OPK (OTHER PEOPLE’S KITCHENS)
“I’M FILIPINO, I’M GENETICALLY PROGRAMMED TO CLEAN THE MESSES WHITE PEOPLE MAKE.”
A Swiss guy who made nice chapels for mining communities in the east of France once said to someone that the house is a machine for living in. As is the human body, a machine whose engine is all heart. And if both the body and the house are machines run by hearts, the house’s heart is most definitely in the kitchen. Warmth runs from there to all other rooms and spaces, and if the kitchen’s pathways are not clear for efficient flow, you’re looking at a recipe for a heart attack.
I travel a lot. But I don’t like to stay at hotels. I live in the third world, where outsourcing the upkeep of your too-large home to four people living somewhat close to the poverty line is not only an acceptable convention. It’s a debt you pay to society. So when I travel to the first world, I like to play house, the house I don’t play when I’m in Manila. I like to cook and clean and tidy up after myself. But I don’t have a house to do it in, so I stay with friends who let me fret over their breakfasts. I am happiest as a slave to all sorts of love in other peoples’ kitchens.
In my country, cooking isn’t always so tender. Apart from the humidity, the lady who cooks and the lady who cleans look horrified when I try to join the household fray. Which is awkward. And then there is the matter of structural kitchen apartheid. Many residential architects make a clear distinction between the kitchen to be used by the help and the kitchen to be sauntered through from time to time by the lady of the house. They are called the clean and dirty kitchens. You don’t have to be Le Corbusier to figure out who belongs where. Homes in the Philippines suffer from congenital colonial heart disease. Which makes it sometimes hard to breathe in their kitchens. It’s hard to put love into what you cook when your kitchen stands for a caste system you did not invent but cannot destroy. Unless you razed the house—but arson is as impractical as it is illegal.
So when I travel to homes in civilized nations, I go straight to the sink with the pile of dirty dishes. Sometimes even before I wash the KLM out of my hair. My friends in advertising who don’t sleep, my gay husbands, my Caucasian one-night stands, my friends who entertain with centollo from the Boquería market on Thursdays, my long-distance Dutch lovers, they all watch in awe as I gut their cupboards and replace chaos with meticulous order. The most unbelievable thing about my OPK OCD is the fact that, anywhere else, I’m a bloody mess. “Why do you do it?” they ask me. I know some of them think it’s because I am too much me and need to conquer the spaces I occupy, to the detriment of their rightful owners. Others think I wash away the guilt of invading peoples’ privacy by being overly solicitous. The kinder ones think I have exquisite manners.
I make jokes and say, “I’m Filipino, I’m genetically programmed to clean the messes white people make.” We all laugh, because it’s not racist when I say it. Filipinos care nothing for political correctness. Maybe because our politicians are so corrupt, anything political makes us lose interest quicker than cancer.
I spend happy, painstaking hours arranging spices. Cheap supermarket varieties in the back,
pretty tin cans of pimentón in front. I take the vegetables out of their imitation Glad Wraps and fluff the leaves of lettuce just so. Inside the refrigerators, I make sure all the labels on all the fancy mustards are facing out. On the countertops, seasonings are arranged by size, shape, and
frequency of usage. (Salts and oils on the right hand side, only if homeowner is right-handed.) Also, by my personal favorite categories: color and/or emotional charge. Blue goes with blue. Heirlooms go with souvenirs of the ghost of relationships past.
Why do I do it? Because I have a Mary Poppins complex. And because I loved all of the people whose houses I’ve rearranged. Precisely because I loved them all, it makes me happy to think that once I’d gotten their heartbroken kitchens to beat again, bubbling with chicken with olives and prunes, their lives would maybe be a bit better for the wear.
Your life can never start over until your kitchen is clean. So scrub your countertops every night, before you die or sleep, if you want to live happy. Or have me over for a weekend. Just give me conversation while I take a sponge to your convection stovetop. Will work for chicken massaman curry.