In Praise of Simplicity
The Power of Going Back to Basics
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We are a culture obsessed with new technology, and I've been trying to get my arms around my own definition of technology (here, an expansive term, not just digital or even electric innovations). There are so many definitions out there, but the one that I came up with is:
"a human-constructed tool, digital or tangible, meant to help us perform a task or solve a problem more easily than we could without it."
Our modern definitions of technology seem to limit themselves to the digital realm (do a Google search and you'll see what I mean), but a wheel is technology, as is a pair of shoes, a grill, a mattress, or a spoon (see Bee Wilson's intro to Consider the Fork for a beautiful description of this).
One thing I find interesting is our idea of what technology can do for us, not just the innovations themselves. Because creation is often connected with capitalism in our society, we are barraged with promises that we are just one gadget away from a simple, stress-free life: By purchasing this object, you'll be somehow unburdened. Freer, with more time and energy to spend on the things we love, though the reality is not as clear cut.
I love modern tech, too, and I'm not here to rail against the wonders of the computer I typed this essay on, or to encourage you to throw your phone into the ocean.
But having my feet in multiple disciplinary worlds, I try to stay attuned to the various benefits and shortcomings of our efforts to make life easier, simpler, more joyful. And I try to consider how our approaches are or are not serving those functions, and who they're serving those functions for.
In other words, I'm aware that any technology, from a spoon to a spaceship, has its limits.
Shaping our culinary environment
We excel at impressing ourselves upon our environment and shaping it to our wills, but as the tools become more complex, resources more scarce, and demands to be better stewards of the earth become more urgent, it's worth asking if the most complicated tool is the best tool for the job.
This is particularly true in our kitchens, which we now have the option of stocking with hundreds of tools meant to perform a single task (or maybe a few tasks) exceptionally well, but which have clear limits beyond that, requiring us to purchase more and different tools to perform other tasks.
What if, instead of reinventing the wheel, we look to what's already there?
The technology we use in our kitchens is technology we're attached to and invested in. Like old friends, I turn to my kitchen tools at least three times a day, and that long history makes each of those technologies intimately familiar to me. I know their quirks, and I know what does and doesn't meet my needs in a given situation.
And by examining how I work with the tools I have, I can understand what needs are and aren't being met, and intentionally craft a kitchen filled with tools that work for me. And after years of doing this, what I've found is that the most powerful, useful tools I have are often the simplest.
Returning to simple technologies can help us become more intentional in what and how we eat, keeping us from hoarding resources and blindly consuming. Going back to basics is a reminder that we have enough, and a reminder that the more complicated answer isn't necessarily the better one.
But perhaps most powerfully, returning to our connection to simple tools is an act of empowerment and a reminder that we have the skills and talent to transform our food: We don't need to outsource that to a resource-heavy appliance.
In the past, we used tools to help us create the things we imagined: To put the ideas in our heads onto our plates, even and perhaps especially our ideas for crafting everyday meals, allowing us to sustain ourselves as creatively and deliciously as possible.
A fermentation crock isn't a shiny new gadget, but it is something that will reliably store and sour my food so I have something to eat when nothing else is around. As we continue to experience natural disasters and infrastructure outages, it's worth remembering that many of our 'smart' tools depend on this infrastructure to even function. How will you be able to feed yourself in a power outage if everything in your kitchen requires electricity?
As I think about the power of our simplest kitchen tools, a lot of that power lies in the fact that those tools help me create the food I want and need to create without additional inputs. I love having a stand mixer, but I also know how to make bread dough without it. Knowing both, and practicing both, keeps me connected to process and product and lets my tools be tools: things that I use to create, rather than things I rely on in order to cook at all.
P.S. There are many, many other aspects of food and tech that I didn't touch on here, namely the technology of food production, big ag, the promises of fake meat made from monocultures as a 'solution' to meat overconsumption, etc. Alicia Kennedy writes accessibly and compellingly on these issues, and I've been enjoying Emergence Magazine and Vittles as well.
I recommend them for further reading, and I'd love to hear your recommendations in the comments, too.
Later this month, I'll be traveling to Alaska where I'll be teaching classes on food and storytelling at McCarthy Lodge and the Anchorage Museum.
The Anchorage Museum class will be on 8/2, and I hope you'll join me if you're around (check their website for details, which we're still finalizing at the time of this writing).
I had a piece on sowans and learning about family history come out in The National yesterday: My first international newspaper feature! Subscribers can check it out here.
Our basic mead making at Elsewhere Brewing is getting rescheduled from yesterday to a future date, and I can’t wait to see you all when it happens! Keep an eye on their event page too: They often have a fun variety of things planned.
I was interviewed by my friends at Missing Witches about my next book and about the magic of fermentation, and how it’s relevant to our lives today. Give it a listen here.
I'll be speaking at the Decatur Book Festival on October 1st, and having my book launch party around that time as well. Details TBD!
If you want me to write a custom message in your copy, please let me know! I'm happy to do so.
This year, I’m inviting readers to join me in brief vision journaling exercises each month to help us intentionally craft a meaningful and hopefully joyful 2022. You can learn more and see the year’s prompts here.
This month’s journaling prompt is:
What does mental health look like for me? What do I do when I am having an off day? How do I ground myself? How do I cultivate a sense of mental health?
I wrote this piece on using fermentation to reduce food waste: Give it a read for some kitchen inspiration with your summer fruits and veggies!
In Italy, efforts are being made to clamp down on fake parmesan cheese production.
I'm looking forward to making this spruce tip key lime pie from ForagerChef, which combines two of my favorite foods in one place.
If you want your readings to take you deep into history (or the future): Scientists plan to crack open a salt crystal containing 830 million year old microbes, and Robert Mcfarlane asks if we're being good ancestors (tl;dr: mostly, we are not).
I'm doing a lot of reading about food and stories, and on food narrative generally, and enjoyed this piece on food as character in Jane Austen's work, these unforgettable food scenes, Amy Halloran's bread words (and her newsletter in general), and this piece on MFK Fisher and queerness and transition.
I have been loving Aimee Nezhukumatathil's column in Orion Magazine called Taste of Wonder, exploring the flavors of a specific food using beautiful prose. It reminds me a lot of the equally wonderful Fruit Love Letters by Jessamine Starr.
This piece (sent to me by friend and dissertation committee member Richard Urban) on the food eaten on board Early Modern ships.
To Make: Ginger/Garlic/Turmeric Paste
Part of going back to basics for me is stocking my pantry and fridge with flavorful, simple ingredients that can help me add a lot of oomph to my food without a ton of extra work. Fermentation is a big part of this, but isn't the only way: I also dehydrate my own herbs and seasoning blends, freeze herb blends in ice cube trays with olive oil, etc. etc (I talk about all of this more in this class).
This is a recipe I developed about 4 years ago, later adapting for Our Fermented Lives.
This paste can be made and blended up and put in your fridge, or you can slice the ingredients, ferment them, and dry and grind them as a seasoning blend or rub (or just, dry and grind without fermenting, whatever floats your boat).
Three root paste
1 ginger root
2 turmeric root
3 garlic cloves*
1 tsp salt
4 c water
-Slice ginger into chunks, and pack into a jar with garlic cloves
-Dissolve salt in room temperature water and pour into jar to cover ingredients
-Cover with lid and let sit out at room temperature until it has a flavor you like (for me that's about 2 weeks)
-Place your ingredients in a blender or food processor, with just enough reserved brine to make a paste, and blend until smooth
*You can change these ratios up to suit your taste, or add other roots like horseradish