I remember when my mother got a dishwasher. It was a big deal and we all watched in fascination as we put the dirty dishes in and they magically came out clean and shiny. It was a huge time saver for this mother of five who cooked every meal we ever ate.
I think about conveniences a great deal these days. Since that first dishwasher, I couldn’t imagine life without one. Or a clothes dryer. Or a microwave. Or air conditioning. Yet here I am living in a place where these things are not commonplace. Once you have some of these conveniences in your life, they become necessities. I’ve come to look at conveniences in a different light and wonder just how convenient, and necessary, they are.
The Time Factor
Conveniences are mostly about saving time. Otherwise, is it really a convenience? They’re certainly not about saving space. Instapots, microwaves, blenders, mixers, food processors all take up space – and that’s just in the kitchen. I love a good gadget, but one of the things I now ask myself is how many things does it do? If its sole purpose to perform one task, then it’s not for me. I have very limited space in my Italian home – no closets whatsoever, and cupboards are scarce. So it’s really got to do some heavy performing to make it’s way into my house.
I have found that I can get by with the basics and can do all the things that fancy gadgets and appliances used to do for me. I do miss my deluxe Kitchenaid stand mixer (which is safely tucked away in my step-son’s basement), but I have made a batch of cookies here and they were the best ones ever. People were making cakes and cookies long before Kitchenaid made mixers, so somehow I’ll survive. Of course, doing things without gadgets generally takes more time. That thing that conveniences were made to maximize.
How many things do we buy and use a couple of times and then let languish in the recesses of our closets? It’s cool and fun and trendy when we see it in the store, but once the novelty wears off, it’s put away and forgotten. I’m thinking pasta machines, bread machines, electric juicers. They end up being too much trouble to haul out, set up, and clean. So that vow of always having fresh made bread takes a back seat to buying it at the grocery store. Which is more convenient?
I live in a place where fresh pasta is a religion. Most people buy it instead of making it themselves. You can get very fresh, wonderful pasta here at just about any little shop. Even the grocery store carries local, fresh made pasta. As a result, making pasta at home is on the decline. However, there is a movement to preserve the tradition of the pasta making ritual. If you haven’t heard of Pasta Grannies, you should check it out. Vicky Bennison is a Brit who lives in London and Italy and has decided to try and capture the pasta making culture of Italy by documenting various “pasta grannies” doing their thing. You may see a pasta granny using a hand-cranked pasta machine, but it’s doubtful. Usually they use a matterello, the long, sometimes tapered, rolling pin. Watching them roll out that silky smooth dough to impossible thinness is a thing of beauty. And it is, sadly, a dying art. Young Italians are content buying it from the market (convenience) rather than spending half a day making it at home. So this uniquely Italian craft is probably seeing its last generation of practitioners. Like so many of our own traditions in the US, convenience wins out over art.
My mother used to make homemade biscuits all the time. I would stand in the kitchen watching her mix the gushy dough by hand and pat out the biscuits. There was no recipe, she just knew how much to add and adjusted if needed. She didn’t roll them out or cut them, just pinched off a portion and rolled it around between her palms, fingers extended, until they were soft, smooth balls. I would watch as her thin diamond wedding band, the same one I wear today, got caked with dough. Then she placed them on the baking sheet. Each one bore the mark of her middle three fingers as she pressed it down to form a disc. Each one was exactly the same size and perfectly round. And I can still taste them and smell them. For all the times I watched her make them, I never made them myself. I think I could do it, but it would take some practice. Later in my life, she abandoned this ritual for canned biscuits – you know the kind where you pop the side of the container and it bursts open? They didn’t taste nearly as good, but they were oh so much more convenient. There are many other examples – mac and cheese, rotisserie chicken, desserts, and the most famous one of all – sliced bread. That one even has a clever phrase indicating what an incredible time saver it is.
I’ve written before about living simply and how much work it is. There’s nothing convenient about it. Some of my inconvenient simplicities have had to be adjusted for the winter. We haven’t been able to hang our laundry out on the line, so we have to dry it inside. We do laundry after 8:00 pm because that’s when our power company says their rates go down. I have my phone alarm set for 8:00 (major convenience) and when it goes off we start the washer. When it’s done, we drape the laundry over a drying rack and on our radiators (which are great multi-taskers) and leave them overnight. The next morning they’re all dry. Not as fresh and satisfying as hanging on the line, but simplicity means adapting.
Maybe it’s because I live in a place where people have been living for thousands of years that I think about traditions. And I also know that traditions change and adapt as cultures grow. Stomping grapes by foot gave way to pressing them gave way to the whole thing being automated. But the wine is better as a result. This is a good thing. Things aren’t always improved by convenience, however. Like my mother’s biscuits. So I’m left to ponder what convenience really means and what we sacrifice in its name. And all those things I thought I couldn’t live without haven’t caused me a moment’s inconvenience.