also home to their two children, a son aged 11 and a daughter aged eight. Apart from a five year stint overseas when their children were babies, the family have happily lived in and loved this house. Until last year. With a desire to see more of Australia with his children before it got too difficult to pull them out of school, Craig suggested a move to Broome for a year.

As Kylie explains, ‘We’d been to Broome on holidays in 2006 as a couple and loved it, plus I knew he was restless... nonetheless it was a bit of a surprise in November 2009 when Craig emailed me from work to ask me if wanted to go live there for a stint, then two days later, after my tentative yes, sent me the link to the house he’d just bought in the town.’

Having already experienced leaving their home and Melbourne once before, Kylie wasn’t concerned about the move, ‘We love our home city, but we both knew that nothing much would change in our absence. I’m sure that earlier, longer stint made it easy to pack up and go. Lots of people couldn’t believe that we decided and left so relatively quickly, but the timing was right with work and school, and it just seemed a great opportunity for a little adventure.’

Their home in Broome was completely different to the one they had left behind. ‘It was an apartment/townhouse at a small resort in old Broome, near the famous Cable House (now the town’s courthouse). 'There were a lot of advantages to buying in a resort: our 2.5 bedroom apartment came fully furnished and well maintained (lucky, really, given we didn’t lay eyes on it until the day we moved in), and with access to a beautiful pool and gorgeous tropical gardens.’

At first it didn’t feel like home, but a long holiday. ‘It was so HOT for a start and we ate all our meals out of doors, under the fan on the balcony.’

‘The kids shared a room, which they’d never done, and took a while to adjust to this rather than just regarding it as a slumber party every night; Craig and I kept banging into each other in the kitchen (tiny compared to our one at home, which is built around a central Aga - an influence of our Edinburgh days) until we agreed he should just do all the cooking.’

For Kylie, once she started writing again, Broome finally felt like home, ‘I remember sitting down at my desk the first morning the kids had started at Broome Primary, hearing the birds and the geckos and the wind in the palm trees, feeling the sweat already on the back of my neck at 8am and wondering if I would ever be able to write in such a bright, busy environment. But I could, and once I knew that, Broome wasn’t just a holiday – it was where I lived.’

It was still hard being away from their Melbourne home, which Kylie describes as ‘a fifth member of the family’ but ironically, the novel she was working on meant she was never that far away, ‘I missed my books; we have a floor to ceiling wall of bookshelves in the study, and I never tire of feeling these watching over me as I write. In a strange way though, I still felt very connected to Melbourne as the novel I was working on is set there, around my home, and thus the area was always in my mind’s eye.’

When it came time to say goodbye, leaving was difficult for the whole family, ‘We always knew we’d return, and we do love Melbourne, but it was hard to leave the fabulous lifestyle and a year that had seen us enjoying lots of travel and the beach most days after school, which finishes at 2:10pm up there. My son in particular absolutely hated leaving all the wildlife and his pet geckos, my daughter hated leaving the surf club, where she’d had a great time at Nippers, and my husband just hated the idea of leaving and going back to work full stop.’

It wasn’t so much leaving the house behind but the relationships they had discovered and created during this year away, ‘We made some great friends in Broome, and we’d also become much closer as a family, having to rely on each other far more initially, and spending lots more time together. All that was as hard to leave behind as the place itself.’

Arriving home on an overcast summer’s evening was felt with mixed emotions, ‘The house had had someone else living in it, and while nothing was wrong it simply didn’t smell right to me; didn‘t smell like us. I couldn’t find anything in the kitchen, and the garden – after months of drought-breaking rain – was almost unrecognisable.’

‘I think my daughter summed it up best of all; after an hour, Cameron came to me in tears. “I’m glad to be home, but it all feels strange,” she wailed. “I can’t tell if I’m happy or sad.” I knew exactly how she felt: happy, sad and disoriented.’

The best aspects of returning to their long term home include ‘seeing friends and family, seeing Melbourne, being back in our beautiful house... being reunited with our toys, books, pictures and clothes is still a novelty- I’d completely forgotten I owned six pairs of boots. I only wore thongs in Broome.’

But, as Kylie says, ‘The hardest is harder to quantify – an ongoing sense of loss and dislocation, I guess. Craig and I have been through this before, and we know it passes, but while it lasts it’s a form of mourning. I wake up and am surprised to see roses through the window, not frangipani: I reach for the paper towel and suddenly realise no, that’s where it would be in my other kitchen. Every little jolt is a reminder that you have moved, that your head and your heart haven’t quite yet aligned.’

The experience of moving from one home and returning to it after a period of time away has changed what ‘home’ means to Kylie; ‘Years ago my sister was an exchange student to the USA. During her time there, the organisation who had arranged her stay put on a month-long tour of the country for all their current students. While they were away, she later told me, they devised nomenclature to refer to where they were staying: “home” was the hotel, motel or inn they were at that evening; “homehome” was where their host family was located, and “homehomehome” was where they had come from originally.’

‘I still think about that idea. Melbourne is homehomehome to me, but Broome and Edinburgh (where my son was born) are homehome; places in my heart, places that have been home and hearth to me for a significant time too, in terms of both months and experiences.’

‘Home is my family, of course. No matter how magnificent, nothing would be home without them. But home, I’ve found, is also my writing, that place inside my head where I am most myself, that I just can’t live without. And home, physically, is now mostly Melbourne, but we’ve kept our house in Broome and I know we’ll return there.’

‘Home is splintered for me at the moment, but that’s OK. It hurts a bit, but I’m much richer because of it.’

For more information about Kylie and her books, visit her website here or on Twitter here.

All photos © Kylie Ladd

Thursday, January 13, 2011

When Home is... Flooded

It's amazing how the physicality of 'home' in day-to-day life is so encompassing. We feel defined by our homes; they are the foundations of our personal worlds and represent so much more than just bricks and mortar.

Yet, when disaster strikes as it is at the moment in Queensland, homes really do just become bricks and mortar. Home becomes the family that is still altogether with perhaps just the clothes on their backs.

I imagine the feelings about ‘home’ for Queenslanders now would be their local community and the kindness and support of strangers. There have been endless news reports about strangers putting their own lives at risk to save others, people whose homes have swept away feeling lucky because they and their families survived.

But bricks and mortar are still necessary for us to survive. The Queensland Floods website has a page titled ‘Open Beds’ where people can offer their spare bedrooms to those who no longer have a bedroom to call their own. For more information, visit the website here.

I know some readers and followers of this blog live in Queensland and I hope you are all safe.

Photo © Sydney Morning Herald. Photographer: Dean Saffron

Monday, January 10, 2011

When Home is... a book inscription

“To Sybil & Geoff,
With best wishes for future happiness.
From Tom & Claire”

I’ve been thinking a lot about Sybil & Geoff as well as Tom & Claire for the last couple of months. It’s a bit odd really as I don’t know either couple at all.

All I do know is that Tom & Claire gave Sybil & Geoff a 1954 edition of the book The American woman’s new encyclopedia of home decorating and somehow it turned up in my sister’s vintage store Retrospections. My sister sells a lot of second hand books, but most don’t have inscriptions inside. If only all second-hand books did have inscriptions though. I doubt I’d ever buy a new book again.

Today, what would be a funny read about being a 1950s housewife is so much more with that inscription inside. Who were Sybil and Geoff? Was this an engagement or wedding present? How did Sybil feel about being given a book about home decorating? And poor Geoff. I can’t imagine that was an exciting present for him back in 1954. Or 2011 either.

Fifty-six years have passed since Tom and Claire bought that book. Did it sit on Sybil and Geoff’s bookshelves for the duration of a long marriage or a very short one? Who made the decision to give it away? Perhaps they are no longer here and all their books were boxed up and given away by one of their children. I wonder if their marriage even produced children.

Did they emigrate to Australia? I’m guessing they were American given the title of the book. I think the Australian women of the 1950s had their own home decorating guides. Or perhaps the book was found at an American market long ago and brought to Australia by another owner...

And as for Tom and Claire, were they close friends of Sybil and Geoff? I do find it interesting that Claire has written Sybil’s name first while signing her own after her husband’s. I’m guessing they were already married and that Tom definitely didn’t go shopping for Sybil and Geoff’s present, let alone write the inscription.

Perhaps they weren't that close - Claire's signoff is a bit cold really. Not 'love' or even 'best wishes'. 'From' is close to 'Yours sincerely'. Perhaps Tom and Geoff were work colleagues and the wives didn't really know each other? Or perhaps Claire was just a tad formal and thought Sybil's house could do with an injection of style.

It’s a mystery and I’ve never even read the book. Unfortunately my sister sold it quite quickly. I’m guessing Sybil & Geoff and Tom & Claire had a lot to do with its appeal. And I hope for their sake it has ended up in a happy home.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

When Home is... Haunted

Have you ever walked into an old house and felt uncomfortable? Have the hairs on the back of your neck tingled as you have stood in a room? Or have you noticed cold spots in a room no matter how heated it is?

Conversely, have you walked into rooms of houses that feel happy and welcoming? How many times have you talked to others about a house having a ‘lovely feeling’ but being unable to explain why?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about house ‘feelings’ lately. While writing an article about the history of our house and learning about the families who lived here since the 1890s, I felt those families with me as I walked up and down our staircase; all of us connected through our love of this house. Despite the poverty of our suburb 100 years ago and the hardships all the families would have endured, I felt this building had been a happy home many times over.

‘Your house has such a welcoming, warm feeling’, said the magazine’s photographer as she took our photo on the staircase. And she wasn’t commenting on the interior decoration. It was the same feeling I had the moment we walked through the front door on the first open for inspection day.

A very different reaction to the one I had earlier this week as I walked into a B&B in the country. The B&B was part of an historic homestead, which once would have been majestic but today is very rundown. We were in a separate wing to the main house; the nursery wing which was built in 1920. Walking up a steep staircase we came to a series of attic bedrooms connected by a veranda with a bathroom at the end.

The bedrooms were charming: fireplaces, sloping ceilings, multi-paned windows looking over the back courtyard and all the original farm outbuildings, and the original beds, wardrobes and dressing tables from the 1920s. In true Victorian style, Lily’s bed was so high she had a little staircase to climb up into it at night.

The kids were beside themselves – it was like living in a dollhouse. Stuart thought it completely charming and spent the 24 hours there daydreaming about having enough money to buy it and bring it back to life. I couldn’t wait to leave.

I was surprised at my reaction; I love quirky houses, the older the better. And original furniture too! As for ghosts... well, The Ghost and Mrs Muir has been a favourite since I was a teenager. But there was a coldness to all the rooms. They felt sad and empty. Even down in the courtyard looking up to those attic windows I felt a sense of not being welcome.

I climbed into bed with trepidation. Neither of us slept well that night. We woke every time the house settled or the wind rattled the window. Stuart blamed the light from the veranda which we left on in case one of the kids needed the bathroom. I blamed the feeling inside the room. It didn’t want us there and we were gone by 9am the next morning.

As we drove down the farm road away from the homestead I wondered what stories that nursery wing had to tell. It seemed to be sagging under the burden of the past. It didn’t want to bear witness any longer but it wasn’t prepared to share either.

As we drove out the gates I felt a sense of relief. Until Ned spoke.

‘I loved that house. When can we stay here again?’

‘Yes, when?’ chimed in the other two.

So much for children having a sixth sense.


Related Posts with Thumbnails