What Would Mrs. Cabot Do?

December 2004

I had banged my head on that cabinet door for the last time! As much as I reveled in the charm of my tiny, butler’s pantry kitchen, something had to give. And so I began to dream about amending its problems, but I would keep the original feel of my Victorian, rabbit-warren rooms intact. No wall removal, no building out, no reconfiguration of the backstairs that run through the kitchen’s back space. If we were to do some sort of kitchen project, it would have to be one that did not mess with John Cabot’s original 1886 design. I did not want to risk visitations from angry houseghosts, after all. Nor did I have the money to do otherwise.

After having lived with the small space for nearly five years, I had a good idea of what the problems were: a refrigerator that did not fit into the space, and which was therefore relegated to the crowded backstairs; an eating area (the dining room) separate from the workspace; and a crowded prep space.

Taking these problems into consideration I figured the best thing to do was to think like the person who had designed the house. Or better yet, think like his wife. Of course, there were servants then who actually used the kitchen. Never mind, I could think like Mrs. Cabot, the mistress of the household, and instead of servants, I would have appliances beyond her wildest dreams. I would summon her spirit when envisioning how to finesse the dining room into taking on some kitchen functions while leaving it the formal space that it is.

My first task was the reconfiguration of the space. I would reorient the dining room table to create room for a prep island. This would gave me prep space, new cabinet storage and allow me to relocate the refrigerator. I would cut a fridge-size hole in my old cabinetry, just inside the little kitchen doorway. Would Mrs. Cabot have thought twice about replacing the nine-year-old refrigerator with one that was brand-new, stainless steel, and counter-depth besides? Most likely, being a frugal Yankee Victorian woman. And yet, this move helped transform the old kitchen space into a true pantry/larder. “So convenient and practical,” I imagined she would murmur appreciatively.

Into the dining room went the prep items previously stored in the old cabinets. But where would the glasses, plates, and china go? The answer lay hidden under layers of dust in the basement, where an old glass cabinet was still attached to the wall. I chose a contractor who was as tickled by the prospect of reusing this cabinet as I was, unlike the two others who had taken one look and urged me to “have it built new instead.” I knew Mrs. Cabot would never spend money on that, when a perfectly good cabinet was right here! It would take some effort restoring it, but I knew it was just the thing.

The cabinet went up on the wall like it was meant to be there. The black honed granite countertops came in, and I paused, uncertain. Everything in that dark room was now that much darker, unfortunately. The dining room has so much brown, light-absorbing woodwork that in my darkest hour I have itched to paint it. And I had intended to use a lighter soapstone, in keeping with the era. But this time, my mother’s voice overrode Mrs. Cabot’s: “Soapstone will chip, and it’s a pain to keep up;” hence the black granite. My electrician came to the rescue with few discreet recessed lights that helped brighten everything, and Mrs. Cabot was none the wiser.

The final changes involved the appliances. The microwave moved into its own hidden cabinet in the new island. The new oil-rubbed bronze bar sink was a small addition to the space, but little did I know how much trouble it would be to locate the vent in an old house! The dishwasher could be appropriately concealed under a cabinet door panel, if I can ever get my contractor to come back.

Sitting at the table, with it all finished, it looked as I had imagined: you could hardly tell it was a kitchen area, because of the dark and elegant finishes. And yet it had everything. A mere flash of silver hinted at the refrigerator in the pantry space through the doorway. It was too beautiful to believe.

It was too beautiful to use!

And then I thought: What would Mrs. Cabot do? She would not have been impressed by bronze and granite. She would have shrugged and said, “Of course, stone. What else?” Or maybe that was my Brooklyn grandmother’s voice. Anyway. Mrs. Cabot would have used it all with impunity. These things are made to be used, and being natural materials, to wear uniquely and in time. Or so the manufacturers say. But I knew I had to plunge in fearlessly and in doing so, breathe life into this perfect space. Thankfully, with three boys in the house, that would not take long.