Mary Gonzalez (left) and Maddie Gordon (right) in Mary’s rustic ranch kitchen. Photos by Trevor Gordon.

The Tiny Mess

Finding Inspiration in Small Spaces

There’s something intriguing about a small kitchen. The romantic allure of simplicity. A space that holds precisely what you need. A place where everything is within arm’s reach. Where your focus is purely on flavors and the task at hand.

Could you sacrifice square footage for a simpler existence, say, in a tiny kitchen? Maddie Gordon and Mary Gonzalez did. Their unique spaces gave them inspiration not just to cook, but to write a book too. It’s called The Tiny Mess.

Maddie and Mary

I arrive at Mary’s home in Carpinteria to find the two friends busily preparing baked goods and foraging for peppercorns and chickweed to top pizzas. They tell me they met through a mutual friend and immediately bonded over their eclectic palates and passion for food. The two have since collaborated on many recipes, which they test in their tiny kitchens.

Maddie’s Floating Galley

Maddie is a native of Sussex, England, who moved to Santa Barbara five years ago. She now shares a 36-foot sailboat with her husband. “It took a while to adapt to our tiny floating kitchen,” she says, “but we’ve always lived in small studios or in our camper so I knew how to do it—just not full time.”

Maddie is a creative spirit. So, naturally, the boat has become a creative space for her work as a freelance illustrator and textile artist as well as for her cooking. “I love cooking because when I’m not feeling inspired to draw or sew, I know that I can unleash that creativity in the kitchen,” she says.

The boat’s galley has a small fridge, a two-burner stove and an oven. There’s no freezer, so fresh food must be at the center of the meal. A lack of fridge space has forced her to get even more creative. “We make sauerkraut and other lacto-fermented veggies that don’t need refrigeration, we sprout grains and seeds, make yogurt and harvest our own seaweed.” They also vacuum seal or can the extra fish they catch at sea.

Though her ingredients may seem eclectic, Maddie keeps her cooking simple by focusing on a handful of ingredients. “I don’t over-complicate things; I just don’t have the space for it.”

Mary’s Rustic Ranch Kitchen

Across town, Mary has a similarly simple approach to tiny living. “I love my life,” she says of her hilltop trailer. A local girl, she was born and raised on an avocado ranch atop Rincon Mountain—no doubt contributing to her pursuit of a career in food.

Mary focused on baking at Santa Barbara City College’s culinary arts program before moving to LA to work at a vegan, organic and gluten- and soy-free bakery. She eventually returned to Carpinteria to work on her parents’ ranch.

“I fell in love with gardening,” she says. At that time she also baked at the Sojourner Café and started a farm-to-table meal delivery service.

These days, Mary lives and works at a ranch on Highway 150. Her modest trailer is off the grid and set among avocado and lemon trees. She also works at the farmers market and is a plant-based baker. Her way of life is modest, and that’s just the way she likes it.

“Working with plants has changed my perception of food and cooking,” says Mary. Her baked goods are inspired by the natural world and often have a strong floral component.
“I love combining rose geranium with chocolate, or chocolate with lavender.”

While her flavors are elevated, Mary’s kitchen is rudimentary. She splits her space between the trailer and a quaint windowed outdoor kitchen just a few steps away. This solar-powered kitchen gives Mary space for “luxuries” like a blender and food processor. She also has an old O’Keefe & Merritt stove and one large sink. While it has more amenities, the outdoor kitchen is colder and farther from her pantry so she mostly uses it when she has company. Most of the time she cooks in the very basic kitchen in her trailer.

While her trailer lacks some comforts, it’s not short on charm. There is a four-burner stove and a small oven, however, no electricity or running water. Mary was using a headlamp indoors to see at night, but recently got a trailer light. She uses her refrigerator for dry storage and keeps food cold in an ice chest on the floor. An irrigation line runs through her window and over her sink so she can wash dishes. “I’ve become more appreciative of refrigeration and electricity,” she says.

Like Maddie, Mary ferments and cans and focuses her meals on fresh herbs and seasonal produce. She usually makes one-bowl meals with a variety of textures and toppings.

“My tiny kitchen keeps me making easy meals that don’t take up too much space,” says Mary.

The Tiny Mess

After spending time with them, it became clear that Maddie and Mary have very similar ideals when it comes to living. They’ve spent many hours cooking together and discussing ideas for culinary projects so it came as no surprise to me that they wanted to write a book about tiny kitchens.

“We have a lot of friends in wild, alternative spaces. Some live in trucks, boats, trailers, tree houses, cabins, yurts and other tiny spaces,” says Maddie. “This brought us to the idea of sharing other peoples’ sweet little kitchens,” Mary adds.

The Tiny Mess book will include photo essays, interviews and recipes from select tiny kitchens. The photos are all medium format with the exception of a handful of 35mm photographs. “It really is a handcrafted project,” says Maddie. Maddie and Mary write the recipes and Maddie’s husband, photographer and professional surfer Trevor Gordon, shoots them.

They have been looking for kitchens that are miniature and interesting and inhabited by creative people. Mary has been scouting locally and last year Trevor and Maddie toured homes in the Pacific Northwest. “We visited a lot of off-the-grid places,” recalls Maddie. “It’s so fun to see how people adapt to their wild situations.”

Trevor and Maddie found themselves in unconventional homes including a tree house, a converted school bus and a diminutive cabin. Some of their subjects lived off the land. One couple lived on Orcas Island in Washington. They cultivated their own grains, hunted deer and rabbit, harvested their own honey, foraged greens and kelp and preserved nearly everything.

“I was so inspired after that trip,” says Maddie. “I learned to be more frugal. I make do with what we have now and forage where I can. I dehydrate, ferment and can a lot of our goods, which is a direct result of meeting those amazing people.”

As housing prices increase, there is a movement toward smaller homes—studios, campers, cabins and even boats. “Tiny living is a lifestyle choice not just a home choice. It means scaling down where you live and how you live,” Maddie says.

Maddie and Mary hope the book will inspire others too—those with kitchens both large and small. “People love to learn about simple living. Anyone can do it but people don’t think that it’s possible or fun,” says Maddie.

Embrace Your Space

With a few tricks and thoughtful planning Mary and Maddie have learned to create complex flavors in their simple spaces. Here are a few tips to turn your small space into an inspired one.

Maximize your counter space.
If your counters are cluttered you won’t want to use them. Find alternative spaces for rarely used items, or discard them. Hang things you reach for often or store them on open shelving. Create additional counter space by using a sink cover.

Invest in multi-functional items.
Use Mason jars for bulk goods, leftovers, glassware, or for canning and fermentation. Buy a pot lid that doubles as a strainer or a set of nesting bowls that serve as a mixing, food prep and measuring set. A small immersion blender can replace a blender and a bulky food processor.

Keep only the items you love.
If you cook one-pot meals, use a great pot. Invest in a cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven. Besides being a workhorse, cast iron is easy to clean. You can also eliminate the need for many dull knives with one great chef’s knife and one serrated knife.

Get organized.
Get used to the art of mise en place, and you’ll keep a tidier kitchen. To save space and minimize dishes use a muffin tin to hold your prepped ingredients or layer them in a single bowl and separate them with wax paper. Clean as you go to keep the counters and sink clear. And do your dishes immediately, so they don’t pile up.

Be frugal with resources.
Steam vegetables instead of roasting them to save energy, and use quick-cooking grains such as bulgur and quinoa. Switch to a pressure cooker, which requires less water and fuel.

If you feel your small kitchen is leaving something to be desired, use it as an opportunity to simplify. Having less can ultimately be more fulfilling.

“I love that when we have friends over we all squeeze in and sit close to each other,” Maddie says. “I bring a meal over and it sits in front of us all on the tiny table, steaming. It feels so personal.”

Maybe it’s time to redefine the dream kitchen. Maybe dreaming big actually means living small.


Recipes

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Springtime Fava Bean Cakes

These fresh and hearty patties showcase the best of spring produce and flavors. They can be served as-is or topped with homemade pesto, aioli or in a crusty ciabatta roll as a wonderful vegan burger.

Makes 4–6 servings. 

1 cup crushed pepitas

14 cup flax seed meal

1 pinch salt

2 cups shelled fava beans or edamame, fresh or frozen
and defrosted

13 cup chopped green onion

2 cloves minced garlic

112 cups cooked quinoa

21 tablespoons arrowroot powered

13 cup cornmeal

2 tablespoons fresh parsley

14 cup fresh chopped mint

2 tablespoons lemon juice

34 teaspoon sea salt plus more to taste and for the
pepita crust

12 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons coconut oil for frying

Combine crushed pepitas, flax seed meal and pinch of salt in a bowl and put aside.

Add remaining ingredients to a food processor and pulse until just combined. Empty into a large bowl and, using your hands, combine and meld the mixture well, making sure to break up the quinoa and beans.

Measure into 13-cup balls and flatten with your palms into patties. Carefully coat each cake in the pepita and flax seed mixture and place on wax paper on a plate. Continue this until all of the mixture is used and patties are layered between sheets of waxed paper.

Note: If they are crumbly and not holding their shape, try chilling them or form them right before cooking and place them directly into the pan.

In a large well-seasoned skillet or nonstick pan, heat coconut oil almost to the smoking point. Add the cakes, being careful not to overcrowd the pan. Lower heat to medium and fry for 2 minutes on each side or until crispy and golden. When all patties are fried, bake in preheated oven for 5 minutes and serve.


Rainbow Carrots with Beet Yogurt and Herb Oil

Makes 4 servings

20 rainbow carrots, washed with tops cut short

3 tablespoons of olive oil plus ½ cup

112 teaspoons sea salt

12 cup of plain, unsweetened yogurt or nondairy organic
soy yogurt

1 beet, peeled and grated

13 cup fresh dill

13 cup fresh parsley

13 cup fresh mint

Preheat oven to 350°. In a large roasting pan lay the carrots out and drizzle with 3 tablespoons of olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Massage with your hands to ensure carrots are well coated. Bake for approximately 40 minutes, or until a carrot will fall off a fork easily when pierced.

While the carrots are cooking, take the grated beets and squeeze through cheesecloth or push through a fine sieve to separate the juice from the flesh. Keep the juice and discard the flesh. In a medium bowl, combine 2 teaspoons of beet juice and yogurt. Add more beet juice for a more intense color. Cover and set aside.

In a blender add the remaining ½ cup of olive oil and fresh herbs. Blend until herbs are well broken down and oil is bright green. Pour through a fine sieve over a bowl, keeping the oil and discarding the herbs.

Arrange the roasted carrots on a platter and drizzle artistically with the yogurt and the herb oil.

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To learn more about The Tiny Mess visit TheTinyMess.com, follow @the_tiny_mess on Instagram or tag images of your own tiny kitchen using #thetinymess. 


Brina Carey has spent her career working in and for the environment. Now you can find her cooking vegan treats for her toddler and teaching him bird identification while fantasizing about her dream kitchen and veggie garden. 

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