In Defense of Stuff

Why I need all sorts of cookware to be a more productive (and happier) scholar

Chronicle illustration by Scott Seymour, original images from iStock

June 03, 2013

I am deep in denial about the amount of stuff I need to ship across the Atlantic Ocean in the coming months. Having accepted a lectureship at a university in England, I'm aware of the fact that I need to make plans for my move. But I've managed to ignore the number of possessions I've acquired in the past several years, and the attendant consequences of said ownership.

I may have started off trying to live the simple life of a graduate student, but that doesn't explain how I've obtained four 9-by-13-inch baking pans, two muffin tins, six cookie sheets, two cast-iron grill pans, a mandolin slicer, ceramic ramekins, and a delightful number of kitchen knives. I thought I'd made my peace with my tendency to accumulate stuff, but now that I'm mired in information regarding port fees, terminal handling charges, and customs houses, I'm once again confronting my kitchenware problem.

It began innocently, with the acquisition of a large frying pan. Next my mother gave me an immersion blender. And then came the heavy, white-ceramic Le Creuset baking dish that someone left by the Dumpster at my last apartment, in Austin, Tex. I put a temporary hold on all kitchenware procurements once I left Texas to do dissertation research. My things were safely in storage, I told myself; I would retrieve them in a year.

But I didn't. My stuff remained in storageas I embarked on a year of writing in a furnished apartment in Philadelphia. Sometimesyou convince yourself that you can live without a lot of your stuff, only to find yourself buying temporary replacements. By the end of that second year, I'd bought additional cookie sheets, another baking pan, and a set of mixing bowls—all of which I'd realized I needed to make some of my favorite dishes (eggplant Parmesan, brownies from Joy of Cooking, sugar cookies with lemon icing). I arrived back in Austin last summer with a car trunk full of cooking equipment, new spices, and condiments I couldn't bear to throw away. The cookie sheets rattled every time I turned a corner.

When I took up a writing fellowship in New Haven, Conn., at the start of this academic year, I decided that I might as well ship all my stored things to Connecticut rather than buy more duplicates. The decision wasn't just about the kitchenware (although, obviously, I was excited to have access to my stick blender again). It's just that there comes a point when you realize how ridiculous it is to have to buy new pants when you know that you own perfectly good pants in storage. It also becomes silly to pay for a storage unit for three years when you can move everything across the country for less than that.

As this year's fellowship and my final year in graduate school come to a close, I face a new set of logistical challenges about moving. After speaking with a friend who is about to embark on a postdoc, I realized that many, if not most, academics often confront the same dilemma. Living a life without your stuff is doable for a year, but at some point it becomes intolerable.

And then you must resolve a slew of questions: What should you donate or sell? What should you continue to store? How will you move it, and when? Who will talk you off the ledge when you contemplate just throwing it all away? And what do you need to pack and take with you so that you can manage until the remainder of your stuff arrives?

Obviously, the situation becomes more complicated depending on what and whom you're moving. I feel lucky that I'm not moving with kids and trying to investigate school options at the same time that I'm looking at housing and shipping information. I feel grateful that I'm not transporting any pets; one friend needs a splash guard of garbage bags in the car when she travels with her cats; another has resorted to drugging her cat for long plane rides.

Having given in to my pack-rat-like tendencies, I have a lot of possessions. And having gone without my things and then reuniting with them at the start of this year, I'm having trouble winnowing. I know that I'll need to bring some sheets and towels with me, a good knife and a frying pan, and a mug or two for morning tea so that I'm set before the rest of my belongings arrive in England. But I also lie awake at night making mental lists of other items to remember.

This is a great problem to have, and I'm thrilled to be moving someplace where I will possess gainful employment. The situation simply offers room for reflection on how we academics function on a day-to-day level. There are big differences between the ways I lived during my first three years of graduate school, and my year of research on the road and two years of dissertation writing in locations away from home.

During my early years in graduate school, I acquired a lot of stuff. I lived alone, then with a roommate, and spent a lot of time working from home, in Austin. Owning novels and having access to a TV gave me a way to relax at the end of the day; having kitchenware meant that I could use cooking and baking as a way to relax between reading for classes and comprehensive exams.

Once I hit the road, I had to pack only what I could fit in my car: two suitcases, a laptop, and a printer. That, plus the fact that many of the rentals that year came furnished, meant that I thought I didn't need to bring much with me.

I'd hoped that enforced discomfort would make me work faster, and being without my stuff and in unfamiliar housing did make me a more productive scholar. I spent most days in the archives or at the office. In Philadelphia I stayed later in the office, went for drinks with other fellows, and used my rented home to eat and sleep. The year before that, when I was traveling from city to city, I explored cheap places to eat, cooked a lot of one-pot meals, and learned what I needed to carry to get by on the road.

But something funny happened during those years of austerity. Whenever I stayed longer in the office and made friends, I ended up wanting to invite them over and feed them. Last year, in Philadelphia, they were good-­humored enough to squeeze into my tiny living room in order to eat the food I'd stored in my minifridge. I cooked using a stove that set off a fire alarm whenever I turned it on without running the kitchen fan.

This past year, in Connecticut, I knew I was going to be working mostly from a home office, and I needed my books. I needed to be able to cook at the end of the day, and I needed a TV to turn to after spending hours writing cover letters for the job market. I also needed a large number of lounge pants, because I feel as if I write better when I'm wearing an elastic waistband.

What I wanted was a sanctuary—and for that, I had to reclaim my stuff.

Although there are some aspects of my life as an academic in which I'm content to live sparsely—stretching shoes and pants past their expiration dates, holding back on buying things to hang on my walls, leaving the (large) scratch on my car door alone—there are other parts of my life where I need a bit of excess to be happy and productive.

Some people collect music, or movies, or they buy gently used designer ties on eBay. Me? I collect kitchenware. And apparently I will continue to do so until all of the cooking stores in the world simultaneously disappear. So, somehow, I'm moving it all to England—and I'm in the market for a new acquisition or two.

Rachel Herrmann earned her Ph.D. in history at the University of Texas at Austin and is a fellow in international-security studies at Yale University.