Molly O'Neill's Kitchen

Claire Bunschoten, LongHouse Food Scholar, July 2016

Molly O’Neill’s kitchen is not one you would find in a Pottery Barn catalogue. There is no cliche subway tile or granite countertops. In their stead are pragmatism, sureness, and character. The floor is a terracotta tile and reminds me of an Italian restaurant. The appliances are industrial grade. Mesh colanders and ladles hang from the hood of the range and kitchen island is sturdier than my Toyota Yaris. The island’s stone top is crowded with peaches and well-worn cutting boards. The first time I went into the kitchen I was overcome. I was in an alchemist’s lair and I let out an incredibly corny, “Oh, wow.”

If you’re like me and follow a few home design magazines (or blogs), open shelving is everywhere. The photos show off stark white shelves, which have been meticulously styled with air plants, brass pineapples, and vintage glassware. They are beautiful. They are aspirational and, although they are completely different, Molly’s well stocked and seemingly haphazard open shelving is aspirational to me.

When I moved into my first apartment–my current apartment–those stark white interiors were my point of reference. I only have a few cabinets in the kitchen, which I’m sure most people would class as a kitchenette. I live in a studio and I like to cook and I need storage for pie plates, bundt pans, wine glasses, et al. With those magazines in mind, I whitewashed a shelving unit from IKEA. It is functional, holds what I have, and is vaguely charming. It doesn’t hold a candle to Molly’s.

Molly’s house was built in 1802. There is no open floor plan kitchen/living room layout, but it feels large to me in the way it makes use of its space. The west wall of the kitchen is completely dominated by a massive, robin’s egg blue sideboard and shelving combo. I don’t know if this piece of furniture is original to the house, but I can tell by the chipped paint and the lackluster cooperation of the drawers that it has been standing a long time. At first glance I couldn’t find any semblance of order, but now I think I have successfully created a map.

The sideboard’s sixteen drawers are cavernous. I have only ventured into one or two for forks and knives. Some are swollen from the humidity and creak with age. I haven’t dared to open the four cabinets beneath them. They can hold on to their secrets.

The top of the sideboard is cluttered and serves as home to the oblong and ill-fitting. The layers have built up over time. I suspect they will disappear when we leave. The first two shelves hold glassware and the jarred contents of a crazed co-op. A set of plates are out of my arm’s reach even as I stand up on tippy toes on the top shelf and I imagine they are for styling or decoration or special occasions.

The second highest shelf holds jars of apple butter, dandelion jelly, and more jams than I can name. There are so many lined up I do not know how anyone cold choose what to open next. Maybe this wisdom will come with time. Maybe if I stay in this house long enough I will know.

I am just finding my way. I am just stocking my shelves. I will learn and admire and soak up all I can. Soon my fresh paint will chip away. I will hold multitudes and it will be obvious that I am beautiful and chaotic and ordered in my own right.

Claire Bunschoten, 24 years old, is a writer and researcher. She graduated from Bard College in 2014 and won the Edmund S. Morgan prize for her undergraduate thesis on the history of apple pie. She lives in Chicago, IL and blogs at

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