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  • Less Is More

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on May 19th, 2009 (All posts by )

    I remember reading stories in the 70’s and 80’s about defectors from the Soviet Union that were brought to the United States (notably Victor Suvorov who wrote a series of books I liked a lot as a kid, including “Inside the Soviet Army”). The Allied handlers would take the defectors from the Eastern Bloc to grocery stores in the United States and they would gawk at the massive abundance of items for sale, since there were very limited quantities of consumer goods available in the USSR at this time.

    I can empathize with those defectors nowadays when I go to a “suburban sized” food store. I shop at a local “city sized” Jewel which has tiny aisles that are usually packed with customers (I waited until it was empty to take this photo) and the store only has a few aisles so you can navigate through it quickly. However, the local Jewel seems to have pretty much everything I am looking for; I rarely have to go anywhere else to find something for a recipe. Since I am also carrying my food a few blocks back home, I can’t impulse buy like you would at a local Costco because it is no fun to lug that all back home (especially if it is raining and you can’t carry an umbrella because your hands are full – you are like a wet dog when you get home).

    On a similar “small is better” mode I was in London and was kind of taken with the idea of an instant tea kettle. In London they are used for tea (duh) but here I thought I’d try it for making instant coffee since I have been seeing those Starbucks advertisements everywhere. With my old coffee maker I’d make about 3-4 cups but I usually wouldn’t drink it all and any cup after the first had kind of a bitter burned taste, plus then there are the coffee grounds around, to boot.

    I really like the kettle – got it for about $60 or so on Amazon – and am trying out the instant coffee. The Starbucks coffee is the best – it is very granular and fine and makes instant coffee without the “head” like you get with the cheaper instant coffee – but it is about $1 / cup. On the other hand, you can get instant coffee in similar “throw away” single serving sizes from other vendors for much less (I think it was $4 for 20 servings). The tasters choice coffee wasn’t as good (it had a bit of a head) but still better than traditional “Sanka” type coffee that you scoop out of an instant container.

    The verdict so far – fun with the kettle – I like the way it boils water so quickly and the fact that the second cup (if I have one) isn’t burned – and the Starbucks instant coffee is the best, but way too expensive. I will try out a bunch of the instant coffee alternatives and see if I can stomach them, or if it is just “Starbucks or bust”. Maybe I will try some English teas…

    Cross posted at LITGM

     

    24 Responses to “Less Is More”

    1. Tatyana Says:

      Carl, as I said in my old comment here, immigrants from Eastern Europe were not just gawking at the supermarket shelves in wonder – they (us, me) saw in their mind’s eye their previous life: in endless queues for the barest necessities, the everyday battle of wits and connections to get a block of toilet paper or a pack of oranges for the baby – and they realized how much of their productive life was wasted, never to be returned, gone. I doubt you could truly empathized with that feeling.

      Now, to a happier topic: can you explain what’s so special about the kettle? Isn’t it just an electric kettle to plug in and boil water in? I thought they are very common here – no?
      Mmm…the smell of a wet dog in a spring rain…never mind, two of my friends got themselves a doggie, and I want one, too. Again.

    2. Carl from Chicago Says:

      I wouldn’t say that the electric kettle is very common in the states. I haven’t known anyone who owned one, but maybe my sample isn’t representative.

      Of course the soviet thing was in jest… it isn’t the same, just a stretched out analogy

    3. Jonathan Says:

      How come we can send a man to the moon but can’t make a dog that smells good. Or better yet, a dog that smells good and makes good coffee.

    4. Ginny Says:

      Carl, I’ve always suspected that you and I live in different worlds.
      Electric kettles? My friend splurged on a glass & stainless Capresso for $40. Everyone else I know has an electric one – we got them for $9.95 at Walgreens or Target or CVS or . . . all over the place. My friend worried about the plastic & its carcinogenic nature; my daughters lived in married student housing where having boiling water to pour down the drain was convenient was well as for tea. Isn’t this a given in any efficiency, office, dorm?

    5. Tatyana Says:

      Yeah, to think of it, I only saw it used twice here.
      Jon: I concur.

    6. onparkstreet Says:

      “Carl, as I said in my old comment here, immigrants from Eastern Europe were not just gawking at the supermarket shelves in wonder – they (us, me) saw in their mind’s eye their previous life: in endless queues for the barest necessities, the everyday battle of wits and connections to get a block of toilet paper or a pack of oranges for the baby – and they realized how much of their productive life was wasted, never to be returned, gone. I doubt you could truly empathized with that feeling.”

      Wow, Tatyana. That sounds horrible.

      Less IS more, which is why I keep things simple! Sometimes I’m a little jealous of the bigger, shinier and more ‘equipped’ houses of some of my friends and family, but I decided some time back that I’d rather have convenience and ease over stuff. That is my choice, however and it’s nice to make the choice yourself instead of someone else doing it for you.

      (I can no longer hack the big box stores and crowded parking lots. One reason I can exist in my overly regulated inner-ring suburb is that things are in walking distance for me – the Trader Joes, the local bakery, the local falafel shop. I don’t wanna drive much anymore. Alternatively, I could easily see myself back in my old home town in Iowa. So peaceful).

    7. elambend Says:

      Carl,
      Check out the new Jewel on DesPlaines in the West Loop, it’s huge, wide open and wonderful. The Jewel closest to me is as you describe though, though I rarely need go elsewhere except for preference.

      As for electric kettles, count me with Ginny, I remember seeing them a lot growing up in rural Missouri. When I was young, I thought all coffee was instant.

    8. methinks Says:

      Carl, as I said in my old comment here, immigrants from Eastern Europe were not just gawking at the supermarket shelves in wonder – they (us, me) saw in their mind’s eye their previous life: in endless queues for the barest necessities, the everyday battle of wits and connections to get a block of toilet paper or a pack of oranges for the baby – and they realized how much of their productive life was wasted, never to be returned, gone. I doubt you could truly empathized with that feeling.

      Oh, Tatyana, but as an immigrant in the 1970’s, I can. You describe it perfectly.

    9. Dan from Madison Says:

      Onparkstreet – “local falafel shop” – what a dream.

      If I were not married and didn’t have kids I could easily see myself in a very small abode. The things I actually need to live a happy life are few and far between. I love looking at tiny prefab houses and imagining.

      Then I remind myself that if I had not gotten married and settled down I would be dead from alcohol poisoning by now.

    10. Tatyana Says:

      M.: no, not horrible, just life. We all lived it, in various degrees. Some continue to live it, even here – concentrating on gathering of material things, as if building a barricade against destruction. A barricade of BMWs, Italian sofas, bursting refrigerators. A hideout for insecurity within.

      I agree with you about living sparsely, that’s how I live myself, and by choice, too.

      Methinks – it got worse in the next 20 years after you left, not only quantitatively (is that a word?). It seems now, however, the young generation there is raised on idealization of the 70’s. Very odd.

    11. Shannon Love Says:

      I think there is an age function that controls your perception of the need for product and service diversity.

      When you’re young and just out on your own, everything is new and you want to explore. You don’t actually know what your taste are or what you need to accomplish and you constantly try new things in every facet of your life. Consumption becomes a certain end of itself. You buy stuff just to see what experiences they give you. As you mature, your life concentrates more on functional minutia. You stop using consumption to explore as much and instead consume only to further some other goal (such as raising children, running a business etc). Your taste gel and you pretty much exhaust the excitement of novelty for the sake of novelty.

      This age dynamic is why almost all advertising is aimed at people younger than 30. People under 30 still shift taste and buy new things just because advertiser look interesting. After 30, it becomes a case of been there done that. You also have a much better ability to estimate the marginal utility of new untried product. You care less about fads and fashion. Your obligations make your time performing actual task more important to you than the off chance you will discover a new product you like.

      The upshot is that when you’re young you like an overabundance of choice. As you age, choice seems much less important. You know what you need to do and you know what products will help you do that. Everything else becomes a distraction to your larger mature goals. You begin to seek simplistically in choice and access so that you can maximize your productive time.

      At this point our inherent egocentric nature takes over over. We begin think that because we as individuals do not need something then that translates into human beings in general not needing that thing. Suddenly, the world appears full of useless crap.

      The world would certainly be simpler if my taste and preferences dictated the availability of consumer products but would you want to live in such a world?

      On a closing note, I use a $15 electric kettle. Like all right thinking, sophisticated people, I make my coffee in a french press. The kettle makes it a whole lot easier. In retrospect, I might have spent more money on a more expensive taller and thinner model with a smaller footprint.

    12. Bob from Reno Says:

      You missed the real advantage of electric kettles in Europe – 220V electrical service. Waiting for US kettles is watching a pot slowly boil.

    13. Dove Says:

      Tatyana: Now, to a happier topic: can you explain what’s so special about the kettle? Isn’t it just an electric kettle to plug in and boil water in?

      If I’m not mistaken, what he’s pictured there is a Utilitea. The advantage of it over the $15 variety is precise control over the temperature of the water in the range that matters for fine tea. I’ve been using the cheap type of electric kettle for that purpose for a couple years now, and while it works, the results can be lackluster. Ten degrees really does make a big difference sometimes. I hear the pictured device does a good job automatically.

    14. Tatyana Says:

      Dove,
      I believe that only applies to the brewing of green teas. I drink Assam, and the best brewing method I was taught requires boiling water at the moment of actual bubbling (93-100)C to be poured over tea leaves in a warmed up teapot. It’s easy to time-spot (half-minute of thick steam coming from your kettle).
      But thanks for information – I didn’t see the green-tea-brewing method described in your first link before.

    15. John Jay Says:

      Tatyana – I can almost understand, having lived there for 2 years just prior to the break-up in 1991. But I was an outsider, always knowing that I was going back to those stocked grocery stores, so I sort of had the inverse reaction, a serious W.T.F.?

      You can’t really translate the Russian verb “dostat'” into English, can you? After bartering with black marketeers for needles, standing in line in Peter for over an hour to get soap and in Moscow for an hour to get razors, I have an inking of what it means, but again, I always knew that there was something better (which perhaps made me resent it more – I never had the Russian fatalism of “eta zhizn'” – to me it was always “this is such bullshit” – but I was 19 and American, then. Still am American, BTW ;-)

      It was worse when I lived in Lithuiania – they still had state-controlled pricing, whereas Byelorussia did not, and all the Liet Mafia were shipping stuff that should have been on the shelves in Vilnius and Kaunas to the free markets in Podunk places like Pinsk. It was so bad we had ration cards for meat, cheese, and other foodstuffs back in 1990.

      But even with the famous Russian fatalism, didn’t the Beriozka throw all of that into the faces of ordinary people? I never heard such “mat'” from drunken men as I heard from mild mannered old ladies walking past the Beriozka in Red Square.

    16. Robert Schwartz Says:

      I live in a house in the burbs and go shopping in my car, but I use a 4 cup coffee maker, my wife does not partake. I don’t have the second cup problem you have.

      Maybe it is the maker. I have a Zojirushu Zutto (It says 5 cups, but it uses a number 2 filter and produces 24 oz of coffee). Target has them.

      Zojirushi also makes a hot water dispenser that Target also stocks.

      If it isn’t the pot try this. Turn off the pot after the coffee is made. If you want a second cup microwave it. You can also keep it in a sealed container in the fridge for ice coffee or rewarming. I mix in sugar while it is hot to use for ice coffee after refrigeration.

    17. Tatyana Says:

      John Jay – and now I’m an American, too!
      Moscow and Peter had always lived a privileged life: a resident could always get a relatively decent stuff by merely standing in lines. Partially because of exposion to foreign eyes like yours. The ration cards you speak of with such horror were fact of life of everyone beyond Moscow Region, the further into Asian continent, more difficult to survive.

      You remember it right; I wish all my fellow expats had as good memory as yours. Here’s a conversation I had recently with a woman who lives in NJ now. Your Russian is fluent, right?

    18. Dove Says:

      I believe that only applies to the brewing of green teas.

      Green teas are the touchiest, and the japanese green teas I linked to are the touchiest of all. Some of the yellows and whites require a little attention, though, and even my Chinese/Taiwanese oolongs don’t like being subjected to completely boiling water. The only teas I drink that put up with boiling water well are the blacks and herbals.

    19. Tatyana Says:

      Dove – Assam is a black tea.

    20. Carl from Chicago Says:

      Ha that kettle did seem to boil a lot faster in London! You’d think I’d know it was the electrical service since I worked a long time in the energy industry but never did think about that.

      My (old) coffee maker is total crap that isn’t helping the quality of the coffee, either, but I figured I’d just try something new. I also drink less coffee, which is a plus, because I am too wound up to begin with.

      I often dream of a tiny house and since I live in a relatively small condo it wouldn’t be too much of a change for me. Would need a big shooting range, though :) but can’t leave the big city because that is where my job is.

      That new jewel downtown is much bigger but this one is within walking distance and I try not to drive too much in the city if I can avoid it just because it is a hassle and I tend to buy too much junk if left with the relative freedom of a push cart and a trunk.

    21. Dove Says:

      Dove – Assam is a black tea.

      Yeah, I know. It’s Indian, right? I’m not a big black tea drinker myself. I’m just pointing out that a pot like that is designed to be used for a lot of types of tea.

      Er, but it doesn’t matter for black tea and instant coffee, I guess. You guys make me giggle.

    22. methinks Says:

      Tatyana,

      I know it did. Only my immediate family left, those left behind told us. We knew that everything disappeared from the shelves during Perestroika. there was nothing to queue for at all.
      A nostalgia for standing in line in the Russian winter for the permanently pissed of sales clerk to toss a few nasty looking potatoes at you overcame them. After the collapse, we returned to Moscow to visit our family and were shocked by how much worse everything got.

    23. John Burgess Says:

      The problem with electric kettles is that they kill the water. When water reaches the boiling point, most of the gases it contains are dissipated and you’re getting close to distilled water… assured to kill the taste of whatever you’re brewing. The same problem occurs with regular kettles, of course, if you let them boil away to the point that they’re screaming for attention.

      The very best coffee maker I’ve come across is the Aeropress from Aerobie. Small, light, easy to clean. You can even take it camping. It takes barely longer to make a cup or two of coffee than making instant coffee (about one minute). All for $26. Pair it with a good coffee and you can hardly do better. Aerobie, BTW, suggests a water temp of around 175F to avoid releasing the bitter elements in roasted coffee.

    24. TMLutas Says:

      I remember seeing fold flat carts back when I was a kid and we hadn’t got out to the suburbs yet. That sort of thing will let you use an umbrella and perhaps carry a bit more home in one trip.

      My own experiences on east bloc lines are more limited. I generally saw the aftereffects with relatives and family friends dealing with abundance for the first time in their lives.

      The old who had shopped in pre-communist times were not affected and the young adjusted to anything quickly. It was the middle cohort that had problems. Gawking was the least of it. Some of them had a feeling of helplessness, headache, and in one case actual nausea at the prospect of choosing from the wall of different types of toilet tissue at the local suburban supermarket. Symptoms usually subsided within a week or two.

      No doubt a large portion of the problems my relatives/family friends had was as Tatyana said, “they realized how much of their productive life was wasted, never to be returned, gone.” Maybe russians don’t somatasize psychological blows like romanians, lucky russians.