The new year comes round and everything is supposed to be better. Maybe you were gluttonous in December, maybe you bought too much stuff, or maybe you didn’t. I like to think I didn’t — I only gave people things which were consumable one way or another: crab-apple jelly, sloe gin, blackcurrant vodka, home-pressed apple juice, quince paste.) But at this time of year the general vibe from newspapers and magazines and the targeted ads I’m getting on Twitter is that in some way I should be making up for all that over-consumption. And yet more stuff has probably arrived in your house and more will probably arrive during the course of your attempt to stick to your new year’s resolution.
“Veganuary” and “dry January” are now fixtures and at least encourage us to try to revert to the mean. But what I love most about this time of year are clickbaity articles about “wellness”. Last month The Times Saturday magazine published the routines of “wellness” enthusiasts in an article which reads like a description of recreational hypochondria, or Patrick Bateman’s morning routine in American Psycho. One man makes his morning coffee thus: “Coconut oil, some chaga mushroom powder — great for the immune system — a little bit of potassium, colostrum and collagen. I use a low-mycotoxin coffee — some brands contain mycotoxins, toxic chemicals produced by moulds . . . I fill out a spreadsheet on my computer inputting my weight, my urine pH, my hydration and how well I’ve slept.” Compare Patrick Bateman: “I take two Advil, a multivitamin and a potassium tablet, washing them down with a large bottle of Evian water . . . I eat kiwifruit and a sliced Japanese apple-pear (they cost four dollars at Gristede’s).”
These people are outliers — it’s probably worth knowing that the most popular order on Deliveroo in London last year was the cheeseburger from the American chain Five Guys.
Meanwhile, Netflix gave us Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, which told us that we should keep things only if they “spark joy”, and a team of scientists published a paper on the “planetary diet”, which told us that the world can feed 10 billion people and we don’t even have to be vegan. The core concern of both Tidying Up and the planetary diet is overconsumption: Marie Kondo, a Japanese organising expert, thinks most people simply have too much stuff; the Planetary Diet says most of us are eating too much of something, and not just meat and dairy, but too much fish and too many starchy vegetables.
I hadn’t heard of Marie Kondo before the Netflix show, although her books (called things like The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up) have been successful. I like to imagine the trends combining: think of the number of items you’d have to buy to get onto The Times’s level of “wellness”, and then wonder if you would feel OK throwing away your maca, acai, coconut water, glutamine, apple cider vinegar tablets, “digestive enzymes”, etc (all of which appear in the Times article) when you realise they no longer “spark joy”.
But the kitchen is really the place where the Kondo (or, officially, KonMari) method breaks down. She even says reassuringly to a couple in the first episode, “Approach it in a lighter way, because it’s never going to be perfect.” It’s a room which re-messes itself up three times a day. Every fridge has a shelf of rarely-touched half-empty jars and every drawer has too many spoons. Other people — apparently — buy ingredients which get used once and then languish in the back of the cupboard. I am accused of doing this but in my defence I always intend to use up the glutinous rice flour/red beans/dried limes.
The Kondo ideal is totally empty counters, with everything stacked vertically so as to be more visible. She reportedly stands carrots upright in the veg drawer. But on tidy kitchens Elizabeth David (in Is There A Nutmeg In The House?, Penguin, £12.99 ) expresses a similar desire for order and serenity: “There will be the minimum of paraphernalia in sight. It will start off and will remain rigorously orderly.” She goes on: “Naturally there’ll be, as now, a few of those implements in constant use . . . hanging by the cooker, essential knives accessible in a rack, and wooden spoons in a jar. But half a dozen would be enough, not thirty-five as there are now.” She touches on Marie Kondo territory: “Cookery writers are particularly vulnerable to the acquisition of unnecessary clutter. I’d love to rid myself of it.”
Will getting rid of clutter make you happy? That’s the whole KonMari philosophy. A cartoon by Tom Gauld for the New Yorker a couple of years ago transposed her advice to a post-apocalyptic world: “As society collapses around us and we cling to life among the ruins, it’s more important than ever to have an organised and pleasant home in which to cower.”
Clearing out the old kitchen at my parents’ house I found some unusable yet un-throw-outable treasures: tiny moulds in the shape of shrimps for — I don’t know what, jellies or aspics? A complete pristine set of 20 jars with orangey-red plastic lids in the classic Sainsbury’s Design Studio style of the 1970s, three of which I immediately broke when the bottom fell out of the rotten cardboard box they were in. (Fans of this style — sans serif fonts, a lot of orange and brown — can view old Sainsbury’s packaging at sainsburysarchive.org.uk.)
We could have equipped another small kitchen in its entirety: minichopper, blender, kettle, toaster, all functioning, if a bit grotty, such as an electric carving knife — working — which looked as if it was from the 1970s and smelled of hot plastic when you turned it on.
What did we chuck? A couple of hundred lidless glass jars, a peeling nonstick pan which left little black pieces in the food, rusty biscuit tins — all stuff which we should have got rid of long ago.