Too Much Mustard

A Foodie’s Pursuit of Minimalism

It started with mustard. Dijon, stone ground, yellow, brown, locally made, gourmet, ballpark, sweet and hot—it’s all there. You have a hot dog? I’ve got you covered—and then some.

Of course, it’s not really about the mustard. It’s about consumption. Instant gratification. Excess. Indulgence. Poor planning. It’s about marketing. I should know—that’s my life’s work.

Some people collect purses, shoes, or knickknacks. Not me. Left unchecked, I’ll collect food. I often joke that food is my hobby—it’s most certainly my passion. I guess that makes me a foodie, though there is a pretentiousness associated with that label, so I rarely use it. Well, whatever. I am what I am.

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The USDA estimates that 30%–40% of food in the U.S. goes to waste. What’s even more alarming is that the world produces enough food to feed 12 billion people, but as many as 2 billion people are hungry, according to Slow Food International.

Perhaps that’s why I’m so drawn to the message of Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus—two childhood friends from Dayton who walked away from large corporate paychecks and lives of excessive materialistic pursuits to live more simply and authentically. Joshua and Ryan enjoy a peculiar notoriety as podcast hosts of “The Minimalists.” Now based in Missoula, Montana, they are touring the country sharing their quest for radical simplicity. It’s no coincidence that their message is simple—you enrich your life when you buy less, pare down, and scale back.

Minimalism is not a new idea. Buddhist monks, the Amish, and Depression-era grandmas understand the concept far better than many of us do today— whether out of necessity or choice.

Minimalism is not about deprivation or sacrifice. It’s about living with intention and clarifying your values. It’s about eliminating the unnecessary things in order to make room for what is essential—to make space for people, relationships, or more of what we deem important. That’s the crux of the matter. Joshua and Ryan are suggesting that we become hyper-cognizant of our actions, motivations, and choices.

I sat down with The Minimalists on their recent stop in Cleveland to talk about minimalism with regard to our relationship with food.

“Fewer but better,” Joshua says. “That’s the minimalist philosophy. It applies to my material possessions and also my food.” Planning meals, shopping with purpose, and cooking at home are skills we are losing. “My favorite restaurant is our kitchen. My partner, Becca, curates simple meals, with fewer but better ingredients,” he says. In effect, it is more about the people around the table, not what’s on the table.

Ryan believes we’re fueled by the lure of instant gratification. “If I am ‘hungry,’ it is important for me to differentiate when I am really hungry or if I am just craving something,” he says. As with everything else, The Minimalists stress looking inward at the motivation before taking action.

Mindless accumulation is a first-world ailment. I notice it most in my kitchen, although I can see it in other places, too. The Minimalists preach a 90/90 rule. Ask yourself “Have I used this in the last 90 days? Will I use it in the next 90 days?” If not, toss it or donate it. All the things we think we have to have—fancy gadgets, novelty items—if we aren’t using them, lose them. Let them provide value to someone else.

Buy less, but buy better, and with purpose. Shop your values. The Minimalists regularly instruct their fans to “align your short-term actions with your long-term values.” In essence, know why you are buying. A frequent topic in The Minimalists’ conversation is borrowing instead of buying, or making the most out of the sharing economy. Building community is an added benefit. Despite more connectivity than ever before, we’re increasingly living in isolation.

When we do buy, we should consider the impact and adjust our behavior accordingly. Ryan says, “When you eat local, you’re eating fresher food with fewer preservatives, but it doesn’t last as long,” reinforcing the importance of intention. Joshua adds, “When we have the choice, can I be a little more deliberate with the resources I do have? Can I take one extra step so I can support the people in my community?”

Perhaps the most significant lessons we can learn from The Minimalists is this—just don’t bring it home. One of The Minimalists’ favorite maxims is “the less we let in, the less we have to let go.” That’s hard, but important to the process.

The duo doesn’t see minimalism as a one-size-fits-all solution. They’re living it and now they’re throwing a lifeline to the rest of us, reminding us that we, too, can escape the crushing pressure to keep up with the Joneses or whatever it is we’re doing to ourselves as a culture.

Dive deeper and you may notice that minimalism is really about respect for ourselves, for others, and our planet. Misplaced energy and resources help no one. Underutilization and waste disrespect the people who made, grew, or built the things we so casually disregard.

We can all be more thoughtful consumers and generous global citizens starting with a few actions that feel good to us and that work with our lifestyle.

If something adds value to life, have at it. No one wants to take it away. Minimalism looks different to everyone. For me, a curious and often tempted foodie through and through, it starts in the kitchen. It’s about being more deliberate, not overbuying, and watching what I waste.

Anybody need some mustard?

The Minimalists are currently finishing a U.S. Tour. You can read more and find links to resources, including their podcast, at TheMinimalists.com.