Kitchen Stuff vs. Culinary Zen

simplicity

The hiatus in Culinary Promiscuity’s postings was due to a minor calamity; a neighbor desiring more bang than his home renovation buck deserved hired cheap and fairly irresponsible contractors who, fearing that coming rains would harm whatever internal improvements they had made, diverted all the rain water from his higher roof onto mine. The $35K  resulting damages left me with three months of nothing but a kitchen and a bedroom intact and furnished. All the rest of the furniture was removed, leaving an empty hull of waterlogged drywall, bare studs and curling floor boards with a view.

The catastrophe that upended my life and business also brought an odd blessing: As the bright, freshly finished floor and the pristine white walls emerged from the wreckage, the space became light, open, and for want of a better word, Zen –  accidental Sheng Fui – a few dishes in the kitchen, no chairs, no trappings and no table. I ate seated on a kitchen stool at a pull out bread board by the sink, listened to music and read. Not once did I have to look for my keys. I cooked some, i sat on the deck a lot and made friends with couple of bread junkie blue jays.

The empty space was soothing, full of its emptiness and at times vaguely blissful.  I briefly considered calling the furniture removal  team to tell them to keep it all and send me a prayer rug – impractical unless one prays and probably not very comfortable in the long run,   Instead I put a yellow bistro table with a batch of flowers in the middle of an otherwise empty  living room. It gladdened my mornings.

The furniture was returned on Wednesday, catapulting me into five days of something like spring cleaning – arranging, selecting and culling, not only the returned three rooms of the house but the kitchen

Aromaster Coffee Maker

Braun Aromaster

Mostly culling. Less is not more, but less and better for being that.  Three months of  forced minimalist living left in its wake a need for more space, simpler surroundings and fewer possessions.

That’s not as easy as it sounds. The real world dictates more stuff and more complexity.

During the final reconstruction phase  a dysfunctional painter somehow disappeared my  simple “vintage” Bauhaus style  Braun coffee maker – the kind with a single on or off function, simple elegant design and great coffee.  I looked for a similar replacement. It does not exist. I  ended up with a contraption reminiscent of Darth Vader with a grinder and  NASA pretensions – a menacing piece of equipment with options requiring something like pilot training to make ten cups.  It’s green lights snarl at me when I enter the kitchen.

The Empire makes coffee

In search of something as theoretically simple as a coffee maker, I discovered that just about everything  in the Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s kitchen appliance department is like that. Simplicity, elegance, reliability and the basic on/off switch have been replaced by imposing things with circuitry. Not only has the pompous design and engineering of everyday items expanded beyond the modest needs of a one family kitchen, the number of things proposed for the home cook has exploded.

A practiced cook prepares a poached egg by slipping the egg into nearly boiling water, gently folding it over onto itself as the whites seize, finally removing a neat, delicate package with a slotted spoon. The perfect egg requires a pot and a slotted spoon.  The gourmet products market offers electric (electronic) egg poachers, microwave forms and silicon egg poaching pockets, as well as single purpose items like Smore’s kits, $100 milk frothers,  single sandwich presses, carrot curlers, electr(on)ic asparagus steamers and chocolate fountains.  While some of the newer items – say anything Silpat – are welcome, even indispensable improvements,  one could live and cook better without most of them. They are mostly  cabinet clutter and decidedly un-Zen, distasteful metaphors for an unpleasant evolution of the relationship between people with kitchens and food.

Thomas Mann subtly mocks the bourgeoisie in his novel Tonio Kröger,  noting ironically that the  Krögers, a wealthy North German Merchant family,  were cultured and educated, as they possessed all the knowledge of the civilized world in the unread books in their vitrines.  The food revival, the culinary madness of this millennium, has created a similar foodie bourgeoisie with all of the potential great dishes of the world in their cabinets, or worse, on their counters..

Pimping out kitchen basics comes at a price. The food prestige and luxury marketing industry has replaced the fifteen dollar citrus juicer with a $199 Breville sans reservoir.   Coffee makers have evolved from light, sleek and simple with one on/off button and great coffee to space age pod machines and  $100 – $300 mini IT coffee factories, heavy and loaded to the gills with delicate circuitry which guarantees you will be paying to replace or repair within less than a decade.  I dread to think what will happen when my magnificent first generation DeLonghi espresso maker bites the dust – the newer models have the footprint and the price tag of a small European car.

The question, following the food / society / people theme of this blog, would be who buys this stuff and why? If it’s basic and good,why not?  New owners of exorbitant  All Clad  pans are amazed at difference in ease and precision in  cooking – sometimes outrageous price is based on solid quality. There are, however, a limited number of such necessary cooking utensils and appliances, and the food equipment industry has long outgrown the market’s actual needs.The greater part of the luxury and single application appliance sales are driven by luxury marketing principles and created desire rather than the usefulness and need for products. It’s obviously successful. If consumers did not want space age $120 toasters, those could not have replaced the original simpler, more economical and robust models.

But toast is toast, and higher prices and prestigious design do not mean better coffee or waffles.  The only logical conclusion I can reach on the reason for the replacement of good by not necessarily better but more expensive and unnecessarily complicated items is that the great demand for this equipment is propelled by social aspiration rather than the real pleasure of the kitchen. Desire for prestige rather than practicality. Working appliances and equipment have become status symbols, a role previously reserved for Limoges porcelain, Baccarat crystal and other luxury dining settings.

Remember that those with the means to enjoy such luxury generally paid someone else to cook their meals,so it is logical that the status symbols were confined to the spaces where they entertained rather than the kitchen, were solid and serviceable were the standards,

Having lived Zen for a quarter year now, I have a low tolerance for complexity and clutter and limited desire for luxury in the form of over the top  or superfluous machinery. I was having a bit of trouble with it even before the great flood, but  I am now realizing the desire for order and a lighter domestic load, at least as far as it is possible. (The coffee maker is a total failure in this regard.)

Dan Scherotter, Chef Owner of San Francisco Restaurant Palio D’Asti shared as he showed me his lovely, vast but minimally furnished kitchen (Zen) that as a chef he abhors clutter and that any piece he did not use daily had a place only in the garage. If you walk into the best restaurant kitchens you see not more but more robust equipment. Dan’s point is that a good cook or a chef relies on his knowledge and skill to cook with an economy of exceptional tools. He does not expect the tools to cook for him.

I have taken his point. Less is less and less is better. I want my counters clear and my shelves roomy and organized. If I don’t need a thing frequently, it does not earn kitchen real estate.  If a kitchen item  isn’t crammed in the back of a cupboard, it won’t need looking for. Stuff:  bad / Zen:  good. On/off button: good / electronic timer with alarm and timer: annoying, bloated frippery. If you are unimpressed by my toaster, stay home and make your own damn tuna sandwich. My kitchen is there for me to enjoy, not to impress anyone. But then, I was never very “social” so it’s an easy decision.

“THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”
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The World is too much with us. Wordsworth, 1806

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