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Living Simply Is Complicated — Is It Just A Fetish?

Elissa Altman

Simplicity is ubiquitous: if you — like I — get sucked down the gorgeous wormhole that is Pinterest, you know what I mean. Click on the DESIGN tab, and there they are: hundreds of rooms painted a dull monochromatic gray/beige/ecru. A single, long Forsythia branch stands imperfectly perfect in a chipped wabi-sabi bud vase, which is set upon an ancient pine side table chinked with time. Click on the FASHION tab: passels of tranquil, doe-eyed models dressed in dull, monochromatic gray/beige/ecru. They’re wearing loose-fitting overcoats, and modern and expensive versions of their grandfathers’ 1930s cordovan wingtips. Click on the FOOD tab: chipped, matte-finished Heath coffee bowls in gray/beige/ecru hues, filled with variations of the same thing — grains, beans, usually some kale, a drizzle of olive oil, a tangle of lemon zest — and set down on askew cream-and-red dishtowels that have seen endless washings and line-dryings. The image, or any number of versions of it, has been re-pinned a thousand times which, in Pinterest parlance, is a really good thing.

Oh, the simplicity, a work-harried friend wistfully whined to me one morning while we were on the train, commuting two hours to our Manhattan jobs from rural Connecticut.  I really want to live and eat like that, she added, looking over my shoulder at my iPad — simply and quietly.

Of course you do, I told her. And so do I.


And, apparently, so does everyone else these days, so much so that a new crop of magnificently-produced, nearly wordless, expensive magazines — maga-Tumblrs, really — has arrived on the scene, promising vicarious calm, conviviality and aspirational serenity of the sort that Thoreau went to the woods to find 159 years ago. Instagram-softened images of meaningful dinner parties abound; young flannel-shirted men in their 20s — Smith Brothers look-alikes — smoke vintage Meerschaum pipes as they gaze across placid ponds at tire swings swaying in the distance while their ladies thoughtfully pour local herb-infused gimlets into authentic 1930s Ball canning jars. You read the sparse text. You swoon. You study. You wonder if these people have day jobs.

The message is clear: You yeah you, with the three kids in daycare and the divorce, getting off the IRT and running into Starbucks for your McVenti before hunkering down in your cubicle under those fluorescent lights for eight hours while the jackass next to you yammers on his cell phone about the great sex he had last night — you, too, can live a simple life.

That is, if you work hard enough at it.

If you wear the right authentic clothes and drink the right authentic drinks out of the right authentic vessels. If your food is unfettered and unfussy and thoughtfully produced and served in the right coffee bowls of the right color, and was perhaps procured from the right CSA or the right farmers market.

Overwrought authenticity

For those of us who have suffered through the fashion of anxious, nervous food — inauthentic, tall, overwrought — such simple, gastronomical style is exactly what we’ve been breathlessly waiting for. But has the style of living and eating this way, with its gorgeous prepackaged rusticity and come-hither appeal, just become exigent fetish? Are our attempts to be “simple” so self-conscious and superficial that the benefits of real simplicity, peace, mindfulness, thrift are lost? Will being simple — eating simply, living simply — go the way of the Pet Rock?

Trends are a direct reflection of our ever-changing cultural and socio-emotional needs. In the greed-is-good 1980s, everything was big — shoulder pads, hig hair — and the contrived food of the time, unnatural vertical and architectural, was an extension of that style. In late 1988, I was served an elaborate, human fist-sized chocolate piano at a restaurant in Beverly Hills. A scaled-down replica of a Steinway baby grand, it had eighty-eight black and white chocolate keys, and strings fashioned from spun sugar. After the grim 1970s, life was suddenly all about the frantic quest for the elaborate and ornate, and the food on our plates reflected it. In the 1990s, everyone declared themselves a home-schooled chef — the Food Network went on the air in 1993 — and we all went out to buy kitchen blowtorches and home foamers and timbale molds. After 9/11, we craved peace and conviviality, and the next big thing was comfort food. The sale of crockpots and Creuset casseroles took off like they’d been shot from a cannon.

So what created this fraught mandate for the ancient saucepan — dented to perfection — that we spend hours searching for at Goodwill? Why the farmhouse tables laden with elemental dishes and the longing gazes serene as stone? Desperation for simplicity and authenticity smacks of a sort of psychic exhaustion, and the stark realization that living and eating in a complicated overdone way will take a toll on our souls. It compels us with an almost furious hysteria to return to preconceived notions of what’s real, even if what’s real is nothing more than an often fetishized metaphor for ever-elusive safety, and a commodified yearning to bind our frayed connection to equanimity and control.

In a world of constant digital connectedness, of nebulous relationships and jobs that disappear before our eyes, of an often fraudulent and dangerous food system, where we feed our children pink slime and anyone can slap a green label on their over-processed product and pretend it’s organic, we’ll pay anything we can to get simplicity, or some semblance of it back.

But if simplicity really is just a fetish, what will happen when the fetish fades and the trend is over? What will we eat and how will we live?

Top photo: Elissa Altman. Credit: © Susan Turner

This week's Zester Soapbox contributor, Elissa Altman, is the author of  "Poor Man's Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire, and the Art of Simple Cooking" (March 2013, Chronicle Books). The 2012 James Beard Award winner for her blog,, she lives in Newtown, Conn.


  • anne 5·20·13

    On the money! Or the pseudo lack thereof.

  • Annette Magjuka 5·20·13

    “Simplicity” is like style. You can have a personal style, unique to you and not found in fashion magazines. Fashion magazines try to market real personal style for the masses. Ironic, no? Same with simplicity. You can live a simple life by being authentic. Spend money on what truly nourishes the body and soul, without a care what others do or think. Authentic simplicity, authentic style. There is no need for validation from the outside for either one.

  • Carol 5·20·13

    THANK YOU! You’ve just said (better than I ever could) what I’ve been thinking for a long time now.


  • Carolyn Phillips 5·20·13

    Elissa, you spoke from my heart. That was just the most beautiful and thoughtful rant I’ve read in quite a while. Brava.

  • Thatchern 5·20·13

    ….what’s real is nothing more than an often fetishized metaphor for ever-elusive safety, and a commodified yearning to bind our frayed connection to equanimity and control.


  • katherine leiner 5·21·13

    I’m in a small farmhouse on 90 acres of land with 4 cows, a crew of chickens, two horses and a new grand-baby and my daughter and son-in-law. I have been helping out, cleaning, dusting, cooking. Last night I made a chicken dish from Yotam Ottolenghi’s “Jerusalem” and it was pretty good. I put a plate under the bowls in which I served this kind of divine stew and my daughter said, “We don’t need this extra plate, it’s just more plates we have to wash in the end.” “How long could it take you to wash 3 extra plates?” I said. The under plate is used to lay one’s knife on in between bites, or the bones. In fact, it’s part of the table setting, part of the graciousness of the meal…” She and her husband rolled their eyes. When I cleared, I saw they had both used the plate. Later on she thanked me for putting them on the table and for cooking. Elissa, thanks for pointing out that simplicity is ours for the taking.

  • Judith Klinger 5·22·13

    The marketing trappings of simplicity have little to do with living simply. You can’t buy a dented saucepan and declare it ‘simple’.
    My saucepans are extremely dented, but that’s because they’ve earned every single dent, and every dent is a memory of a meal. I don’t call that simple, I call it thrifty. The pan still works just fine, its just a little beat up around the edges…just like me.