She shuts the water off and reaches, fingers dripping, for the what isn't there. She thinks it will be wherever hers is -- above, to the right, on the wall, vertical, horizontal. She glances around, takes a step back, and begins to form the question: "Where are the . . . ?"
I smile and hand her the tea towel that hangs on the drawer pull just by the door. A fleeting look of surprise until it registers that this is okay, too. It usually doesn't even start a conversation, even though it happens almost every time a guest washes her hands in my kitchen. This is fine by me: I didn't eliminate paper goods from my kitchen because I wanted to make a stand, be seen as a radical and proselytize my friends. I did it because, bit by bit, it seemed to make more sense: I was saving money, conserving resources and creating a space that felt and looked more welcoming and domestic -- more like me.
Here's what you need in a kitchen that runs smoothly without paper -- starting with the least radical:
- Dish Mat. We just got a dishwasher last month (cue celestial choir) but even now, there are plenty of times I need to wash something by hand: fine china, a huge mixing bowl or a utensil I'm about to use again. This mat will absorb an incredible amount of water, allowing your dishes to dry while your counter stays puddle-free. Just wring it out and hang it up.
- Towels. While terrycloth is great for the bathroom, lint-free cotton is the best choice for these kitchen workhorses. You can use them to wring out blanched spinach, drain cooked wheat berries, keep rising loaves moist and an innumerable number of other tasks. It's important you choose towels that are not too pretty or expensive to get dirty; I replace mine every other day or when I've used it for something other than drying. These flour sack towels, at less than $2 each, are large and versatile. Keep your eye out at thrift shops and tag sales, too: look for patterns and colors that match your kitchen and make you smile.
- Bags. You probably already have a handful of the promotional reusable grocery bags that seem to multiply in the back of your car but never actually make it into the store. The key, for me, was getting one larger one to keep the rest in so I wasn't dropping them everywhere! Also consider cotton drawstring bagsfor buying and storing produce and muslin bags for mulling spices or bouquets garni: any of these can be thrown in the washing machine and re-used many times over.
- Rags. For dirtier jobs, like cleaning your range hood or mopping up spills from the fridge, use something that you absolutely don't care about. Please don't buy these: just ask your family to donate some old shirts and cut each one into large squares. Keep them in a bucket; when you use one, throw it dirty into another bucket, and when they're all gone, wash the load and start all over. If you like the smell of disposable wipes, use a few drops of an essential oil in your rinse water.
- Napkins. This is the hardest step for most people: one napkin per person per meal seems daunting, but I've seen it work in families much larger than mine. After each meal, diners fold or roll up their napkins unless they're too dirty to re-use, in which case they are left crumpled to be put in the laundry. Consider that people lived this way for many centuries before disposable became a way of life, and many still do. I remember a David Lebovitz column in which he describes a charming tradition at a French farm: guests wrote their names on napkins, and over the years they faded and new names were added, establishing a loose record of shared meals. Again, no one needs to be fancy: check local consignment shops, or try making your own (you will not find an easier starter project!)
As with any change, the key is to start small. Get one set of napkins and use them on Sundays, or put your paper towel roll in a cabinet where it's harder to reach than the cute hand towels you leave out. There are still a handful of tasks for which I will retrieve paper napkins from the basement -- draining the oil from fried foods, for example -- but by and large, I've found that living sustainably in the kitchen is a much smaller adjustment than you'd think. Here's to change, starting with you!