Few people I know would doubt that we have too much stuff. Over the course of my lifetime, the cost of ordinary goods like food, clothing, and home supplies has decreased, as adjusted for inflation, so that very few necessities are out of reach for the typical family. We end up with so much stuff chaotically crammed into our closets, pantries, desks, kitchen cupboards, etc, that sometimes it’s easier to just buy something new than to try to hunt down the old thing and figure out if it’s appropriate. Added to that, if it’s a piece of children’s clothing that you are looking for, there is a good chance that it will be outgrown before you find it.
I realized the magnitude of this problem over the summer when we had to move out of our kitchen in order to allow a contractor to renovate. Moving food out of the old refrigerator into the new, smaller storage fridge that we had put the basement, how many bottles of mustard and jars of hoisin sauce did we have? How many medium-sized jars got lost, crowded Condiment Purgatory in the back of the fridge? It turned out I had 3 jars of hoisin sauce and 4 of mustard, most likely because there is only one recipe that I like to make with hoisin sauce, so if I decided to make it on a whim, I didn’t remember what ingredients we had at home and found it more expedient to buy hoisin sauce on the spot in the grocery store. There was a similar process for the many pounds of beans that turned up in the Great Kitchen Pack-Up.
The problem is many times worse at my parents’ house. I seem to remember an occasion when my brother-in-law went searching for mustard in their fridge and found 8 jars, all of which had expired. Some the mustards had expired before my parents even moved into their house, suggesting that they had moved expired mustard from the kitchen of their old home to the new. Hmmm. [If you’re curious, skip to the bottom to see how this turned into a conversation about racial identity.]
As the summer kitchen renovation approached, I decided that this is a real problem worth facing and strategizing around. For one thing, I had 3 pounds of red lentils to eat up, and I don’t even like red lentils. For another, I read that North Americans throw away almost half the food that they buy, and that if you ate all of the food that you bought you could possibly reduce global warming. I thought about my dear and creative friend Kathryn, who took on a New Years’ resolution to see how many dinners she could make in a row without shopping for ingredients. She had to be thoughtful about what she had and sometimes make substitutions, but the answer was that she was able to make many dinners without buying any new ingredients. Her experience, along with my week of eating detested red lentils, led me to wonder where we got our sense of the need to accumulate stuff in our kitchens. Why, for example, will I impulse buy some random item in the farmer’s market, thinking, “Oh, I saw a nice maitake and kabocha curry recipe the other day, maybe I’ll make that…” Spontaneity can be exciting, or it can lead to an overabundance of Japanese produce in your food storage space. Also, I come from a long line of frugal self-deniers who would prefer to spend less money rather than more. I’m the girl who can keep squeezing toothpaste out of the same spent tube for a week or more after my husband has declared it better to just throw it out and get a new tube.
Moving out of our kitchen I discovered drawers full of partially-used flour, pasta, rice, beans, dried fruit, nuts…all things I love and need but was not using. Our culture makes it so easy to accumulate and acquire new things and harder to use and enjoy what we have. To use up your beans you need to find the recipe that you like and the time to make them. And our lives are not set up to be generous with time, at least not mine. When I stop and think about it, this accumulation of stuff is a symptom of the striving lifestyle of late capitalism. We strive to be successful parents, professionals, partners, friends, human beings, etc. So my kids eat homemade meals, The Historian and I read academic journals in our spare time, and I exercise and eat kale every day; but all of that does not make for a fulfilling life. It does not even keep us safe from cancer, does it?
The decision to do a modest renovation of our little galley kitchen was a commitment to having a space where we could enjoy spending time preparing the food that we eat. After a few months of chaos, we have an awesome kitchen. Having packed everything up, we have attempted to unpack only what we need are are working on culling the rest. I discovered duplicate spices and gave them to people who said they could use them. We donated some usable food to the local Food Bank. We ate stuff up. For the sake of streamlined design, we got a slightly smaller fridge for the new kitchen and now anything that gets used less than once a week is stored in the basement extra fridge. I’m making a big effort to only buy what we need, and so now we can actually see the back of the fridge, cabinets, etc.
This is not just about our kitchen, and it’s not just about stuff. It’s about the way that we understand what it means to live our values. I’ve had some time to dip my toe into the literature about mindfulness and minimalist lifestyles, starting with this great post. It turns out that I can’t let The Market decide what is important to me, these are decisions only I can make.
- I love to spend time in the kitchen, experiment with recipes, see ingredients transform into something new. I love to cook for myself and also for family and friends.
- Nothing beats spending time with the people I love. A relaxed dinner of a bowl of soup and a salad together can be as nice as an elaborate meal that I spend all day on.
- There is no winning at life if you don’t know what you value.
Okay, off now to tackle that maitake that’s sitting on my new counter.
Digression: Because everything is connected, this led to the following discussion around our little nuclear dinner table.
Me: You can put any of these condiments on your sausage and potatoes.
Kids (a.k.a. Neige and The Prophet) lay claim to hot sauce, mustard, relish, or whatever catches their fancy.
Me: You know, when I was growing up, we never put condiments on the table. We had a refrigerator full of mustard that we never used. Is that because it was the ’80s, or because I’m descended from hoarders? Or is it an ethnic thing?
Husband/The Historian: We always had condiments. But that’s because we’re WASPS. British food doesn’t traditionally have any flavor on its own, so we need condiments.
Me: Do you guys know that you’re White, or WASP?
N: I never thought of that before, I know that I’m Jewish, but most people don’t know that I’m 1/4 Japanese and they’re surprised to hear it.
H: Yup, you’re Anglo Saxon and Scottish, too, whether you want to be or not. That’s the thing about privilege. It’s not something you get to have or not. Also, when people assume that you are White, then you get treated as White, whether you want that or not….
It seems that my little Canadian-American-Jewish-Japanese-WASP progeny were blissfully unaware that these are labels that get stuck on them whether they want them or not. It’s not enough to think that you are leading by example, you have to have the actual discussions.