Stupid Charming Things

An olive wood salt cellar will not make you dinner. It can’t chop an onion or boil water, and even it if it could it certainly wouldn’t wash the dishes afterwards. I tell this to myself while pacing around a fancy kitchen goods store, salt cellar in hand, trying to talk myself out of buying yet another kitchen luxury item that is at odds with both my lifestyle and my budget.

My husband and I live in a dilapidated boathouse-turned-cabin that was built in the early 1800s. The kitchen isn’t really a kitchen at all. It’s a room with a freestanding Ikea cabinet, a mini fridge, a convection oven, and a hotplate. Last spring I placed a heavy cast iron Dutch oven on the hot plate, causing the heating element to collapse into the stainless steel base. I remedied this by propping up the feet of the busted-in side with two Christmas lima beans.  So, not only do I cook on a hotplate in a glorified boathouse, but the utility of said hot plate is dependent on lima beans. Not exactly the kind of kitchen where you’d expect to find a pricey,  imported-from-France wooden salt cellar, hm?

This sort of retail conflict happens more than I’d like to admit.  I have a soft spot for stupid charming things: Tiny glass salt and pepper shakers, cheese knives, vintage Fire King coffee mugs, pinch bowls, and pretty much any kitchen item colored sage, mint green, or celadon. I shouldn't be allowed within fifty feet of a flea market or estate sale. And I certainly shouldn't have been poking around in any fancy kitchen goods store, that's for sure.

Over time I've gathered that this addiction to stupid charming things is not uniquely my own.  When I worked at a high-end gift shop in Park Slope, for example, I saw firsthand the pull of lovely objects on others. Thanks, just browsing, an innocent shopper would say. Then, moments later, I’d be ringing them up for a ten dollar trinket. Sometimes it would be a bookmark, a set of overpriced sticky tabs, a travel candle. If it wasn't any of that, it was the tiny glass animals. We stocked a bowl of them---itty-bitty little glass "sculptures" no larger than a penny.  You need a tiny glass cat, right? An elephant? What about an alligator? I felt like a drug dealer as I encouraged customers to dig deeper into the bowl. There’s a unicorn in there some place. I’d say. Then they’d ooh and ah and toss bills across the counter in glee. The glass animals were cute, sure, but were they worth anything more than that initial dopamine bump linked to the act of buying? I'm fairly sure the answer is "no."

A new object might be liberating at first, I think, because it baits the mind and our perspective in that moment, leading us from a place of sameness to a place of newness and wonder. Take my example, where I imagined the possibilities of cooking in a kitchen so well-appointed that flaky sea salt is homed in a dainty and sculptural bowl which was created precisely for that purpose by an artisan in a far away land. A new life opened up to me, one where I didn't find mouse poops in the measuring cups or stinkbugs in the mixing bowls.

Which brings me to narrative. Which brings me to identity. Objects do have a role in the stories about ourselves that we tell ourselves. In that moment at the fancy kitchen store, I wanted to use that salt cellar to tell myself I had good taste, that I understood and appreciated fine objects. I also wanted to pretend that I had no hotplate, no lima bean, no rustic boathouse kitchen. Mouse poops in measuring cups and stink bugs in mixing bowls? No, no, not me---I own this precious vessel, this hand crafted gem, this beautiful, stupid, charming thing.

Here's where I want to say that I stopped desiring the salt cellar. I want to say that I made these realizations about the false connection between things and self worth and identity and I immediately overcame my materialistic instincts. But I didn't. As I put the salt cellar back on the shelf I also added it to a mental wish list of presents my husband could get me for Christmas this year.Then I sulked out the door with a vague and absurd feeling of pity for what I perceived to be a salt cellar-shaped hole in my heart.