One of my favourite things in my apartment is a floating shelf full of mason jars by my back door. It holds jars of all shapes and sizes, some new, some very old, each filled with grains or beans or another dried staple. The shelves are like five tiny skylines, and when the golden hour sun shines in through the back window, they all seem to glow.
There is not much that inspires envy in our modest apartment, but that secondhand shelf laden with secondhand jars is frequently admired. I find all the shapes and colours and textures pleasing, but more than that, it’s a literal corner of my life where who I am approaches who I want to be. Looking at it, one might think, “I am a zero-waste person, I am organized, I am self-sufficient,” though those three things happen much more infrequently than I’d like.
These jars of food also give a sense of plenty and abundance, which is something I so longed for growing up in a house where the kitchen was restocked daily, yes, but only with what was strictly necessary for the meals ahead. We ate mostly store-prepared or frozen foods; I’m not sure when I first saw my first dried lentil, but it was certainly as an adult. In my first years on my own, I took pride in my full fridge, my bursting pantry. I could make anything, have anything, I would be spoiled for choice. I wanted my adulthood to be apparent in how much I had.
I still have that instinct: despite trying to live with less, I am a maximalist at heart, and acquisition is one of the driving forces of our capitalist society. And yet over the years I’ve come to realize that the pantry and the fridge don’t always have to bursting. If you have three kinds of vegetables, it’s easy for one to go limp or mouldy. Flours can get infested and go off. Even having three kinds of nuts on your shelf could be asking for trouble: nuts oxidize and can go rancid sooner than you think. Someone I follow took this to the extreme: she had one jar for grains, one for beans, etc, and when that was empty, she’d refill it with something new. That’s a bit austere for me (I was actually shocked when I read it), but the message is good: we don’t need to have everything all the time.
In fact, not having everything not only makes less waste, it makes me a more confident cook, less beholden to a recipe. Why buy broccoli when there’s a garden full of kale? Do I really need ricotta, or will this cottage cheese do? When my partner and I started meal planning, I could buy just what we needed. Now we throw almost nothing out, and less digging is required to find the next ingredient. (As a bonus, those who live with men will find incidences of them “not being able to find something” satisfyingly drop.)
These days, my jar shelf is a little less full, with room to regrow green onions or set some seeds to dry, and I am a little bit closer to those aspirational thoughts: I am a zero-waste person, I am organized, I am self-sufficient. My maturity is signalled not from having accumulated more, but from having the wisdom to hold myself back, to make do. Plus, with the jars used more often, they don’t gather dust, and they shine that much more in the golden-hour glow.