Goodbye and Thank You
I wonder if with all the press and airtime it’s been getting, hoarding isn’t becoming the ADD of the 21st century, with everyone running to locate themselves and their friends on the spectrum. The media saturation hits just the right notes of assurance in between No, I couldn’t possibly be as messed up as those people and Gee, that explains a lot. This was a major topic in a group conversation last week: How we relate to our stuff, the behavior and subtexts involved, how much is too much.
I moved to a good-sized house six years ago, after living in apartments my whole adult life, and it’s been luxurious to relax and let crap collect a bit. I have all my son’s stuffed animals and some baby clothes in big black trash bags in the attic, and five boxes of my father’s scratchy classical albums from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. None of these are things I’d miss for a minute if I got rid of them, but the act of taking them downstairs and putting them out on the street would feel like some obscure kind of betrayal. I’m fortunate in that I don’t have to worry about them for the time being. They can sit where they are.
But I don’t think of that as pathological, really, just sentimental. I’m truly hoardy in only two areas: books, including literary journals and periodicals, and paper goods—stationery, blank books, fancy paper, postcards, stickers. None of it falls into the realm of weird, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t save newspapers I’ve read, or little scraps of used wrapping paper or pens that have run out of ink. Nothing has taken money out of my pocket that I couldn’t afford to spend; none of it takes up more room than I have to spare. I read a lot of books and I write a lot of letters (though sadly, far fewer than I used to before email). What qualifies it as hoarding, in my opinion, is how much joy I get from the process of acquisition. I’m not much of a shopper otherwise, but the pleasure I get from blowing $10 on weird Japanese stickers on Etsy or finding a beat-up paperback of a book I’ve wanted at a secondhand store is completely separate from the pleasure I’ll get using them. It’s an end in itself. And I definitely own more than I consume.
Which is OK. Nobody puts your kid in foster care because you have a lot of books. But the conversation got me thinking about where, exactly, I could draw some lines in the sand. And my gaze fell squarely and somberly on my bookshelf of cooking magazines.
I learned to cook in my mid-20s. I had been a picky eater as a kid and spoiled, and as a consequence never got much beyond pasta and scrambled eggs. But then I found myself broke and pregnant, and the idea of living on Chinese food, Snickers bars and beer didn’t appeal much anymore. So with fierce determination and no real idea what I was doing, I subscribed to Bon Appetit, Food & Wine and Gourmet, and proceeded to cook my way through every issue for the next 10 years.
It was a good plan. A year in, once the panic subsided and I started to feel a bit more comfortable in the kitchen, I realized that I loved cooking. A bit further down the line and I realized I’d gotten good at it. There was a certain exultation in that learning curve, that feeling of mastering something slowly by sheer perseverance. And in the same way that you always remember your first forays in a new neighborhood, before everything becomes commonplace, I remember each of those hard-won meals:
- The spinach pasta with salmon cream sauce—how I blanched at the price the fishmonger quoted me until I found out it was for a whole poached salmon, whereas I politely inquired how much for just the half pound the recipe called for, and he politely suggested I buy a salmon fillet and poach it myself.
- The first meal I ever cooked for company, a crusty lemon-herb veal roast with scalloped potatoes and green beans in a shallot vinaigrette on New Year’s Eve, 1987.
- My first pie: crimson pie, with blueberries and cranberries and a tangerine. I still use the first pie crust recipe I ever tried, made with equal parts butter and shortening and a little more than a quarter cup of sour cream, and it’s never failed me once.
- Lasagna from my mom’s crazy two-meat, three-cheese, sauce-from-scratch recipe, which over the years I’ve managed to get down to a couple of hours of prep. The first time took me half a day.
- The Jamaican seafood stew that was so phenomenally delicious I called my best friend up and made her come over to taste it right that minute.
- The mango-orange mousse cake I surprised another good friend with on her birthday, how the filling glowed in a way I’d never seen on a dessert except in Wayne Thiebaud paintings, and how it made me understand that food could be unexpectedly as beautiful as a work of art.
And hundreds of others—triumphs, failures, elaborate projects that left me exhausted and the kitchen devastated. All the memories, even the worst of them, tinged with affection some 20-odd years later. But the memories didn’t reside in the magazines, certainly. And there they were, a long low bookcase crammed with years and years’ worth of cooking glossies that honestly, I was never going to use again. The recipes I liked best had been transferred to 5x8 recipe cards in the grease-speckled box sitting by the stove, and most are available online via a quick Google or Epicurious search. These days I go to food blogs and Tastespotting.com for inspiration, and it should surprise no one that I’ve amassed a healthy collection of cookbooks. With the magazines gone I could shelve my floating books, and even better—the sure sign of a hoardy mind—give in to the pleasures of organizational fussing.
But I wasn’t in the mood to take them all at once and tie them into bundles for Tuesday-morning recycling. The magazines that taught me to cook deserved something a little more epic, a project to honor them. So I began pulling: Every magazine with an April or May date on its spine came out, a foot-high stack. And then I sat down at the kitchen table with the magazines, a stapler, and an exacto knife. I didn’t linger, but ran quickly down the index pages of each, and any recipe that looked appealing I cut out. It wasn’t hard, as I’d put neat check marks in front of everything I thought sounded good at the time—I was so organized back then!—and I could dismiss a lot of them out of hand. I was no longer stuck at home with a toddler and the days stretching out endlessly, needing to be broken up with stroller-laden trips to the farmer’s market, the butcher, the grocer, the cheese shop, all channeled into long, complicated assemblies with the boy on a stepstool at the counter. These days I’m interested in easy weeknight meals, slow cooker recipes, maybe something more involved for the weekend that will last a few days. No more homemade chicken samosas, no 25-ingredient paellas. If I suddenly craved either I could find them online.
It was a fun project, skimming and cutting, like something I would have done as a kid on a rainy weekend afternoon. I ended up with a thick pile of pages, enough to stock a month’s worth of grocery lists easily. Of course . . . this is only May. And the corollary here is that if I keep up with this, I’ll be doing it for a year, freeing up shelf space inch by hard-won inch. I very well may lose patience and toss them all at once. But in the meantime it’s fun revisiting that part of my life, the education that stretched over years. These days cooking is something I can relax into; I may be worn out at the end of the day, but as soon as I take my place at the counter with knife and cutting board I get that small secure rush of knowing what I’m doing, the comfort of muscle memory and proficiency. And while I definitely need those magazines a lot less than the shelf space, it’s nice to take a little time to say goodbye to them, and thank you.