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Patrizia Chen

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Pots and Pans

Posted: 03/02/11 05:36 PM ET

I have a confession: I'm obsessed, and it would comfort me to know that I'm not alone. I'm ridiculously fanatical about my kitchen stuff: pots and pans, skillets and Mokas, kettles and ladles, all that is metal and can be made to shine. I need my cooking implements to glitter and only then will I use them -- or I'll immediately get down to work with detergents and sponges until I'm satisfied.

It all started in the early '70s, on the Greek island of Patmos where I spent many long, wonderful summers. Our neighbors, Yannis and Maria, lived in a house composed of three white-washed cubes framed by a profusion of flowers and green bushes. It sat below a domed Lilliputian church and several steps above golden fields of wheat. Each cube had a door and tiny windows, and none of the individual buildings were connected. Rain or shine, whenever they wanted to go from the kitchen to a bedroom, Maria and her family had to walk outside.

Every day, at about 9 a.m., I walked up from my seaside house to have breakfast with them. I followed a narrow path through luscious rows of tomatoes and eggplants, skirting the well and bending to avoid the almond-tree branches, heavy with flowers or fruit.

I sat on the bench that ran the perimeter of the first cube, my back against stones warm with the August sun. Yannis, busy milking his goats, waved at me from the garden and Maria greeted me, delighted with our daily ritual. "Yassu, Kiria Patrizia, ti kanis? How are you?" She held out a bouquet of basil and a long stem of tuberose, an unusual but successful combination; to this day those scents immediately transport me into the past.

"Cafedaki? Coffee?" A smile was my answer to her rhetorical question, and Maria would immediately get busy around the solitary gas burner she kept outside. From my place near the entrance door I could see inside her kitchen and I admired the shiny silver-pots that hung on the walls, sculptures stark against the blinding whiteness of the room.

Brought up in the kitchen by my grandparents' cook, I mastered Emilia's many culinary skills, but had to admit that compared with that of Maria and her three daughters, her idea of cleanliness was a bit approximate. Every time we cooked, Emilia made me scrub and swab the inside of each pan with wax paper until it was clean and resplendent, but what about the outside? Not even the battered pots we used to boil water were granted the deluxe treatment my Greek neighbors reserved for their kitchen tools.

Popi, the youngest child who was at the time only 15, seemed to understand my fascination and shyly offered to come to my house and show me how it was done. No breathtaking secrets there, just elbow grease and the power of humble steel wool. "Don't you ruin the metal? And isn't this an open invitation for rust to get inside the scratches?" She shrugged off my questions and under her guidance my Patmos pots and pans reached the greatest luster of their simple life.

Eventually Popi was allowed to spend a couple of years with me in Italy (what a privilege to be trusted with the care of an island girl) and from that moment on my Italian possessions turned into shiny paradigms of radiance. A monster was born: Me.

I moved to America and my pots followed, soon to be joined by brand new ones. Now that I was the proud owner of a resplendent stainless-steel bounty and determined to keep it brilliant, I felt my ever growing obsession seemed justified. Still, no one understood my irresistible impulse to scrub and clean, to buff and polish.

When Rita entered my life in 1991, our first conversation was an eye opener. As she picked up a Moka and slowly turned it around, I recognized the same crazed light that shone in my eyes: "I might even drink coffee in this home. You're OK..." She nodded, sensing a fellow lunatic. Her fingers caressed the squeaky clean surface and a loving relationship was born. To this day Rita and I often spend time re-arranging pots and pans, making sure that they are neatly stacked and separated by the same doilies used for expensive porcelain.

It means that every time I select a casserole or a saucepan a thrill of ownership shoots through me. It's the same sort of pleasure I get shopping for ingredients or planning a perfect menu. Smell and taste are not enough: I need the visual and tactile satisfaction of holding a beautifully shiny tool in my hand. That's when everything comes together in a harmony of sensual pleasures.