This was supposed to be a follow-up essay to Take Stock about the evolution of my foodie life now that we really have dug into full time travel in our twenty-six-feet-long camper, but I have found it difficult to articulate just that, so my thoughts have been steeping for awhile. As it turns out, talking about my new kitchen experience is only part of a much larger conversation for me, for us, in this new way of life called Tiny Living: It is difficult to discuss how my life in food has changed without highlighting the bigger picture of living small. One aspect begets another; it is the sum of all its part. A Tiny Living Venn Diagram. Here is how it is going.
Tiny living encourages minimalism. There is not a lot of space in general when one lives in an area roughly two hundred twelve feet. Naturally, that affects the physical kitchen space in which I/we work. One of the changes that I noticed right away when preparing food in a tiny space is that I move more slowly and carefully. Without creating extra workspace, there is only one built-in countertop between the sink and stove with an area of about seventy-two inches. In order to create more prep space in the kitchen, I utilize one or both of my cutting boards and place them either on the stove top or over the sink. To ensure that they do not slip while I prep, I place rubber gloves or shelf liners underneath them, which helps keep the cutting boards in place, even if it looks like I’ve trapped someone in the sink.
This doesn’t mean that I can chop quickly the way I used to or work in large batches; I simply do not have the room in the kitchen for operating in such ways. Often, I am playing the Shell Game with bowls and utensils, so now I use fewer of them when I prepare food. Moreover, slicing and dicing with more gusto might mean that I run my knife into the faucet or my elbow into the wall of the refrigerator, or that lots of food bits fall into one or all of the many lurking crevices, which would require more tedious cleanup. If I must, I utilize our wobbly dinette table as an extra work surface, or I can use our picnic table at the campground. But mostly for efficiency, and because I like it, I use the kitchen space that I have or create, working unhurriedly and very deliberately in it. It saves me from cutting my fingers and making a mess, and it helps me focus on just what I need to make, which requires less, not more. Preparing and cooking food has become simpler and easier, and I find that the slow pace and small space create a lot of peace. I think more and differently about it.
It also means that a tiny bistro or food truck is still in my future.
Kitchen minimalism also means that we keep and, therefore, utilize only essential kitchen tools for which we have space. For example, small canning jars are used for drinking, storing and traveling, because they are versatile, durable and portable, especially with screw top lids and EcoJarz tops (a favorite item) with holes for aluminum straws. There is only one unique piece of cooking equipment in the kitchen, and that is my madeleine pan, which I use often. Everything else on board has its place and purpose. There are no extras, so there is no rummaging through cabinets and drawers to try to find things, because there are no duplicates and no clutter. There actually is extra room to spare in our storage spaces because they are not filled with more than we need or “just in case” things.
The only piece of equipment that I miss is my Atlas pasta maker. I decided not to bring it because it weighs so much and I thought that it would take up too much space. We actually do have the space for it, but we are existing without it, using my rolling pin instead and a modified homemade pasta recipe for easier rolling, or we buy fresh pasta from local farm markets if it is available.
Spartan living actually has freed up space in which to work in my kitchen, and it has made it easier. Less actually means more, particularly regarding space.
Tiny living encourages frugality. Now that we live tiny, any form of buying anything extra has come to a halt, especially as it pertains to food. It took some time for me to figure that out regarding our produce from farm stands, where I have overbought with good intentions. Not anymore. We do not have the counter space, refrigerator space, freezer space, shelf space, recycle space or trash space to keep any extras. I make sure we are truly out of something before we buy more so that there is little to no waste. Micro-shopping works for us. Not buying in bulk or overbuying makes us think a lot about our purchases. Do we really need an item or many of them? Can I make it instead? Is it worth the cost? How did it arrive at the store? Is it local? If not, can I buy it locally? Is it something that all of us can utilize? Is the packaging recyclable or burnable? Is the item multi-purpose? So many things to consider as tiny dwellers and full time travelers, but all so important.
As a result, we simply buy fewer things and, therefore, consume less, because we have just what we need and it takes days or weeks or even months to truly go through something like tubes of toothpaste, butter and so on. I examine the contents of our various small spaces to see what we have and what we can do with it, then very little goes to waste, if anything goes to waste at all, because it doesn’t sit, it gets used. If I put something on a grocery list, I double check to see that it is really, truly, absolutely necessary right now or in the near future, which, in fact, it is mostly not. It has turned out to be a very liberating experience.
There was a point early on in our endeavor when we thought that we needed a small cube refrigerator, which we would have kept on the picnic table outside to keep a few extra food and drink items, such as beer or vegetables, or even my sourdough starters — fed and unfed versions — to create more indoor kitchen space. We already had purchased a medium-sized cooler to hold such items while camping. Thankfully, we never acquired the small fridge, because we sat on the idea for a long time and realized that we did not need it. We ceased using the cooler as well. It now serves as a clumsy step stool for Luna to climb aboard the rig. In other words, we didn’t need them and we don’t need them, because we manage our stuff and travel lightly. We think long and hard about what we bring into the camper. It saves us a ton of money and keeps our spaces clear for what we really need.
Tiny living encourages resourcefulness. Remaining from our old life is a basket full of spices that are likely to continue to go unused. There are some that I can add to the firepit to create an enormous incense burner, or perhaps they can go into the woods or act as natural cleanser, like the cream of tartar. (I have no idea if cream of tartar can act as a mild abrasive.) But after just four months (as of this writing) of full time travel in a tiny space, my standard kitchen supplies are few. Like the kitchen tools I use to make food, I do more with less now. What I purchase to be placed in the “pantry” or refrigerator better make sense in the kitchen or else it won’t make the cut. There is nothing really fancy about any of this. It is just basic stuff.
We remain primarily vegetable driven, and with my basic stash of dry and some fridge goods, I can make just about anything that can go with local produce, meat or fish, such as fresh pasta, bread, muffins, madeleines, crêpes and dough of all sorts, or stocks and soups, freezing some for a quick meal later. Simpler, easier, just as elegant and delightful and nourishing. No extra stuff. That is why the remaining spices go unused: I no longer reach for anything to create something. Now, I rely on just what I need to create everything.
This resourcefulness also includes buying in season and locally, which are very important topics to us. Buying locally and in season do many things. It allows us to get a real sense of a region and its people. It supports local economies. It is more sustainable generally: We buy what is available when we need it. It reduces packaging waste and carbon emissions. It saves water. It’s less taxing on the Earth. It speaks of the terroir, of histories and of cultures. It supports most ways of eating. It makes us smarter, better consumers. As we travel, our practice of buying locally and in season has only grown. It has even reemphasized the way I cook, because I am utilizing only what is around me, so I am more creative with and respectful toward the available foods. I am aware that some of what we consume is not locally or as ethically sourced as we’d like them to be, and we are trying to change that. In the meantime, we have enjoyed the inspiration we’ve received engaging in local food economies. It goes very well with tiny living and travel, and makes for excellent camper kitchen cuisine.
Tiny living encourages conservation. Now more than ever, our conservation radar is up and attuned. To our surprise, we have been able to recycle more than we had anticipated on this journey. Most campgrounds offer recycling or can tell us where to go to do so. However, just in case we can’t recycle, we make sure that we are buying more consciously in order to literally reduce or reuse. Our space and time and travels dictate it.
For instance, although this is not new for us, we buy nothing that utilizes Styrofoam. We can’t do anything with it, nor can a landfill or recycle center. It never goes away. Meats and mushrooms are particular culprits in the perpetuation of Styrofoam, and so are to-go boxes from restaurants outside of New York State. If paper is an option, we go for it and we burn all of it. Scot has reverted to beer that only comes in cans. We try really hard to find alternatives to plastic, of which there is so much. Thankfully, lots of plastic can be recycled and can be made into really cool stuff, like compost bins and deck furniture.
Recycling has always helped reduce our trash load and refine our buying habits, but what helped even more is having to recycle individual items while in Maine, where there is no single streaming and, therefore, no guessing. If I know what I can’t recycle, then I know what I can and should buy, which only helps my consumer and food habits. It’s really important to us, so we practice what we can. Plus, we rarely have to look for kindling anymore.
In other words, we know what comes in, and we know what is going out, too. It is important in traveling and living tiny, and for our carbon footprint. With recycling and burning, the trash that leaves our camper is a tiny bag of things that we can’t burn or recycle or compost (kind of a bad idea camping around, say, bears), and we only have one or two a week. We don’t buy trash bags. There is no place for a large bin and it is not needed. Tiny living has influenced all of this, especially in the kitchen.
But I suppose the biggest impact that tiny living and travel has had on us — besides the joy and togetherness and amazing experiences and food — is in regard to water. No joke, it’s incredible how little water we use.
To put things in perspective, here are a some interesting things to consider. When we lived in Arizona, our monthly water bill not only told us how much we had to pay, but also how many gallons of water we used a month to keep the pool full, which was something like 37,000 gallons on average. We now use the community campground pools, which serve many, or a cool river or lake fed by nature.
And, if Phoenix and Las Vegas and Palm Springs go down in flames, it will not be only because of the water consumption of its residents and visitors. It also will be because of all or any of us who buy year round fruits and vegetables from California. If you can buy fresh fruit in December or February in Wisconsin or Michigan or New York, so can everyone else around the country. We are witness to the fact that grocery stores all look the same for the most part; we know what to expect. Our food is coming from somewhere, and that food needs a fresh water supply. Buying locally and seasonally helps curb that. Tiny living and slow travel have reinforced that for us. Maine has the largest green peppers and the smallest blueberries I have ever seen. Michigan peaches are still the best. Bagged spinach from California tastes like chlorine and their bell peppers won’t survive the winter truck ride without steroid injections. Just sayin’.
And, tiny living has eliminated a lawn and garden, as well as the water output to maintain them.
And, our grey tank — the tank that contains the soapy dish water — only holds forty gallons, which we fill and then empty only after we have emptied our black water tank (the poo tank), which is rarely ever full, or if we all bathed and we did the dishes, too. Otherwise, we empty the grey water tank every two or three days. We know how much water we use.
And, sometimes we fill our freshwater tank for off-the-grid camping, which only goes into the grey or black holding tanks anyway, so we aren’t adding extra water; it stays in the system. Besides, a gallon of water weighs about eight pounds. Carrying weight while traveling is not a good idea. So, we know how much water we use then, too.
And, we only have one little bathroom with a little toilet that holds about a cup of water. No more multi-bathroom households here. We also shower less frequently, unless we hiked or jogged, as our routines have changed. For the sake of utilizing the hot water, I sometimes use Luna’s tiny bath water. That may seem terribly off-putting to some Westerners, but it’s just conservation. It would take a lot of energy to reheat the water, and it would take time as well, so I just bathe her and jump in while the water is still hot. No big deal. We are so used to limiting our water that we repurpose much of it, especially when we do dishes. Without a dishwasher and without extra plates or glasses, we wash, dry and put away right away (mostly). We wash our dishes over dirty dishes, rinse the dishes over other dishes that need to be rinsed and so on. It’s like the days of tent camping. Little to carry, little to maintain. We know how much water we use here, too.
What I’m saying is that we don’t take it for granted. Water is powerful. It is our new way in the kitchen — cooking and cleaning with a small tank and limited hot water — that has mostly enabled this keener awareness. Our water levels stay low. We use what we need and then let it go or reuse it. It has heightened our awareness more than ever, this tiny living and travel. It most definitely affects our kitchen and food life. We use with much more consideration now.
Lastly, tiny living encourages creativity. As for specific issues that come up in the kitchen through living tiny, there are a few.
The RV oven is one thing that has taken some time to get-to-know. It is a little hot box that has funny hot pockets and inconsistencies that make for gauging baked goods differently than when I had a large oven. The one gas filament runs perpendicular to the oven door. If I am not careful, whatever it is that is baking directly over that filament will brown severely. In order to deter such a disaster, I place an AirBake sheet pan between the item baking and the oven rack, which I keep raised at the second level of the oven. So far, it has worked really well; darker muffin bottoms have been kept to a minimum. Hot pockets are still a problem, though. Some muffins or madeleines bake faster than others. Generally, in order to thoroughly bake something, I must increase the time by at least five minutes. We also cook outside a lot, especially in warmer weather. Scot is a grill and fire master, and it’s fun. We seek a dome for creating an outdoor oven, which would be helpful, especially for baking bread.
The tiny gas stove is great and fun to use. To keep things quiet in the morning, we ignite the filament with matches to heat the Moka pot. Our pots and pans are small. There isn’t enough room for long handles anyway, or wide bottoms. So everything we make is simply in much smaller quantities. As needed.
The RV refrigerator presents an almost constant game of shuffle. This is one reason why we buy minimally: I can see everything and I know what I have because there isn’t a lot of room. It doesn’t stay as cold as a regular refrigerator, but it doesn’t matter — it works. No extra, lost, dying condiments here. We use the freezer for basic things, like stocks.
There is a microwave and the sink is ample. Most of our storage containers are flat for stacking, or we have small ones with lids. Variety wouldn’t work in this space. Dry goods are in a basket on the bottom bunk of the rig, Coffee goods are next to the Bell or Mason jars, which are all on top of the server in the cabinet. When we travel, we stuff two pillows into the cubby that holds the nesting bowls, springform pan and rolling pin to keep them from falling. The salt and pepper go into the utensil drawer as we drive, as well as the garlic bulb.
We love it.
However, with all this said, I would like to add that even though we are living tiny, it is still a privilege, because it is an option and choice for us on so many levels. So is our food availability and management. So is our water availability and management. So is our space availability and management. Just because we are living tiny doesn’t meant that our way is the default way for those that live in tiny spaces. Not everyone has the option but to live any other way than in a small space, and it doesn’t mean that he or she would make that choice, nor would reduce, reuse or recycle. And, with the overwhelming amount of poor and hungry in our country, and those without clean water in the world, most do what they can with what they have, and we don’t assume that those coming from poor or hungry places would act as we do if they were more privileged. Our way with food, water, time, space, travel, stuff is our ethic and part of our belief system. It has given us more because we have shed the bulk as a privileged lot, the stuff that gets in the way of clarity and negates consumerism — the having of stuff. So we advocate it. It helps.
I thrive in the kitchen, Scot thrives around an open flame, Luna thrives with madeleines. Tiny living and slow travel simply have widened the lens and connected us globally, ethically, lovingly now more than ever. We are lighter in load and fully engaged. We practice what we preach, and we hope the same for the world.
Here is to life untethered. And to tiny kitchens.