Yesterday afternoon Penny and I spent a couple hours in the kitchen. We did a bunch of things. First we sliced up a pair of chuck roasts real thin for beef jerky. The trick to slicing meat thin enough for good jerky is twofold: A sharp knife and a partially frozen roast. Then we chopped up a whole lot of garlic – we grow way more garlic than we can eat, but we sure do try – and mixed it into some tamari and a little honey. Penny might’ve put something else in there, too… I’m not sure. It’s her recipe; I don’t ask questions. We put the sliced meat in a bowl, poured the marinade over it, and stuck it in our passively vented icebox for the night.
When we finished slicing the meat, I went to the basement and dug a few carrots out of one of the burlap bags in the basement. This winter, we experimented with storing our carrots in dead leaves, and it’s worked out pretty good. We raked the leaves off the paths in our neighbor’s sugarwoods. I remember the boys jumped and wrestled in the raked up piles and I thought I should join them but I didn’t. Still, it was fun just watching them. I took the carrots upstairs. Washed them. Peeled them. Cut them small for stew.
I had some chunks of venison browning in lard on the wood cookstove. It smelled good. Earthy. The lard was from the pigs we slaughtered in January; the meat was from a fat little roadkill doe Fin and I came upon last fall, ironically just after we’d gotten home from rifle hunting. I would tell you how many roadkill deer we’ve harvested in the past six years or so, but it’s such an outrageously high number you’d never believe me and I’d only look like an idiot for having tried to pull the wool over your eyes (even though I didn’t). So let’s just say we haven’t gone without venison in a real long time, none of which were killed by our own hand or (thankfully) even our own vehicle. Sometimes I think it’d be cool to spend a year just living off roadkill and wild greens. But… nah.
While we worked, Penny and I got to talking about some things we’d heard on the radio. We generally listen only when we’re driving solo, and we’ve each been driving too much lately, so we had lots to talk about. She told me about some fellow who’d done a segment on his new coffee maker, which apparently communicated with his smartphone. I guess the way it worked is that the coffee machine would actually call him when it needed tending. Sort of like an aging parent or a teenage child, I said, and she laughed, and I was pleased, because in my experience there’s not much better than making someone you care about laugh, especially if she generally finds your jokes lacking. Anyhow, I digress.
I told her about something I’d heard that very morning, about how the cereal makers are in big trouble. No one’s buying Cocoa Frosted Death Flakes anymore, and I thought for sure they were gonna say it’s because people are finally getting wise to that shit, but lo-and-behold it was for a much more pedestrian reason: People want something more convenient than cold cereal these days. In other words, it’s too much work to pull the box and a bowl out of the cupboard, the milk out of the fridge, and a spoon out of the drawer. It’s too much work to “prepare” a bowl of cold cereal – the pouring of the flakes and the milk is simply too great a drain on the precious commodities of time and convenience. And then all those dishes to wash! So what’s the next big thing? Breakfast bars, apparently, because you can eat them in the car on your way to work. Tear open the package with your teeth, stuff your gullet whilst navigating traffic (it’s a pain in the ass, I know, but don’t fret: Driverless cars are coming soon!) and then stick the empty wrapper under the seat with the cast off detritus of previous breakfasts. Or maybe just throw it out the window. Yeah. That’d be even easier.
A story to ground all this: About a decade ago, we ripped the propane cookstove out of our kitchen and replaced it with a wood burner. I recall being a little anxious about the amount of work I perceived to be involved with cooking on wood. No more would I be able to twist a dial and have blue flames leap at my command. Now it was fell the tree, buck the log, split the wood, stack the wood, haul the wood inside, crumple the paper, lay the kindling, strike the match, feed the fire. Then coffee. Then breakfast. It all seemed like a bit much at the time, though clearly there was something about it that called to me.
Another story: A few years back, we turned off our gas-fired hot water heater. Let me be perfectly honest: This was no great hardship – we have solar collectors and a rather ineffectual loop through the wood cookstove – but it still means there are large swathes of time when we do not have hot water at the tap. Want to do dishes? Do ‘em in cold water, or heat some on the stovetop. Want a bath? Heat in on the stovetop (but mind the step!). And so on. As with the installation of the wood cookstove, I remember being a little nervous about extinguishing the pilot light in the water heater. As with the wood cookstove, I hardly remember that we ever had it differently, and now we burn only a couple dozen gallons of propane each year to fire the gas range we ripped out of the kitchen and stuck on the porch for use in the summer months. Honestly, I can’t say I’m more happy now that we don’t use our propane water heater, but I do experience a smallish delight in knowing how well we can live without it.
What’s my point? Actually, I think I have something like a half dozen points, though I may not get to them all. The first is that convenience (or the lack thereof) is almost 100% relative and almost 100% unrelated to happiness. When we lived without any plumbing at all, which we did for years while saving for this land, we thought running cold water would be the pinnacle of convenience (we didn’t even dare dream of hot water at the tap, lest we anger the gods with our greed). Funny thing is, we weren’t any less happy then than we are now.
Point number two: In far too many cases, without us even knowing it is happening to us, convenience sucks the simple pleasures out of our lives. I’m thinking of my boys wrestling in those piles of leaves I inconveniently raked in order to inconveniently store the carrots we inconveniently grew. I’m thinking of this morning, as I sat by the cookstove fire, writing the first half of this post and waiting for my coffee to perc. I’m thinking of splitting wood, the way my body feels after a day with the maul. I’m thinking of how that beef jerky is going to taste, I can smell it now from my office; Penny must have spread it across the drying racks. It’ll be ready by tomorrow morning, I bet. I’m thinking that Erik’s going to be here for lunch and we’ll eat venison stew from a deer my son and I hoisted into the back of our Subaru and butchered on our kitchen counter. Even at the time, I remember feeling a little put out by the inconvenience of it all: I’d had other plans for the day. But now I don’t remember what they were.
Point number three: I’m thinking that appeals to our desire for convenience are actually nothing more than sleights-of-hand intended to further ensnare us in the sticky web of consumption. And in doing so, furthermore erode our ability to care for our communities and ourselves. For what skills do these conveniences require? Only the skills necessary to maintain the jobs necessary to pay for them. To plug them in, to rip open the packaging with our bare teeth, one hand still on the wheel, weaving in and out of traffic, perhaps recalling that once upon a time we actually had to eat from a bowl, and oh! How wonderful it is to have been freed of that burden.