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.

Swedish Death Cleaning

A big thank you to Root Simple reader Harkinna for tipping us off to the latest decluttering trend, Swedish death cleaning. No, this doesn’t refer to cleaning tips from Swedish death metal rock musicians. A Treehugger article details this Scandinavian answer to Marie Kondo,

In Swedish, the word is “döstädning” and it refers to the act of slowly and steadily decluttering as the years go by, ideally beginning in your fifties (or at any point in life) and going until the day you kick the bucket. The ultimate purpose of death cleaning is to minimize the amount of stuff, especially meaningless clutter, that you leave behind for others to deal with.

The article goes on to describe Margareta Magnusson, the doyen of Swedish death cleaning, as Marie Kondo with a dose of momento mori. Not having read Magnusson’s book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, I can’t comment on the method’s effectiveness, but its clear that both Magnusson and Kondo are addressing a universal problem of our consumer culture: too much stuff.