Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Illustration: Dale's rage against the machine

But – first things first. This is still, and forever, going to be long, laborious haul, with no shortcuts. I have a more helpful frame for it now, though: I no longer in any way see my difficulties with food as a manifestation of my poor character. I see it as a distortion imposed on me by industrial capitalism. They skillfully turned me into what Pollan calls “an industrial eater”: and every painful step towards eating real plain food, with no sauce but hunger, is a small act of defiance. “The food thing” falls into a pattern with a multitude of others: I have been conditioned to overconsume in many, many ways; I've been conditioned to believe in consumption as the beginning and end of my happiness, when in fact it's just an endlessly steepening toboggan slide towards a concrete wall. A wall of illness, of hopeless debt, of isolation. Make no mistake: that's what the consumption slide aims at.

That's grandiloquent, perhaps: but so are the extravagances of much of the food writing I've encountered since I began this, with its extraordinary emphasis on every meal being a peak experience. Every meal will not be a peak experience, no matter how much you spice and titillate it: all you can do by trying that hard is jade your palate.

No. I'm not looking for more ecstasy than an ordinary yam will sometimes supply.

Some years ago now – after many abjectly-failing attempts to “eat healthy,” – I realized the problem was larger than I thought. To eat healthy, I was going to have to cook. There was no other way, despite the swarm of people trying to sell me things to eat: the one thing no one was actually trying to sell me was healthy food. (There's a good economic reason for this: healthy food is unprocessed, it has no value-added, it has no brand or mark-up. A french fry you can sell at an enormous profit: a potato you can barely make a few cents on.)

And to cook, I was going to have to have a working kitchen. One that stayed clean and uncluttered, day in and day out, week in and week out. I had never had such a thing. We had a big kitchen, in the house where we raised our kids, and a quantity of dishes, and we operated on the simple principle of going until we ran out of clean dishes, which took about a week. By that time the kitchen was a huge mess, and cleaning it was a titanic enterprise, even with the dishwasher we then had. We'd limp along a few more days by eating fast food alone, and then we'd finally tackle it. It was a much more laborious system than actually washing up twice a day, and we knew that, but knowing something doesn't mean you act on it.

I was deeply embarrassed by the state of my kitchen, but I was also in a state of learned helplessness about it. And there were so many other things I was trying to make myself to do, by sheer force of will, and since they all were higher prestige than the lowly act of washing up, by the time I came to the sink my oomph was exhausted. I just looked at it all, pulled a package of something out of the fridge, and shuffled back to the living room to eat it, with my fingers if need be.

So when I finally had raised my kids; and when I finally had work that I loved, which nurtured me rather than depleting me; when I finally had some fragile self respect growing in my industrially-blighted soul – when I finally had these things in place, and decided to eat healthy, I didn't start with the food. I started with the dishes. The first thing I was going to do was acquire the habit of a clean kitchen. Every single damn day, I was cleaning that thing.

It took years to root that habit. Literally. But I have it now, and it's so strong that I find it almost impossible to go to bed with dirty dishes in the kitchen. It feels wrong, now. And now, for the two of us, we have exactly four plates and four bowls in our cupboard, and some eight mugs or drinking glasses, which keeps us on a much shortened leash. I usually wash up twice a day, now. It's not a very big deal. A few minutes' work. But the expense of spirit, the force of will that it represents, is huge.


Zhoen said...

You have found the Little Way. Good for you.

I've been so much better cooking at home since I have a comfortable kitchen. A few too many dishes, not enough for a week, though.

rbarenblat said...

When I was pregnant with Drew, I remember, I dined at a friend's house. She had an infant. And her kitchen was immaculate. I remarked on that, quite impressed, and she told me that one of her keys to sanity is that she never goes to bed with dirty dishes -- because waking in the morning to life with a newborn AND dirty dishes was just too much to be borne.

I've tried to live by her rule, since then. I don't always manage it. But I try. Because I've found that she's right. Especially when I'm living with the vagaries of a small person who shapes my life so profoundly, I need every measure of serenity I can find, and having a clean-ish kitchen helps me with that.

Sabine said...

My father used to work out a monthly schedule of who had to the dishes: one kid washing another one drying in turns. Things were messy, we were three and we developed complicated schemes of swapping (money was involved). When I moved out and shared a house with other students I cannot remember if we ever did the dishes at all. I think we were all recovering from the tyranny of childhood chores.
Something has happened since and your post has got me thinking because stacking and emptying the dish washer has become a ritual bordering on the fanatic in this house. So much so that we even exchange not very kind words about it from time to time.
As for the food I agree so much with you. What really puts things in perspective for me is having a garden and growing much of our own stuff. That and the farmers market.

Rosemary Lombard said...

Thanks for the cleaned-up kitchen inspiration and/or kick-in-the.