[ Note from Design Mom: I am deeply saddened to report that Kate Holbrook died of a rare cancer of the eye, at age 50, on August 20th, 2022. Her home tour was originally published in November of 2019. We are republishing it today to share again Kate’s beautiful home and beautiful life as a memorial to her. If you’d like to learn more about the remarkable Kate, here are a few links:
-Thoughts on Kate’s life in The Salt Lake Tribune and in The Deseret News
-A sermon written by Kate from 2006
-The video of Kate’s funeral
-An essay about Kate — What Kate Holbrook taught me about the love of God through food
My personal connection to Kate is through a close friend of mine and of Kate’s, Susan Hamilton. Once upon a time, maybe 16 or 17 years ago, Susan and I took a little roadtrip from New York to Boston and stayed the night at Kate’s house. That was my first time meeting her and I was immediately struck by how warm, smart, and interesting she was.
I think you’ll love this quote from Kate in the home tour below: When I feel frustrated, I try to remember the point of the house is to bring people together, not to harm relationships in search of house perfection.
I send love and sympathy to Kate’s family and all those affected by her death. — Gabrielle ]
Kate has such a fascinating story and I’m so excited for you to meet her today. Her home is a traditional gem in a neighborhood in Salt Lake City. It’s warm and cozy and there are book cases and books around every corner — you can instantly tell this is a family full of readers. Kate also shares some of the life-altering challenges she’s gone through as well brilliant philosophies about cooking and eating as a family. Welcome, Kate!
One evening in our little Cambridge, Massachusetts condominium, Sam put down the phone (a landline!) and walked slowly into the living room, where I was sitting after putting our two little daughters to bed. One of his best friends had just told him that you’re only from one place and you need to decide whether you are going to make roots in that place or truly create a life someplace else.
We knew that Utah was our place. Our ancestors are buried in Utah.
Sam was preparing to start a Pulmonology fellowship and I was finishing coursework on a PhD in Religious Studies. I wanted to have a third child, which felt difficult in our current home and city. Sam had been affiliated with Harvard since his first year of college and wondered whether he should branch out and try something different. Both of us missed living near the Uintah and Wasatch mountain ranges, so we decided to return home.
When we moved from Boston to Salt Lake, I was already pregnant with our third daughter, Persephone. We looked for a neighborhood that would be pedestrian-friendly — we love to take walks. Right now, we’re walking distance from a branch of the public library, a great grocery store, church, and Jolley’s Corner pharmacy, which sells gifts and candy beside the prescription medicines. During the summer, the pharmacy opens a shack on the side to sell snow cones and soft serve ice cream.
Knowing that our children could walk to buy a snow cone made me feel like our lives were almost too good to be true. (I don’t know whether to tell you that we’re also by an open park that has both shade and sand to play in. I’m afraid you’ll think I’m making this up, that it’s too much goodness for one neighborhood to hold.)
Sam is one of seven children of a single mother and I was an only child, living with my mom and my grandma. Both of our mothers were public school teachers. At my house, we had a velvet couch, reflective wallpaper with peacocks, and window shears that we opened and closed as the sun made its way across the sky each day. At Sam’s house, they hung a poster of a singer they didn’t like in the basement and threw knives at it.
He said he didn’t care where we lived, as long as it was well within our budget. I really cared where we lived.
Our Salt Lake City starter home was an arts and crafts bungalow that our carpenter friend, Stephan Adams, helped make comfortable and beautiful for our family. We didn’t remove the bidets installed by the Italian man who owned the house two owners back because they were just the right height for our little kids to use as sinks. Nonetheless, I am particular, and I kept a list of things that house taught me about what our next house should have.
Because my childhood home had been so calm and orderly, I felt mildly overwhelmed when people came to stay with us. I wanted a house with a guest room. In my teens, I had a second-floor bedroom with, when I lay with my head at the foot of the bed, the view of a magnificent canyon. I wanted a second-floor bedroom. Finally, there was no entryway in our old house—you walked directly into the dining room. Every knock on the door at mealtime felt like an invasion. I wanted an entryway.
Laura Hansen, our realtor and friend, let me know when a house that had all of these features went on the market about a mile north of us. My friend Tammy Porter, a brilliant designer, visited it with me to give me advice and check it out. She helped me to realize it was just right. The asking price was a little high, but we would put in a fair offer.
The seller didn’t agree. As I tried to put disappointment behind me, I kept thinking about the parts of the house I especially loved: the original light fixtures, the laundry chute, and the reading nook — that nook hurt most of all.
Almost a year went by — a year where I stopped checking MLS listings because the house I’d felt was our destiny was lost to us forever. But one day I decided to check and see whether it were still on the market. As you’ve guessed, the house WAS still on the market, the price had gone down, and this time we were able to buy it.
In the months before moving in, I spent a lot of time planning — my heart racing with both happiness and worry — which improvements we would make. Extra bookshelves were a necessity — and a way to convince Sam that he could be happy with the move. We also added French doors to the study, so we could close it off from the living room when I didn’t want people looking at all of the items I knew would collect on Sam’s desk.
Neither of us has a huge wardrobe, and two friends advised us to turn the master walk-in closet into a small bathroom. I worried that was too extravagant, but my friends were adamant, and persuasive, so we turned it into a bathroom. They were thinking ahead, to when our daughters would be teenagers. All five of us sharing the one upstairs bathroom, they argued, would be a disaster.
But their wisdom revealed itself immediately after we moved in. I no longer had to step over their clothes when I got up in the night, nor stare at hardened globs of toothpaste left in the bathroom sink. Bill Cordray, the architect who designed our bookcases, recommended we cut a “window” into the shower to let in natural light. We used old-fashioned glass cubes that let in light but obscured the details of showering bodies. I still thank Bill, regularly, in my heart.
Our money spent, we didn’t make many changes to the well-functioning kitchen. We updated the cupboard knobs, took out a little shelf so we could store our mixer in a corner, and added shelves to the shallow broom closet, which is perfect for storing homemade preserves. Now that three of us regularly cook, we sometimes wish it had an island or just a little more space. But I don’t like large kitchens — they’re less efficient and a lot more work to keep clean. Still, the thought of an extra sink . . .
A couple of weeks after we moved in, I saw a dark spot at the side of my vision. I realized that my left eye had felt irritated for several months, so I made a morning appointment with my eye doctor. He misdiagnosed the problem, but by the end of the day, having seen two other specialists, I learned that I had cancer in my left eye.
Best case scenario, one of the doctors told Sam on the phone that evening, I would lose my eye. Worst case, I would die in a few months.
Our house was still chaotic — things in boxes, bookshelves waiting in the kitchen for installation in the study, dust everywhere, aggravating my asthma. There was also chaos in my self. When and how much should we tell the girls? What would it be like to lose an eye? How should we spend our time together? When would it come to an end?
Losing an eye was rough, it turned out, but also really lucky because the cancer hadn’t spread. This was seven years ago. Doctors had warned me that “enucleation” was a big surgery with a long recovery. What I didn’t expect was that it would also be really hard on our marriage.
I ended up having three surgeries over several months, and by the time I started to feel better physically, regain my balance, and relearn to drive, I found I was angry with Sam. He was (his words) a vaguely autistic workaholic who didn’t get involved with keeping house. Facing the prospect of death had brought to the surface feelings of resentment that I’d been trying to ignore for years.
We got some counseling. We spent some difficult months learning to communicate better with each other, and I made clear that I would no longer shoulder so much of the housework. Sam did the thing so hard for most humans to accomplish: he made major changes. He agreed to pick up more, to help with the dishes, and to start making dinner, doing the planning and the shopping for that meal, once a week. We also started having weekly dates.
At first, Sam went through a risotto phase so prolonged that even now, when I see it on a restaurant menu, I fight the urge to stand up and leave. But then he discovered Jerusalem: A Cookbook, which had sufficiently interesting recipes that they awakened in him a real passion for cooking. Thank you, Yotam Ottolenghi, for helping to rehabilitate our marriage. We own and use every one of your cookbooks.
We also started a meal exchange with one of the women who’d brought us delicious food when I was sick. Now I cooked for our family and hers once a week, she cooked for them and us once a week, and Sam cooked once a week. Between leftovers and egg toast, we had plenty of delicious food to eat and I was only cooking once or at most twice a week. I love to cook, but not more often than that.
A couple of years later, the youth organization at our church encouraged girls Amelia’s age to help more at home. She decided one thing she could do was learn to cook, and soon she was also making dinner once a week. This was convenient because as the girls grew older they ate more, and we had fewer leftovers. Amelia learned that she, too, loved to cook, and we learned that she was really good at it. She had good instincts; she followed recipes carefully; and she had a perceptive palate.
I have always loved to cook. When I was a kid, one of my favorite TV shows was The Frugal Gourmet and although I loved to read fiction, I often also had a pile of cookbooks on the floor by my bed.
For the past few years, I’ve kept track of which recipes work best when we need to be efficient, such as when we take our turn at the family cabin or spend a week renting my great aunt and uncle’s beach house, which I used to visit while growing up. Preparing for a family vacation can be stressful, and we thought our recipes were delicious enough that we should share them to help ease that burden.
People told us that to get a cookbook publishing contract, first you needed a successful blog. So, a couple of months ago, we started a food blog called The Away Cafe. Amelia and I are the main writers and recipe developers, and Sam works as a test cook, editor, and equipment scout, helping us figure out aspects of filming (we’re about to add a video/vlog component).
Our other daughters also contribute. Lucia is particularly tuned to aesthetics. She spends a good portion of her free time dancing ballet, much of the rest of it following dancers and ballet companies on social media, and what’s left over doing art work and calligraphy of favorite lines from her two TS inspirations — T.S. Elliot and Taylor Swift. She designed our logo, posts to Instagram every Thursday when we drop a new recipe, and works as our marketing expert.
Persephone loves words and is meticulous, so sometimes she’ll read our drafts and help us to identify both mistakes and places to rewrite for clarity. Sometimes she’s not in the mood. She does a lot of writing in school and can’t find enough time in the day for all of the reading she wants to do, which only makes her a better writer and editor. We love reading her writing and watching her discover and grow into her gifts.
Even before other family members were cooking, food and recipes were something that gave our family comfort, identity, and belonging. On Christmas morning, we always have hot chocolate, scrambled eggs, bacon, sliced oranges, and cinnamon rolls made into a wreath — almost exactly like my Aunt Debra used to serve young me when we spent Christmas with her and her family.
The anticipation of that meal bonds us together, eating it after stockings but before opening presents bonds us, enjoying the reliability and good flavors of it bonds us, and so does the fact that the aunt whom we all love inspired the menu. We celebrate how we switched from one cinnamon roll recipe to a new one that tastes even better.
We remember the Christmas I lost my eye— I wasn’t allowed to eat solid foods and I had vertigo, so Sam helped out by making the bacon. He hadn’t yet learned to cook, and he burnt it so badly that the kitchen filled with smoke and the girls crawled out on their hands and knees, calling out, “Stop! Drop! Roll!” Then we talk about some of our favorite dishes that he makes now.
Family history matters to us, too. We love that there’s even some research to suggest that our instincts are right. The research of Robyn Fivush and Marshall Duke shows that children and adolescents familiar with their family histories are better off socially, emotionally, and academically. We have photos around our house of ancestors, many of them long dead, and we try to remember to talk about them on their birthdays — although we admittedly often forget.
Food stories help us to remember them. Sam’s granddad was a cheese scientist and we think of him when we celebrate good cheese. We make my grandma’s recipes, and we also honor her approach to food — having people over for dinner, setting a beautiful table, sharing food with neighbors. Recipes also connect us to friends who no longer live near us —we feel their presence when we make food we know they love or they have taught us to make.
Our religious faith includes a core belief in the eternal importance of human connection. Preparing and sharing food is a major way that we try to honor that vision.
Despite our best efforts, we know that we fall short as parents, but we hope we’ve invited our children into relationships with people whose goodness compensates for our weaknesses. Just spending time with people is healing. The reason I put a lot of energy into food and into our house is to create a place where people can be comfortable and feel loved.
I work full-time, so there are things that I have to outsource. I have all kinds of ways to organize the rhythm of our lives to keep things running smoothly, and even so, I’ll come home from a date night and look around despairing that there’s a dirty pan in the sink, something sticky on the counters, papers lying on the floor within feet of the recycling bin. When I feel frustrated, I try to remember the point of the house is to bring people together, not to harm relationships in search of house perfection.
Thank you, Kate! I love how getting the whole family involved with mealtime made a huge difference in Kate’s stress levels and also created an activity the family could spend time together doing. For me, planning, prepping and cleaning up after meals is one of the most stressful parts of the job. I love the idea of a meal trading service, or getting other family members involved.
I also really appreciated Kate talking honestly about losing her eye. What an incredibly challenging experience to go through! I appreciate Kate’s candor about how hard not only the surgeries and the recovery was, but how much of an impact it had on her marriage and the work required to get things back to where Kate and her husband wanted them to be.
What’s your best advice for going through a difficult trial in a marriage? How do you make sure the challenges bring you closer together instead of pushing you apart?
Yotam Ottolenghi’s gorgeous cookbooks
More information about how family history helps kids
Would you like to share your home in our Living With Kids series? It’s lots of fun, I promise! (And we are always looking for more diversity in the families we feature here. Single parents, non-traditional parents, families of color, LGBT parents, multi-generational families. Reach out! We’d love to hear your stories!!) Email us at email@example.com.