Taking delight in simplicity
I usually write about land use, but sometimes I write about the inside of our homes too. And sometimes I write about the inside of our home.
This was my kitchen counter a few nights ago:
I was making pesto—an herbal Italian sauce made of basil, nuts, garlic, grated cheese, and olive oil—blended into a paste in a food processor. You don’t really cook it; you just boil and drain pasta, reserve a little of the pasta water, and stir in the pesto sauce.
The classic, fancy version uses pine nuts, which have a unique, hard-to-describe flavor that works perfectly with the other ingredients. My mother, and later I, usually used walnuts, for a similar flavor profile at a much lower price. But as you can see, I’m using pistachios here. I like how their green hue enhances the green color of the sauce, and I actually think it comes out closer in taste to the pine nut version.
My wife and I buy packaged pesto-marinated chicken thighs at Wegmans, which are very tasty and convenient. But there’s not enough sauce in the package to serve it with pasta, so I get rid of the convenience and make fresh pesto to go with it.
Apparently, in Italy, you don’t really serve pasta with chicken, or meatballs for that matter. You’d have a pasta course and a meat or fish course at the same meal, but not usually in the same dish. (At least that’s what I’ve read, and also what I saw when we visited Italy a few years ago for our honeymoon.) But just like Americanized Chinese food is its own distinct cuisine, so is Italian American food, whether it’s “red sauce” Italian food or something like this.
Cooking is one of my favorite things, and despite occasionally using it for “content,” as I am here, it’s something I mostly just do for my wife and I, because I enjoy it. Our kitchen isn’t a bad size, but it could be larger given the frequency and intensity with which we use it. If there’s any through-line with cooking and writing, I guess it’s that it’s the closest we can get to creation.
As the seasons change, the kitchen really becomes the center of the home. Sometimes we think it’s tacky or uncool to do what everyone else is doing; ordering pumpkin spice this and that, making soups and other “hearty autumn meals” or whatnot. I think it’s cool to be part of something with so many other people. Seasonal things remind of being a kid at Christmastime, and that’s a feeling that becomes harder to capture, or summon, as you get older. Reading the Trader Joe’s flyer for October and trying all the pumpkin-themed products makes me feel it again.
Sometimes when I’m working away in the kitchen, I remember the homemade baby food my mother used to make for me: stewed and pureed carrots in homemade chicken broth, stuff like that. She used to have me help her with dinner (but often she would also declare “it’s time for the amateur to leave the kitchen.”) Some habits, like pouring something out of a measuring cup from as high up as possible, I’ve never really outgrown.
But I learned to love cooking from all of that, and I even look forward to reliving those moments from my childhood with my own kids one day—experiencing being a child from the other side, as it were. Turning those moments into a family tradition. Most of all, I appreciate that I’m able to take pleasure in the repetitive but edifying work of making a home. As I get older, I realize how important that is. I had a piece in The Bulwark recently, on daydreaming about having to stock shelves on the graveyard shift and stuff like that. How people my age want stability but are also drawn to variety, even drama.
Here’s a long bit from that:
One downside of being an educated urban millennial, apart from the obvious ones, is that we have an outsized sense of the importance of our identity, both as individuals and as a demographic. Raised on a media diet of self-focused Boomer- and Gen X-produced television and music, often within the safe enclosures of the tightly managed households of our Boomer parents, our generation emerged with the tendency to view ourselves as characters, to observe our arcs, to write our own stories. For a person who naturally thinks in these ways, there’s something anticlimactic about coming into a home, two cars, a great job, and a happy marriage in your twenties: Instead of undertaking a journey to the summit, you’re on a comfortable ride up the elevator. There’s no drama here; it doesn’t make much of a story. If there isn’t some kind of struggle, there might not be a story at all.
But are our lives stories? Should we approach them that way? Even if we can’t get away from the “story” framework for life, there are many kinds of narrative, and not all of them emphasize conflict and achievement. Instead of embellishing the story’s details and dramatic tension, another genre might call for an embrace of the everyday, the workaday, the boring—a way of seeing the routines of life not as drudgery but as liturgy, as Grace Olmstead, following philosopher-theologian James K.A. Smith, movingly puts it. Without a framework for interpreting your life that accommodates needful repetition more capaciously, the routine can become caustically boring, and this can fuel resentment—until eventually, instead of writing about daydreams of manual labor or tight finances, you might discover yourself writing essays about how you blew up your real life.
Perhaps four or six or nine breezy years in higher education contribute to that hunger for drama and novelty. My generational cohort, the most educated in history, found every day in our undergrad and grad programs a little different: a chef’s choice of different classes, events, random and planned encounters (platonic and not)—all given forward direction, tension, and cohesion by the need to find a job at the end of it all. And then, when we graduated, the story stopped.
But the story didn’t stop. It just changed, as it always does. I’ve been struck by remarks from thirty- or fortysomethings with kids and harried everyday lives who say that they’re happier than they’ve ever been. Maybe those college days that take up so much space in my imagination are junk food next to the vegetables of marriage and family. And maybe four or six or nine years of being asked what you think about X or Y gives your mind a subtly narcissistic bent. College is often sold as being all about education, epistemic humility, learning a little more about a tiny fraction of the human endeavor. It’s supposed to make you feel small (but also like a leader, somehow). In my experience, anyway, it teaches you all the opposite lessons. A good deal of adulthood consists of unlearning habits formed in those breezy years in order to find a pattern of life resilient enough to endure the spiritual erosion of prolonged boredom.
Let me assure you this isn’t some coded cry for help or something. When I write like this, I’m sort of recounting the mood of my peers and not being strictly autobiographical. And one thing I pledge to never do, in any case, is to use private disagreements in my family life as fodder for content.
I know the tone of that excerpt is a little bleak, but what I really feel is gratitude. Gratitude that I have a stable life about which I can occasionally feel bored. Gratitude for my wife, and my home. And gratitude that at the age of 29, I can work all day mostly on my own terms, head into our little kitchen, and have one of the best damn nights of my life making homemade pesto, picking a wine to pair, and being content right now with what I have.
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