An object is often worth more than its material form. It can bring with it cultural echoes, family history, and personal memory. In The Things We Treasure, writers tell us about their most priceless possessions—and the irreplaceable stories behind them.
I carry my kitchen towels wherever I go. Well, at least one or two of them. Certainly to any place where I know I’m going to be cooking, but also to picnics, long car trips, even on planes—it’s amazing how handy they are when you have to eat on the fly. And when I was commuting to an office, there was always one tucked into my lunchbox.
My love for them started with a vintage towel my husband Bob and I found at a Christmas market in a tiny village in France in 2006. It was a spur-of-the-moment trip, panacea for the sadness over losing both of our dogs that year. We had just arrived on an overnight flight from New York, and were dizzy from lack of sleep and desperate for coffee. In a car, and en route to Burgundy, Barbizon had seemed as good a place as any for a refreshment stop.
In the early 1800s, Barbizon was home to a group of painters later dubbed the Barbizon School. One of the founders, Jean-Françoise Millet, painted his famous The Gleaners near here in 1857, depicting three peasant women in a field picking up stray stalks of wheat after the harvest.
We found our coffee on Grande Rue, watching as people unloaded vans and set up stalls for a holiday market all along a narrow street—and decided to stay on. Later, at the market, we reluctantly passed on the cheese and charcuterie (with no access to refrigeration until later on in our trip) but had no hesitation when our eyes fell on a display of beautiful vintage torchon (kitchen towels). The one that caught my eye was made of linen from the Vosges mountains, and like all linen, I already imagined it getting softer and more absorbent over time. I happily handed over 3 Euros and tucked it into my shoulder bag.
That towel was so delightful that from that day on, we never walked through a French street market or vide grenier (a yard sale, but literally meaning “empty the attic”) without looking for torchons. Now it is the first thing we try to hunt down on our annual Christmas visits.
The kitchen towels became an easy and tactile way to have a little bit of France at home with us through the rest of the year. And because we actually put them to use in our travels—the kitchens in the places we rent can often be woefully undersupplied—they come further imbued with memories of meals together in some of our favorite countries.
Happily, you don’t have to be at a rural market to hunt them down. Many vintage towels I’ve loved have come from Au Petit Bonheur La Chance, a small shop on Rue Saint Paul in Paris, packed so densely with vintage torchons and other linens, bowls, toleware and paper goods that you could easily spend hours digging through it all.
My affections, however, are not exclusively for vintage towels. Other French favorites have come to us new. One particular beauty, in purple and brown jacquard, came from the Musée des Tissus (Textile Museum) in Lyon. Lyon was a center of silk working since 1466 when King Louis XI decided to compete with the prominent Italian silk markets in Florence, Venice, and Lucca. The silk workers of Lyon, known as Canuts, are not only legendary for their weaving, but they have a cheese dip named after them, Cervelle de Canut, served in several Lyonnaise restaurants throughout France.
Last year, we picked up a new torchon in Normandy. As we stood in line at the airport on our way home, a customs agent came over to inspect my carry-on. “Have you been in Normandy?” she asked in accented English. She's spotted the contraband butter. No, the Camembert, I thought. Instead, she pointed at the towel that I had wrapped over the top of my tote’s contents for extra protection. “This is a very typical Norman textile,” she said as she picked it up for further inspection. She carefully put it back in the bag and moved on. Ironically, she was wrong: although we did buy it in Normandy, this torchon was from the Basque country. But one other thing I have learned about the French is you don’t contradict them—especially at airport security.
Of all our new torchons, the craziest has to be the one we went on an hour-long hunting expedition to find. We were renting a gîte in Puligny-Montrachet that not only had a dreamy kitchen and a well-stocked pantry, but a charming cotton towel we fell hard for. It was hanging on the door of the wall oven, with red window-pane checks, yellow, blue, and green stripes and a wide band on all four sides woven to spell out Bon Appetit. On the lower half of the towel, printed in black, was the name and address of a butcher shop on the other side of Burgundy. A road trip became inevitable. The shop owner, meanwhile, looked at us like we were crazy to come all that way for a towel, but seemed touched. She gave it to us as a gift.
I’m deeply attached to all of these towels and can’t imagine being without them. After years of stock-piling them, I love knowing I can always reach for a dry, clean one no matter how mountainous the pile of pots and pans. But because we gathered them from memorable and meaningful places, it became easy to be overly cautious about their use. For a long time, they were relegated to just wash-up duties. But as my concerns about waste and the environment mounted in the last decade, I realized I could put these towels to work in far more situations than I had before. They are perfectly capable of cradling cleaned green beans in the vegetable bin, wiping down the cutting board, and the odd spill.
Now I see the stains as an emblem of honor, a merit badge for lots of home cooking. Occasionally, one will become so raggedy and frayed that I’ll reluctantly toss it. But that only makes room for another one from a more recent adventure. By pressing these beauties into service, I not only get to bask in lovely memories, but also know that I’m saving both money and trees.
What's the most memorable thing you've picked up on your travels? Tell us in the comments!