The Slow-Cooked Sentence

How 12 elephants and a lightbulb settled a battle over breakfast

Rachael Conlin Levy

David Lance Goines’s “Unpleasant Surprises” for The Pacific Film Archive, University of California Art Museum, 1978.

Entropy originates with great energy, heat, and order, so I began this remodel where these elements are most concentrated within the home–the kitchen at breakfast.

“Energy is primary,” wrote the physicist Geoffrey West. “Without a continuous supply of energy and resources there can be no ideas, no innovation, no growth, and no evolution.”

Or scrambled eggs, for that matter.

The energy released in a cracked egg and the glow from the coil of an electric range are examples of  the second law of thermodynamics. When energy is transformed into a useful form it also produces “useless” energy as a degraded byproduct, West explained. A cracked egg cannot be returned to its original form, so why not scramble it? Heat radiating from a cooktop not only cooks the egg but warms the kitchen.

“The battle to combat entropy by continually having to supply more energy … becomes increasingly more challenging as a system ages, underlies any serious discussion of aging, mortality, resilience, and sustainability, whether organisms, companies, or societies,” West wrote.

The kitchen in my new house–a 1918 Craftsman–showed all the signs of West’s aging system no longer functioning with ease and efficiency because of age, warp, and gunk. Like all things, kitchen surfaces and features have a lifespan, and this kitchen had been well used and unchanged for decades.

Proof was hidden in the broom closet, which had not one, but two 4-inch-wide holes venting to the outside. The original purpose for this drafty closet was a mystery that I contemplated as I scrubbed grime and smoke off walls and cupboards, peeled layers of gingham contact paper from shelves, and took a crowbar to a sealed oven door.

My initial commitment to refinish and restore the kitchen disappeared with the dirt and grime. In its place came realization that my slightly cleaner-but-still-dingy-white kitchen likely predated the modern refrigerator.

In the era of the icebox, West Coast homes were equipped with tall, skinny closets that held wooden slat shelves to help air circulate. My closet had vents  near the top and bottom that once opened to the outside. The top let warm air escape, while the bottom drew cooler air into the cabinet. This cold pantry was an ideal space to preserve food like butter, eggs, cheese, berries, fruit, and vegetables during a time when space in the icebox was at a premium.

At first I was charmed by its novelty, toying with the idea of restoring it to its original use and reducing my family’s own refrigeration, while chalking one up for the environment.

In his 2017 book, “Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies”,” the physicist West explained that the amount of energy needed for a human to stay alive, known as our metabolic rate, is about 2,000 calories a day or the equivalent of a 90-watt incandescent lightbulb.

“As social animals now living in cities we still need a lightbulb equivalent of food to stay alive but, in addition, we now require homes, heating, lighting, automobiles, roads, airplanes, computers, and so on. Consequently, the amount of energy needed to support an average person living in the United States has risen to an astounding 11,000 watts. This social metabolic rate is equivalent to the entire needs of about a dozen elephants.”

My daydream of responding to America’s indefensible use of the world’s resources through my choice of refrigerator was quickly derailed by the practicality of insulating a 100-year-old closet. Like everything else in the kitchen, the cold pantry must go.

Putting aside the moral conundrum for the moment, the renovation alone required a huge amount of mental energy because it came with a thousand additional questions I was unprepared and ill-equipped to answer. Had someone asked me how to function in a poorly designed kitchen, my answer’s would come easily. But options multiply with a room’s gutting, and the obvious solution had become as uncertain as artist David Lance Goines’s egg.

“I was born on a farm,” wrote Goines in explanation of his 1978 poster “Unexpected Surprises.” “My job was to coax eggs out from under the broody hens and bring them into the kitchen. Chickens are not too ight-bray, and they’d wander off and leave their eggs any-old-where, and sometimes you’d discover them a bit late. Consequently, whenever you’d break eggs for eating or cooking you’d crack them one by one into a separate bowl and take a gander at them to make sure that they weren’t busy turning into a chicken. Sometimes they’d be rotten, and that’s a smell you don’t forget. Even though I get my food at the store, I’ve always been just the littlest bit apprehensive whenever I crack open an egg. Maybe you are, too.”

Like Goines and his egg, I stood in a kitchen and studied a smooth, white surface. Plaster wall had supplanted egg shell, but the uncertainty of what lay within remained. How do I open a wall to connect kitchen and dining rooms? Can a refrigerator fit where the cold pantry now stood, a tacit acknowledgment of the house’s history? And what I do now that I’d junked the stove? Suddenly I was not only replacing the stove, but I was deciding its placement within the kitchen, and its fuel source.

Remembering West’s dozen elephants– the 11,000 watts of energy consumed by the average American–I vetoed natural gas as a fuel source. Its drilling and extraction through fracking produces the entropic byproduct methane, a powerful and damaging greenhouse gas.

It wasn’t an easy decision. The familiarity and aesthetics of cooking with gas was tempting when the alternative was relearning to cook on a stove that uses an electromagnet to heat a frying pan. I had to remind myself that natural gas may be a cleaner source of energy, but that didn’t make it clean.

I opted for a learning curve and hydroelectric fuel. The mighty Columbia River will generate the power that will cool my refrigerator and heat my induction stove, which will cook an egg today and many days to come in the Entropy House. And my hunger will be satiated.

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