Food Storage Revisited

Kitchen spice pantry at the Joseph D. Oliver House, 1946. Photo: Library of Congress.

My post on de-cluttering our food storage hit a nerve proving, yet again, that the most direct path to the deeper issues of our culture is through the mundane details of our daily lives. Through the neglected field of home economics one can address collective vs. individual action, city planning, capitalism and, gasp, even eschatology.

To clarify my original post, I was not arguing against keeping a pantry stocked, rather that our pantry had accumulated a lot of useless items. I also contend that the storage in our house, built in 1920, is adequate for our day to day and emergency needs without having to add more shelves. In addition to the cabinets mentioned in the post on Monday, our house also has storage under the seating in the breakfast nook as well as built-in cabinets and drawers in a hallway adjacent to the kitchen. And there’s another set of cabinets that hold our dishes. I should also clarify that if you live out in the country and have a big vegetable garden you will need a larger pantry or basement. We are urban dwellers with, at best, a tiny vegetable garden (which has been neglected this year while I work on the house).

That said there are some big differences between the kitchens of the 1920s and the kitchens of today that present new challenges. Some of those changes:

  • We have a lot more kitchen gadgets and consumer electronics.
  • With the ascendancy of the personal automobile we have fewer small neighborhood markets in walking distance.
  • Pervasive cable TV food porn that pushes us all to turn our kitchens into the next elBulli.

Helms Bakery delivery truck alerting us all to the dangers of baking at home!

One thing that went away during the mid 20th century and has now returned is food delivery. In the 1920s lots of things were delivered: milk, baked goods, ice etc. Food delivery has returned in the form of services such as Instacart and Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods. Unfortunately, many of these new services rely on gig economy serfdom, which has made me uncomfortable about using them, though Instacart was handy when my mom could no longer drive herself to the market. I suspect we’ll see a lot more food delivery in the near future and can see how helpful it is to busy families with young children or elders to take care of. I’d just like to make sure that the folks delivering the food can also afford to buy that food.

I think if I could “immanentize the eschaton” of our 21st century pantries I’d see those shelves holding useful, healthy staples always ready to turn into basic meals. While that sounds simple, it’s not. Can we please bring back those home economics classes and make them co-ed?

On the Problem of Food Storage and Hoarding

Food pantry before and after.

If there’s one thing that life in this bungalow has taught me is that what we call “minimalism” is simply the way people lived in the 1920s. The original inhabitants of this house made do with one small closet and a few built-in cabinets. If there’s another thing I’ve learned it’s that building additional storage always leads us down the path of over-consumption.

If the Food Network ever makes a foodie hoarder reality show, we could have been on an episode thanks to the shelves we added to the utility room. Those shelves quickly filled with aspirational but never used ingredients such as tapioca flour as well as mediocre food preservation projects that I just couldn’t admit defeat on.

Our kitchen’s ample built-in cabinets.

When it came time for our painters to work on the utility room we decided to take down the shelves and try to live with the storage built for the original inhabitants of this house. Now I’ve noticed that when I go to the market I’m more conscious of the choices I make knowing that we don’t have the room for ingredients that won’t get used much.

Transportation nerds have a phrase for this phenomenon, “induced demand.” Build extra lanes for a freeway and those lanes will fill to capacity and you’ll end up with worse traffic jams than the ones you thought you were preventing. The same goes for storage space. Built it and you’ll end up with a lot of crap you don’t need.

Of course, if I followed this pre-WWII logic to its extreme, I’d have to start dressing more sharply and stop walking around what, in the 1920s, wouldn’t even pass for pajamas. Hey Kelly where did I put my spats?

A Cluttered Life: Middle-Class Abundance

In the process of installing some new floors and rearranging a few doors and walls we’ve had to completely empty most of the rooms of the house. In the process I’ve come to realize that I like the look of an empty room or, at least, a room with nothing more than a few pieces of furniture. Call me one of those controversial minimalists (with, in my youth, maximalist tendencies).

A few years ago a group of archaeologists and anthropologists at UCLA undertook a meticulous study of the cluttery habits of 32 families in Los Angeles and published a book Life at Home in the Twenty First Century. The book has the distanced vibe of what it would be like if a group of archaeologists from the future excavated a 21st century home and reported the results. Why the photo shrines on the metal food storage units?

The book is worth reading (ironically, I just sold my copy to reduce book clutter). While I no longer own the book I was happy to discover the short, three part video series on the project which I’ve embedded for your weekend enjoyment.

Part II

Part III

What was especially interesting for me about these videos is that they address the complex intersection of clutter and child rearing, something that we don’t have experience with.

Do I Need Books?

In order to begin the restoration project we commenced a month ago, I had to box up the contents of our bookshelves. Not once have I had any need or desire to open any of those boxes and retrieve a book. Which leads to an uncomfortable question for an author: do I need to own any books?

One of the extreme tidying methods suggested by Fumio Sasaki, author of Goodbye Things, is to box your possessions, wait for a reasonable period of time and if you don’t use any of those items, send them to the thrift store. If I were to use this method my entire library, with the exception of a few books I left out of the boxes, would be cast off.

I’ve realized that in those boxes I have books which:

  • I’ve read and will probably never read again.
  • I will probably never read but think that I should read.
  • Are a souvenir of some place or experience.

These need to go. More tricky will be the books:

  • To which we contributed articles or chapters.
  • I know the library doesn’t have and that I think I will read someday.
  • Which are reference books or cookbooks that we regularly use.

These latter books I will keep but could probably do without (I lack the iron will of Fumio Sasaki).

Interestingly, I’ve found myself reading more now that I can’t access my books. Three days a week I go to the YMCA which is mere steps from the vast Los Angeles Central Library. I can, pretty much, find any book I want there. I also have an iPad which I use to download public domain books as well as some new ebooks that the library makes available for free.

Sometimes one’s personal library can devolve into a kind of virtue signaling, a way to seem smart when visitors drop by. In my case it’s definitely time for a book winnowing and, yes, I will still have a bookshelf populated with books I use for reference. Kelly has her own books and shelf.

Of course books have a tendency to accumulate and I have no doubt that I will have to go through a book cleaning process again in the future. In the meantime I hope to remember that books are meant to be read, used and passed on to someone else.

What Would William Morris Say?

Tidying prophetess Marie Kondo has her “spark joy” test. Hold an object, ask if it “sparks joy” and if not, send it to the thrift store to clutter some other person’s house. I’ve been working on another de-cluttering concept, currently in the beta testing stage, that will have us all ask, “what would William Morris say?”

William Morris, one of the most prominent members of the Arts and Crafts movement, took part in a last ditch effort to bring dignity back to work and stave off the horrors of an industrialized, consumer culture. His mantra, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” is a sentiment I feel the need to foreground in my own struggles with clutter and consumer culture. This is why I’m introducing the new William Morris Meme™.

Here’s how it works. Let’s say you’re at Home Depot looking at patio furniture. As yourself, “what would William Morris say?” Then picture the William Morris Meme:

What if you’re arguing with your spouse over a certain Ikea impulse purchase:

Or you’re pondering a trip to Costco:

I know, the salmon is a bargain, but William Morris thinks you’ll end up with a basket full of pizza pockets and a Taco Bell hoodie.

How about spending some time on Facebook?

I think I’ve got the makings of a new anti-consumerist app. Unfortunately, I doubt that Zuck’s tech-bro pals will send over any venture capital.