Friday, May 11, 2012

Minimalism vs. Abundance

The brilliant small life. Elegance, which is to say the state of having made choices, and having discarded the unworthy and kept only the best. This is what most of us want, except for the pathologically greedy, the disgustingly rich, and the hoarders. We don't want to be those people. Right? We want to lead lives of diamond-like brilliance.

Good luck with that. I've been working on it for more years than I care to remember, and it's one step forward and two steps back. Still, the struggle is worth pursuing.

I was going through a copy of Eating Light this morning, looking for enticing recipes, when I realized something about my kitchen. I don't have half the stuff it takes to make these gourmet dishes. I don't mean the big, perishable things, zucchini, cauliflower, meat, but the spices, specialty oils, gourmet vinegars, and ethnic sauces and condiments that make a dish stand out, not even getting into the cooking utensils required to prepare some ethnic dishes. Quite frankly, I can't give all that stuff house room. Nor can I use the spices and condiments up before they go bad. And then it struck me: one's kitchen is like one's closet.

Yes, standing in the kitchen moaning that there's nothing to eat is not very different from standing in front of the closet moaning that there's nothing to wear. And the things the experts tell you about your closet are also true of your kitchen.

For example:

Minimalism. There is a school of thought that says you should have no more than ten items of clothing for a season, excluding shoes, socks, underwear, scarves, gym clothes and evening wear. It's very French. In order to pull it off you must buy tops and bottoms in a single main colorway, with everything co-ordinating so well that you can dress in the dark. (If you're in New York it has to be black.) In the kitchen, you can apply this philosophy as well, paring down your need for many jars of spices by sticking to a single cuisine. (If you're in New Jersey it has to be Italian.) I wanted to cook a Swedish dish the other night only to find that it required cardamom, which as luck would have it costs fifteen dollars a jar at the local supermarket. Back to chicken cacciatore for me.

When Julia Child first came on the scene I was a young housewife. I learned a lot of what I know about cooking from watching her show. I don't recall that she used a food processor; her tools of choice were a big sharp chef knife, a balloon whisk, an assortment of pots and pans and a few bowls. As time goes by, though, and one loses the snap in one's wrist, a food processor can be a very nice thing to have. Likewise the bread machine, the ice cream maker – Still, I know how to keep a minimalist French kitchen. If I wanted to do that. (You see how easy it is to stray from the ideal.)

Suitability. Your closet and your kitchen should both be in harmony with your lifestyle. Your ten items of clothing will be different if you stay home and raise children from what you would wear to go to business, different also according to your age and degree of physical fitness. Likewise the things in your kitchen. If you have only twenty minutes at a time to cook, you shouldn't be investing in stockpots. If you have children to feed, maybe not so many spices and strange sauces.

Cost per use. A pricey classic can be a bargain if it will be worn or used often. You want to pay big bucks for your winter coat, which you will wear every day for four or five months out of the year, depending on where you live. Ditto your saute pan, good for making chili, frying pork chops, stir-frying, almost anything you might want to cook. I could never understand the impulse that makes women pay thousands and thousands of dollars for a wedding dress that they will wear only once. I know you want to look presentable, but really.

So there you go. These are my thoughts for today on how to be elegant and lead an elegant life. I'm going down to the kitchen now and chase the meal moths out of the cupboards, maybe pare down the spices, throw out the cinnamon I bought at the Acme thirty years ago. Tomorrow, the closet.