When I was a single carnivore, my cooking style was very simple. Oatmeal and a smoothie for breakfast, maybe a turkey sandwich with provolone and tomato on rye for lunch, a chicken breast grilled on my indoor grill with steamed broccoli and a bagged salad or some fruit for dinner. Most of my meals could be completed in under 20 minutes and included very few ingredients for each meal component. That is how I prefer to cook. Since I became vegetarian 2 1/2 years ago (recently pescatarian), food and cooking has become immensely more complicated for me. Fresh veggies take up a lot more fridge space and a lot more planning to make whole meals out of, especially if you decide to make something which requires a bit more effort. And I’m a baker not a cook. On the left you can see some seitan, chard, and potatoes Ty and I made with friends Briana and Chris. They are the people I cook with more than anyone else (usually in their kitchen) so I thought it’d be good to throw this one in there.
All of the kitchens in my Texas apartments had counter space, full-size fridges, large sinks, newer ovens, adequate pantries, dishwashers, and microwaves. In my Santa Cruz homes, they’ve all been lacking somewhere. The first place had fairly decent shelves for dishes and dry goods, and a not terribly small counter for food prep, though with a toaster oven, coffee maker, etc., counter space easily became scarce. The stove was a 50s-era gas apartment-size model and the fridge was a mini. The first thing I did when I got to Santa Cruz was scour craigslist for a couple of days until I found someone getting rid of a 9-cubic-feet fridge and headed over to pick it up. There was no way I was going to be able to live with a teeny fridge. I dread going to the grocery store like some people dread paying taxes. It isn’t something I want to do more than I absolutely have to. If you don’t have a garden, don’t like going grocery shopping every two days, or you don’t eat all your meals out, a mini fridge just doesn’t cut it. The one holiday party I tried to throw there had to move outside once more than three people had arrived and the house itself mostly served as the vessel holding the fridge holding the beer (see cramped vessel fridge over my right shoulder).
The next place I lived had plenty of pantry space in the form of built-in cabinets and built-in fridge space, long vacant; and the functioning fridge was the largest fridge I’d ever laid eyes on, though completely disproportionate to the size of the apartment. However, there was no counter (save the miniscule space next to the freestanding sink which I had to use for my dish-drying rack), so I got a kitchen table which doubled as prep space. Eating in this space was wonderful. There was a little nook where we had placed my old formica table, with a window looking out over the Boardwalk in the distance and the neighborhood crazies below; Ty and I would enjoy watching the ensuing craziness with an open window and an open bottle of wine. But the part leading up to that could be miserable. The stove was awkwardly placed, the ventilation less than ideal, and we had to clean up at least some before we could use the table for eating our meal.
I know I’ve talked about the nightmare that was cooking in the trailer where I lived with Ty last summer and fall, but allow me to reiterate. We had a mouse-infested pantry and shelves, a mini-fridge which liked to freeze anything pushed to the back, a hot plate that couldn’t boil water, and an extra-small sink that would quickly run out of hot water. We eventually learned to make do cooking there, thanks largely to a reliance on pasta and a microwave. Of course, during this time I gained 10 pounds and forgot what veggies tasted like.
My current home is an amalgam of all the others. The fridge is large and old. The sink is nestled in a corner with about 16 inches of counter space next to it (also mostly used to hold my drying rack). I have a few drawers under that counter space (that refuse to close all the way) and besides that, there is a very strange built-in open shelf area on the wall opposite the sink, which has some very short, deep cabinets beneath, which is the most frustrating space I’ve ever had for a pantry. Luckily, I’m a decent organizer and have amassed quite a bit of Container Store shelving thanks to living in so many apartments with different storage requirements. Nonetheless, preparing food in this space is a challenge and the ventilation leaves quite a bit to be desired.
A week ago, I had four friends over for dinner. My friend Briana and I shared cooking and baking duties, and maneuvering around each other to cook a four-dish meal was kind of a nightmare. We had three main course dishes, two sauces, and one dessert, and I didn’t have enough pots, pans, and bowls for everything. The gravy had to be put in a cup so we could use the same pan to sautee mushrooms. After we boiled potatoes, we had to transfer from and clean that pan in order to steam the chard. And when all was said and done, Briana had to run back home because I only have four dinner plates. By the time we finished, the kitchen was sweltering from the sun and the stove, and we all sweated around the table trying not to pass out while eating our hot meal.
I was reminded of Genevieve‘s description of her New Year’s Eve meal last year. If you were to cut Genevieve’s table right where the wine bottle is, that’s how big my dining table is. It was a tight squeeze getting five people in there and that was with the leaf put into the table. Cooking and eating in small spaces is certainly a challenge. But it is possible, if we are patient enough to make it work. When I visited with Mokihana and Pete in May, I was amazed at how tasty our meal was. It was very simple pasta with fresh greens, and a wonderful bread that Mokihana made in her toaster oven pan. I think the trick is lowering our expectations of what constitutes a suitable meal. When I eat alone, I’m fine munching on some carrots and edamame hummus with an apple and almond butter. When other people enter the equation we feel the need to make things more complex. And I’ll admit that even though I don’t love to cook, I do love to eat, and I love to eat with other people. There really is something about breaking bread with friends.
- Put what you use the most close to you. My spatulas, bottle opener, and whisk get prime real estate.
- Using wall- or ceiling-mounted pot racks are a must for small kitchen living. When you don’t have the luxury of cabinets, the wall is your friend.
- If you can’t compost and you have sufficient freezer space, freeze messy food scraps that would otherwise spend a week rotting in your trash. All my banana peels go straight into bags in my freezer door, which I throw into the garbage on Sunday nights when I take out my trash. The same goes for fridge food that molded before I could get to it. I keep it out of trash purgatory until the last minute to cut down on icky smells (which spread easily in little places).
- Try not to buy more than you can eat. You don’t have room for waste. And if it’s likely to go bad, put it in the open in your fridge so you can see it. Opaque tupperware is no good. How do I know what went into it or when? However, those green foodsaver bags are great if you use them right.
- Use small dishes. I have four full-size dinner plates which I seldom use. For my regular dining habits, I have salad plates and bowls, and I usually use two or three dishes for each meal. Some people would tell you that’s silly and wasteful, but for me, it makes the most sense. Large dishes take up more space. Small dishes can be stacked and nestled and take up less space in a drying rack. Also, I hate having sauces and juices running into the things they weren’t made for (few things bother me more than a soggy roll), so using a bowl for my salad and a little plate for my fish and asparagus is the perfect solution, if a little OCD.
For me, it’s all about knowing how I work. When I still used regular milk occasionally, I gave up buying it and switched to soy, because I knew I would never finish it before it went bad. The same went for cheese, yogurt, sour cream, etc. I also seldom finish a loaf of bread before it molds. Oatmeal, hummus, apples, Tofutti sour cream, frozen veggies, fruit, and fish, canned Amy’s refried beans, etc. are my friends. Having my staples and knowing what I will and won’t use (plus having a kitchen that I like walking into) is the best way for me to cook small.
Amanda is a documentary photographer who just earned her Master’s degree and currently lives in Santa Cruz, Ca. She completed her thesis on the Small Home Movement and hopes to have the project up by the end of the summer on either her long-neglected blog, http://greenaerie.blogspot.com, or her long-neglected photography site, www.aliasgrace.com.
The single biggest roadblock to small living is, in my opinion, the excessive regulations that appear in the form of minimum-size requirements. Many of you that are reading this are likely looking for ways to live small yourself, and chances are that this is one of the reasons you haven’t been able to yet. But the limits of bureaucracy are not just visible in minimum size. In the county where Tyson lives, land parcels must remain a certain size with one main house on them in order to keep the area “rural.” In Portland, where Steph has her houseboat, no new houseboat slips can be created.
Finding ways to live small within a system that promotes the rapid spread of suburbia and limits or bans creative solutions is one of the biggest challenges we face, as can currently be seen in the stalled rebuilding efforts in New Orleans post-Katrina. So much red tape has kept Marianne Cusato’s Katrina Cottages from being built, despite the fact that they were hailed as lightyears better than FEMA trailers, since they could be expanded upon to create permanent dwellings. Although there is no one solution that we at SLJ have hit on, hopefully, this issue will get your wheels turning.
If it were easy to identify locations, get loans for, and build small homes, this little web journal wouldn’t exist. It is truly a privilege to be able to put down roots somewhere, and there’s no way for most of us to forget that. The sad thing, I think, is that this crazy bureaucracy is taken as a given. In Jay Shafer’s “Viva la Tiny Revolution” that he posted last year on his site (or as I like to call it, the “tiny manifesto”), he said the following:
“As long as the law ignores justice and reason, then just and reasonable people will ignore the law. At this point civil disobedience is not only justified, for many it is the only option. The people of this purportedly free country will live in houses of any size that suits them whenever reasonable egress and land ownership or a landowner will allow. Thousands of Americans are already living beneath the radar in structures commonly regarded as too small to meet code. These folks live largely outside the system of imposed excess, and they do so within the rights granted to all of us by the Constitution of the United States. It now remains for our banks, zoning and codes to catch up.”
The question is how do we get these huge systems to embrace what we know is a more sustainable model? For the last few months of graduate school, I became involved in an urban studies research cluster. There were other grad students working in geography, sociology, history, etc., dealing with fascinating topics that I see overlapping in so many important ways. A fellow photographer is working on documenting the rise and fall of Victorville, a desert community between LA and Las Vegas, once the second fastest growing U.S. city, and now quickly becoming deserted itself due to the housing bust. Another project is looking into transition towns in England and the U.S., while still another studies how cities change or don’t change following natural disasters. One of the questions these students asked me when we talked about the Small Home Movement was, so what’s being done about it? And I was sorry that I couldn’t say much beyond, well…we’re talking about it.
Most of the people I’ve met in the Small Home Movement are creative and thoughtful people. We are problem solvers, but also tend to keep to ourselves. We engage in this little revolution quietly and for our own reasons and purposes. I’m writing this entry in my 400-square-foot apartment that I live in alone (with Leelu the Cat). In the last 2 years, I went over $30K into debt for the privilege of grad school; I spent $19K just on rent. And the thing is, I accepted this as necessary, rather than finding another way, like Elizabeth Turnbull. But to make progress, we’re going to have to do more than think outside the box. We’re going to have to go against our natures and learn to be collective in action, because, the truth is: the importance of living small is barely a blip on most people’s radar.
We can’t wait for banks, zoning, and codes to catch up to us. We have to rebuild the box.
In the course of doing research for my thesis on the Small Home Movement, I found many fascinating articles about how we value and use our houses, spaces, and communities. From what I can tell, houses really became fortress-like between the ’40s and ’60s. Just as time-saving devices were emerging to counter time spent working on household chores, and make home a true sanctuary, the Red Scare flourished and pushed people into feeling privacy was of utmost importance. The following quote is from an advertisement around this time:
“The fence creates a small private world around you and yours. Today, that is exactly what communists and bureaucrats and authoritarians want to destroy: the private sphere around the person.”
One could argue that George Bush fits into that category of people wanting to destroy the private sphere. Up until this time, people who had fences were considered miserly and antisocial by their neighbors. In an article is Scientific American Mind entitled “The Comfort Zone,” by Rachel Adams, she states that five factors in brain science and psychology were “necessary for home-satisfaction: ‘contact with neighbors, privacy, flexible usage, opportunities for personalization, and security.’ None of these are linked to a large living space.”
Growing up in the country, there was a lot of space between us and our neighbors. To get to our friends’ house, my parents would have to drive my brother and I, even though we were technically in the same “neighborhood.” Things which other people took for granted living in the city were more difficult for us: I had to go to more than one neighborhood to sell girl scout cookies, because there weren’t enough people in my own, and finding a neighborhood without a resident girl scout was a challenge. People would amiably ask me where I lived when I came up to their door and I couldn’t say “one block over in the green house,” but instead had to explain why I was there at all. Halloween, also, was a bit strange. We’d drive into the city and pick a random neighborhood and my mom would park the car while my brother and I walked from house to house. I loved growing up where I did, but I can’t say we really had a “community” through our living space. My family was my community.
The neighborhood I live in now is called “Beach Flats.” Though I was warned about how dangerous it could be, what I’ve found is it’s a real community. I live only two blocks from my closest friend here and I can walk from my house to hers in just a couple of minutes. Today, on my way over there, a little girl said hello to me, and I said hello back. She asked what my name was and I told her, and then asked what hers was: “Marisol.” I said “Very nice to meet you, Marisol,” and she smiled and I kept walking. There is a park here and a community garden and kids riding Razors and skateboards in the street. Saturday night, a band was playing a couple houses down, and on weekends tourists throng to the area and pass by my window wrapped in towels or carrying lawn chairs toward the Boardwalk. A week after I moved in, Tyson and I were struggling to figure out how to get my little craigslist couch into the house, and a guy walking down the street came back and asked if we needed help. He picked up one end of the couch and Ty got the other and they carried it up to my door. The man wasn’t looking for money, wasn’t creepy, was just a friendly person who saw someone who needed a hand. I feel like this is the first time I’ve ever really understood what a neighborhood should be. It’s a place where you not only have but also talk to your neighbors.
This is a supremely hard post for me to write and I doubt that anyone is doing it easily.
For the last 4-5 years, I’ve been trying to figure out what was most important to me. Five years ago, I felt that I might have the desire to go to grad school. I’ve always been torn by which creative path to take and how the process of making my creative pursuits into viable money-making endeavors could affect the creative urge. My three loves are these: writing, singing, and photographing.
Since I was in high school, I’ve been trying to figure out which one was most important to me, and have mostly ended up cycling between all of them. So I applied to school for creative writing, got accepted to NYU, and flew to New York to decide if it was the right move for me (photo is of me eating an NYC doughnut in my NYC outfit then).
Steph and I were talking yesterday about how we make important decisions, and she said that usually when she makes what people on the outside think are rash decisions, they are actually the result of much much internal thought and consideration, and only seem to happen suddenly. Five years ago, I sat in a classroom in NYC and I listened to an amazing class with an sharp professor surrounded by other poets, and as much as I got out of that class, it didn’t feel right. Then I went and listened to one of my favorite poets read just down the road and that, too, didn’t feel right. It didn’t seem like my future.
I am now at the end of two years of grad school, $30K in debt, and supposedly closer to knowing what I’m doing. What I do know is that I want to do work that is valuable and helpful to other people. So in five years, I hope to be doing something that helps others in some capacity.
My work as a documentarian began because I think understanding and being exposed to other people is a very important component in human compassion. And this compassion is necessary for any kind of progress. As much as I think it would be nice to be debt-free, and living in my own home in five years, the most important thing to me is to use my talents to promote understanding among other people. If I can help that process along in some way, and be surrounded by people I care about at the same time, that’s all I can really ask for.