It started with my need for a new mixer. OK. Well, maybe not exactly. It probably really started when we bought our home in Connecticut two years ago. The kitchen needed a make-over. Not a complete renovation---as some do---but a make-over, to be sure. Its footprint was fine, as was its size. Windows and doors were good, too. But it was dreary. Dark, drab and dreary.

But a re-do---no matter the scope---was out of our reach at move-in, just as it is now. So I've tried to not think about it too much.

That's tougher than it sounds. What with me being a "visual person"---energized by color and proportion and pattern---and kitchen tours taking up space on every New England town's calendar within the next few weeks, it's almost impossible to not notice renovated kitchens. Nor to salivate over their inevitable appeal.

Such was the case this past Friday when a friend and I tromped through six fabulous kitchens in an annual little ritual. Carefully calibrated to Mother's Day---not to mention the bursting of daffodils, the budding of most trees, and the flowering of rhododendron---it coincided perfectly with spring fever.

And so it was that my friend, Nancy, and I enjoyed most of the afternoon together...roaming around gorgeous homes, indulging in wonderful treats catered by local restaurateurs, and commenting on what both appealed---and what didn't---to our strong aesthetic sensibilities. Nancy is an artist, too. And she just finished her own dream kitchen a few months ago. So she has not only a good grasp of the whole kitchen re-do thing; she has a similar eye to mine and is highly motivated by strong visuals.

Interestingly, we were both struck by exactly the same things. An enormous, albeit completely-perfect home, didn't do it for either one of us as it did for a friend whom I bumped into while there. "Isn't this absolutely incredible?" my friend exclaimed.

Nancy and I looked at each other.

"It's perfect," I dead-panned.

Too perfect. Perfectly painted, perfectly appointed, perfectly accessorized, perfectly clean. Was it possible real people really lived there? Could anyone have ever actually sautéed onions and garlic at its immaculate stainless-steel Viking range?

As we walked to the car, Nancy and I reflected on what truly makes a home, anyway. And where does one stop? In this real estate frenzy of the new millennium, where success is measured by capital gains, square footage and location-location-location; how much is enough, after all? Do we really need commercial-grade stainless steel Wolf ranges and double Sub-Zero's? Granite countertops and farmhouse sinks with copper faucets? Islands with pull-outs?

Seems like we do. A Harvard University study found that Americans spent $233 billion on remodeling and repair projects in 2003, with kitchen re-do's topping the list. A stunning 4 million Americans will do a kitchen remodeling project of some type in this year alone!

Staggering in scope, it is easily understandable. We have everyone from Home Depot to Pottery Barn to Williams-Sonoma to Target to HGTV to thank. Oh, sure. You might not need a kitchen transformation. But seriously, do you have enough fortitude to walk out of Williams-Sonoma fiscally unscathed? And have you seen the summer plastic ware at Target? As if I needed another lime green line item in my home...it was pure will-power that prevented me from grabbing a dozen of the cutest soda-fountain-style tumblers in my favorite color on my weekend outing there.

I read recently that most people do a major kitchen remodel for one simple reason: their friend did it. Oh great. A brilliant tax break? We get that. Increasing the value of your real estate. Get that, too. But peer pressure?

It's easy to see why. I mean, a wonderful kitchen is a lovely thing to behold. I totally get it. Want it. But can't yet have it.

So in case you're in the same state (and I have to suppose that many of you are, given the success rate of these kitchen tours) here are "5 Strategies for Infusing-Your-Kitchen-With-Beauty-If-You-Don't-Have-The-Designer-Kitchen-You'd-Really-Like-To-Have-But-For-Whatever-Reason-Don't:

1) Inject bold bursts of color. Be it via woven placemats at the breakfast table, colorful pottery on your countertops, or brightly-painted kitchen towels hanging from your oven bar: use generous strokes of color to put your brain on a heightened state of alert. Your cabinets might be dreadfully tired and your outdated appliances might leave you feeling totally uninspired. But take heart: a few brilliantly colored decorative objects can provide just the punch your sleepy kitchen needs.

2) Treat yourself to one new kitchen accoutrement. Seen Le Creuset's latest red Dutch ovens? Or Kitchen Aid's new apple green mixer? How about a shiny chrome coffee grinder? If a total kitchen overhaul is out of your reach, perhaps one modest indulgence will give your room that little kick-in-the-pants that it needs.

3) Change the lighting. My Country French rooster chandelier ala my latest birthday, elevates my eyes upwards...out of the direction of my drive-me-crazy-cabinets and onto something much more beautiful and intriguing. Considering its relatively minor expense, it proved a clever way of adding serious visual interest to a space which otherwise drags me down visually. Shop around. While not as cheap as a new box of candles, a new lighting fixture is often a great way to go.

4) Change things in stages. Perhaps by giving your cabinets a new paint job, you can change the look of the whole room. My girlfriend, Leslie, contracted with a house painter as well as with a decorative painter to dramatically lift her entire kitchen into a veritable work of art. The decorative painter glazed and then hand-painted different floral designs on each cabinet panel, elevating the room into one of lightness and pure beauty. The end result is stunning! Maybe by simply replacing a worn-out dishwasher you can inject a dash of modernity to an otherwise out-dated room. Or perhaps the relatively easy job of changing your countertops will give you more of the look and function that you desire.

5) Enjoy your collections. Not only did my recent trip to Paris cement my affection for le coq; it heightened my awareness of any and all fabulous renditions seen since my return. I can hardly pass by a rooster without checking its craftsmanship, size and price tag. Infuse your environment with the things that you love. Be they pictures of friends and family magnetized to your fridge...or cows or pigs or roosters (we really are a silly bunch, aren't we?) don't be afraid to show off your collections to their fullest. When your day is looking particularly gloomy or your hormones are raging; the little things that bring you joy will help to blow both those black clouds away from your precious little head as well as more evenly distribute those swirling shivers of estrogen.

Finally, reflect on the relativity of materialism. Nancy and I--walking back from "house perfect" on the kitchen tour, talked about how it's all relative anyway. For what seems like extravagant indulgence (or a vulgar display of wealth, depending on your perspective) is just that: it's a perspective. It's all relative. What seems ridiculously unnecessary to me might seem perfectly legitimate to you. And remember that most of what we possess is viewed by some 90% of the world as pure luxury. Keep perspective. If your kitchen drives you nuts, try to maintain some level of thanksgiving for what you do have, rather than some level of misery for what you don't.

The kitchen isn't called the heart of the home for nothing. It's where we put love into what we put into our body. Where we infuse our food with energy. Where we sift and dice and shake and bake. Where we laugh and learn and read and relax. Do your part to make it the heart of your home...whether you like the way it looks or not.

I wound up getting a new mixer for Mother's Day. As bizarre a request as it was---coming from someone whose least favorite word in the English language is "practical"---I got the desire to actually mix something up in there. (Bake a cake...or something along those lines, anyway.) And I have a funny feeling it will actually send me into my kitchen more often...whether I like it or not.

 
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