I decided to take a break from dealing with the tiny house last week and focus on more important issues…like PIE.
I take cooking pretty seriously. And I don’t consider “making a sandwich” cooking – even though a sandwich is the most popular meal in America, as Michael Pollan pointed out. I learned to cook while working in restaurants when I was young and have kept it up throughout my life, usually using ingredients supplied by my own organic garden. (One summer, that “garden” grew into a 1000 square-foot urban farm with everything I could think to plant.)
So with the Denver County Fair last week, I figured, why not? And entered a pie. An apple-cranberry-ginger pie with Fireball whiskey-soaked walnuts. And while I was hand-cutting a leafy crust for the top on the counter that I'd built in my makeshift warehouse kitchen, I thought a lot about what it meant to have a kitchen.
I would guess that the majority of Americans take having a kitchen for granted. But because I have lived in everything from elevator shafts to old garages, as I currently do now, I’ve had to build my own kitchen more than once, even in a house. Things we almost never think about – refrigeration, running water – are integral to our day-to-day survival, and really only apparent in our lives when they are absent.
They were definitely absent when I moved into my studio in the fall of 2013. I only expected to be living in the studio for a few months while I built my tiny house...but as everyone does, I grossly underestimated the amount of time I would be building. At the time, leaving a long marriage and preparing my long-time home to sell, I hadn’t expected the huge surge in Denver’s housing prices (right after we sold), hadn’t foreseen the rapid changes the city would see. But left in debt by a former studio-mate, suddenly I had to choose between an apartment and my beloved studio. It wasn’t a tough choice; workspace has always been more important than living space to me. I can live anywhere.
Even so, those first few months were rough. Since I was still sharing the space, I was living in the only available spot: a 112 square-foot closet I had cleared out. (As tragic as this sounds, I don’t want to oversell it – I still had a 500 square-foot studio. Choices.) But without a shower or even a sink larger than a mixing bowl, I went to the gym almost daily to shower – great for my abs, horrible for my time management. And in that 112 square feet I had to craft some sort of kitchen: I’m not the kind of person who can stand to eat out for every meal, especially in a relative food desert.
Appropriating a stainless steel wheeled counter from the studio (a former kitchen item in the first place), I chipped away enough paint to make it a suitable basis for my kitchen. I started with a small refrigerator, a hot plate and a toaster oven, but soon found that my room would heat up quickly using any of them – 112 square feet is ridiculously easy to heat with anything, apparently.
I also found that having one small refrigerator drove me nuts – I eat mostly vegetarian and rely heavily on greens and vegetables, which take up a ton of space. I added a second small refrigerator and an electric tea kettle.
In my little closet, in a deep state of melancholia about the environment and angst about my future fueled by too many YouTube videos and the hangover from writing my thesis, the idea of The Mayday Experiment was born. Which is what led me to start researching, and figuring out: What are the different ways to have a kitchen?
About 3 billion people around the world still cook over an open flame using some form of biomass – wood, animal dung or crop waste – or coal. This leads to problems, not just in terms of fire safety, but also indoor air pollution, which can cause everything from pneumonia to pulmonary diseases. In the U.S., the majority of people use either natural gas to create an open flame (what most cooks, including myself, prefer), or electric to heat a coil in a stove. But natural gas is not an option in a mobile tiny home, and as every kilowatt of electricity is precious when you are gathering it yourself, an electric stove is just downright inefficient.
The majority of RVs use propane. Propane is efficient and sold in tanks, so it makes sense that it could be good for a nomadic situation. However, one of the biggest points of what I am doing is getting as far off-grid, energy-wise, as possible, so using a petroleum product to cook with feels counter-intuitive and just plain wrong. And propane can be dangerous and could easily explode in an accident, not to mention that the off-gassing is toxic and gives me a headache.
That’s when I decided to experiment with an induction cooktop. Though it uses electricity, it is an incredibly efficient method of heating a pot — heating the pot itself by creating an oscillating magnetic field, as opposed to heating a burner that then heats a pot, which also makes it safe in terms of not having a surface on which to burn yourself. Thus, it uses much less electricity. While explaining the science of how it works is a bit above my pay grade, one key factor is that you need a stainless steel or cast-iron pot or pan to create the resistance needed for it to work.
The pot heats up quickly, channeling energy only into that heating and not the surrounding elements underneath the pot. But there's a learning curve for cooking this way: Things burn quickly, and my first couple of attempts at cooking on the induction burner didn’t yield the best results. With practice, however, I found that the heat conducted is even and easy to precisely control.
But that only takes care of the cooktop; baking is another issue entirely. Because I want to have many pies in my future, it’s an option that is incredibly important to me – I use my oven a lot, even in the heat of the summer. Many people in the tiny house community swear by marine ovens, which are often run on denatured alcohol, a substance that burns clean, so smoke building up in your home doesn’t become an issue. This is the most expensive option, however, with the majority of marine ovens coming in around $1,500 new. Still, it is the best option I've found in my research so far, and it’s nice to know that stopping by the liquor store and grabbing a bottle of Everclear could work in a pinch.
Regardless of which oven I wind up with in the tiny house, I know that as long as I have sun, I can build a simple solar oven and bake. I definitely intend to, so that I can bake outside when it’s hot, instead of using fuel and heating up the interior. And since the Denver County Fair is always in August…maybe that next pie entry will come from a solar oven. I didn't win this year, but there should be a ribbon for that!
Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, is blogging out her tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on Show and Tell. If you'd like to support her journey, you can pledge here or here. See more of her work at lynnxe.com.
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