At the height of the pandemic, all I wanted was control and counter space and an empty freezer. I wanted a kitchen from a Nancy Meyers movie.
I was in my last semester of graduate school in March 2020. When our classes went virtual, most of my school friends left New York, moving back to the places where they lived before coming to grad school. I decided to stay with John in New Jersey rather than isolate with my New York roommates, whom I didn’t know very well. I kept my New York apartment at the beginning, thinking it was temporary, that my friends and I would be back soon. I still haven’t seen most of them in person.
At the time, both of my parents worked in health care. They went to work in person every day, working longer hours than ever, while I stayed safe at home. I was living with strangers in a strange apartment in a state where I had previously spent hardly any time. I stopped sleeping well; I lay awake facing the wall of John’s small bedroom, praying that no one I loved would get sick. Every aspect of my life felt out of my control, something that was always technically true but had previously never felt so evident.
I only lived in that apartment for three months before John and I found a place of our own, but they were formative. It was there that I began to fantasize excessively about kitchens with expansive counter space. I longed for an empty freezer, for a vast and icy landscape to greet me when I opened the door. I wanted a multitude of sturdy shelves, meant to hold up the weight of practical, yet beautiful, kitchen implements. I wanted a kitchen from a Nancy Meyers movie.
The Nancy Meyers kitchen is a hallmark of the Nancy Meyers romantic comedy. The most notorious kitchen belongs to Diane Keaton’s character in 2003’s Something’s Gotta Give. Though numerous internet lists seem to disagree with me, I consider it the first, genuine Nancy Meyers kitchen because it’s the first original movie that she both wrote and directed.
In the movie, Diane Keaton plays Erica, a successful playwright in her fifties who must care for her daughter’s sixty-something boyfriend, Harry, after he has a heart attack in her Hamptons beach house. Erica is smart, successful, high-strung, and clearly wealthy. She wears turtlenecks and collects rocks from the beach. She is content to live her life alone until Harry enters the picture and rekindles a long-dormant romantic desire.
Designed by set decorator Beth Rubino, with input from Nancy herself, the kitchen in Something’s Gotta Give is spare and white, with a kitchen island so massive that it houses a sink, a dishwasher, and a shelf that holds a sprawling cookbook collection. On top of the island is a stack of oversized wooden bowls that suggest the promise of a future meal, perhaps a dinner party, with an array of impressive salads to serve her friends and lovers. In one scene, there are four different bowls of fruit on the island at one time—one for grapes, one for lemons, one for apples, and, oddly, one for mangoes and what look to be pears.
I guarantee that her freezer is not overflowing with Costco-sized boxes of Hot Pockets. I guarantee that Diane Keaton knows what a head of garlic is.
Unlike my old roommates, I love to cook. I don’t think of myself as a particularly ambitious person, except when it comes to cooking. I devour cookbooks like fine literature, trying to absorb useful information and hoping it will lead to better instincts in the kitchen. In every other area of my life, I procrastinate and struggle to focus. The kitchen is a small portal that I enter and become focused, orderly, and disciplined. I strive to please, to impress, and to perform at a high level. I’m like another person in there, one that I respect and admire. Sometimes I have a hard time reconciling my kitchen self with the self that exists everywhere else.
My new kitchen is small and L-shaped, with two big windows that let in a perfect amount of light. The dark wood floor feels cool on my bare feet while I work. I have just enough counter space to easily roll out a ten-inch pie crust. The cabinets are stuffed with my own mismatched cookware; the freezer contains not much more than a bag of vegetable scraps to make stock. When I open the door, nothing falls to the floor.
Still, it’s not always a good time. I recently had a hard week in the kitchen. Nothing turned out right. The loaf of bread I attempted didn’t rise properly and I overcooked flatbread, inadvertently turning it into crackers. I tried to make gumbo, my favorite meal, and burned the roux two separate times, resulting in a floury, broken mess that I had to throw away. I dropped a half-full container of yogurt meant for tzatziki and watched as it splattered across the entire length of the kitchen floor.
“You’re too hard on yourself,” John tells me at times like these, when I emerge from the kitchen visibly distraught, my hair in knots from the heat of the stove, sweating and cranky.
Kitchen work is hard work. It’s incredibly physical, sometimes painful or gross, and often frustrating, sucking hours from the day and energy from the body. The delicate glass cloches filled with desserts, the six-course meal, and the bowls of fruit so abundant in a Nancy Meyers movie are the end product of hours and hours of labor that we never see on-screen. We’re led to believe that spontaneously making pain au chocolat in the middle of the night for a lover is a clean and quick process. That’s not a flaw in the design as much as it is the design: romantic comedies are meant to entertain and comfort. They sell sweetness and desire, fantasy and gratification, not sweating from the proximity of an oven’s heat or doing hours of dishes with sore feet.
The Nancy Meyers kitchen is intended to be aspirational, and for many fans of her work, it is. There has been a proliferation of articles and listicles in recent years extolling their charm and good taste. Apartment Therapy’s “Nancy Meyers’ Film Kitchens, Ranked,” The Spruce’s “The Anatomy of a Nancy Meyers Kitchen,” and Town & Country’s “Nancy Meyers’s Kitchens: A Love Letter in 7 Photos” all speak to a cultural tendency to indulge in the fantasy of vast kitchen islands, abundant bowls of fruit, and open shelving filled with cream-colored pottery. But despite this positive appraisal, Meyers finds the fascination with her kitchens sexist.
At a 2019 conference, Meyers argued that no one ever talks about the kitchens in movies made by male directors, unless it’s to celebrate them. I can see why it would feel this way, having your entire body of creative work seemingly reduced to superficial set dressing. But having only ever heard the Nancy Meyers kitchen referred to in admiration, I’m not sure which critics she’s referring to. I see her kitchens as crucial elements of storytelling that flesh out the films’ characters, setting a visual tone and speaking to a cohesive aesthetic vision. My favorite is from 2009’s It’s Complicated.
I guarantee that her freezer is not overflowing with Costco-sized boxes of Hot Pockets.
In the movie, Meryl Streep plays Jane, a bakery owner, prolific gardener, and divorcée who embarks on a reluctant affair with her ex-husband at the same time that she becomes romantically involved with the charming architect who is redesigning her home. Though the kitchen is smaller than Erica’s, its bounty is absurd, even for a professional baker. As in the other kitchen, multiple fruit bowls decorate the island, but this time they’re accompanied by several cake stands filled with desserts and homemade croissants. Pots and pans hang above the stove, silent servants waiting to be put to use.
Jane’s kitchen is my favorite because it aligns the most with my aesthetic tastes, but also because it’s so her. While every other character in the movie feels cartoonish, Jane feels real. Her kitchen is warm, like Meryl Streep’s laugh, and stocked with everything that matters to her. It points us toward her, shining a light on her inner life. Nancy Meyers knows the women in these kitchens. She knows what brand of pan they prefer, what type of sheets they sleep on. She knows what scares them and what delights them. It’s just good filmmaking.
Ultimately, the fantasy of the Nancy Meyers kitchen is a fantasy of money, of having enough to insulate you from the harsh realities of the world. In a Nancy Meyers kitchen, the worst problems you have are romantic and interpersonal. You may experience heartbreak, but certainly not hunger. With less than sixty dollars in my bank account, ever-climbing credit card debt, and student loans that will outlive me, I do not foresee a Nancy Meyers kitchen in my future, and that’s okay. I have come to suspect that my fixation on that fantasy has less to do with an actual desire for a marble island and multiple sinks and more to do with a desperate need for control over my circumstances, something that felt so out of reach in those early quarantine months and still does as I try to build a new life in New Jersey and gain some sense of financial stability.
Renewal, like cooking, is hard work. The kitchen I have now isn’t the one I fantasized about, but I am so grateful for it. Nearly every night, I go in and I cook and make a gigantic mess. I feel capable and skilled. The Nancy Meyers kitchen, while alluring and beautiful, won’t grant me anything of real substance. I don’t dream of it anymore.
Instead, I’ve been trying to measure my life by everything that I already have. After a long day, when I stand at my kitchen counter in the dying sunlight, patiently peeling a clove of garlic before smashing it with the side of my knife, I want to feel grateful for that clove, that I know what to do with it, and that I have the time and inclination to do it. I try to hold the truth in my mind that being here, being safe, and being fed is more than enough.