Packrat: Cleaning out the kitchen

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A few days ago, I wrote a post describing how I cleared out a lot of my possessions before moving to a much smaller apartment. I was amazed at the response: the dozens of comments told me that there are a lot of people who are dealing with the same packrat problems that I am still trying to overcome. With that in mind, I decided to put up a few posts covering the issues that I went through when clearing out my clutter. If you have any specific areas that you would like me to discuss in these posts, please let me know!

When I started clearing out my home, I began in the kitchen. The center of my family life and my entertaining, the kitchen was also the messiest area in the house. Even after I dealt with all the things that didn't belong there, the strange foods that we never ate, and the weird gifts that we never used, I was still overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stuff that I had accumulated over the years. I returned to it several times over the next few months as I the moving date neared and I became less sentimental. My current kitchen is a little smaller than my old one, but it is a lot less cluttered, which makes it much easier to use.

Here is how I emptied it out, area by area:

Cookware

Cookware was a tough one for me, and I could still afford to get rid of a little more. Over the years, I had gathered an impressive collection of pots and pans, and I was very proud of them. However, a clear-eyed analysis of the situation told me that I was drowning in all my great finds. In the end, I had to ask myself if I was ever going to re-tin all those copper pots, use fifteen saucepans, or deep-fry another turkey. In each case, the answer was no. I ended up keeping three large pots, three saucepans, a frying pan and a saute pan. In retrospect, I think I'm going to lose the frying pan.

With regard to cookie sheets, I simply asked myself how many of them I could use at one time. I took the rest to Goodwill.

Tableware

Years of bagged lunches, garbage disposals, and picnics took their toll on my tableware, so when my wife and I got married, we registered for new plates and utensils. Even after we got the cool new stuff, we felt some sentimental attachment to the old things, so we kept them. I told myself that I'd use the old plates and utensils if I ever had more than eight people to dinner, but the truth is that the two sets just didn't go together. I soon found that my table looked much better with only one set on it. Nowadays, when we have a lot of people over, we pull out all the stops, serving them on nice paper plates and giving them plastic utensils. This also makes cleanup a lot easier.

As far as the old tableware was concerned, I simply faced up to the fact that it wasn't going to get very much use. In the meantime, it was filling up drawers and cabinets in my kitchen and generally making me feel cramped. I ended up giving the plates to a former roommate and the tableware to my sister Ella. I still visit my forks and knives from time to time, and always end up wondering why I held on to them as long as I did.

Glassware

I had a beautiful and extensive collection of glassware, most of which I never used. I carted the vast majority of it off to Goodwill, keeping the tumblers and highball glasses, two Russian tea glasses (perfect for hot toddies), a few beer steins that I picked up with my father during a trip through Germany, some commemorative shot glasses, and a couple of coffee mugs. I could probably afford to weed this out even more, but most of the things I kept have a fair amount of sentimental value, and I'm not quite ready to get rid of them.

Spices

When I was a kid, my parents bought an incredible spice rack. It took up most of a wall, had sleek glass jars, and featured almost every spice known to man (of course, this was the mid-1970's, so man only knew about 30 or 40 herbs and spices). My parents spent a lot of time filling up all the jars, but only ended up using about ten percent of the seasonings. The rest of them dried out until they were flavorless, odorless, and had the texture of chalk.

When I got older, I started down the same path, but soon found that herbs and spices have a definite expiration date. Light and air will cause most of them to deteriorate, and age will generally do in the rest. By the time I moved, most of my spices weren't really worth keeping. Nowadays, I try to only buy what I need (Penzey's helps), keep my seasonings in a drawer (where they're out of the light), and check them every couple of months. When they lose their flavor, out they go.

Appliances

It's hard to say goodbye to appliances. Because of sentimental attachment, I clung to an ice cream maker that Coldstone Creamery had rendered unnecessary, a sandwich maker that was flaking teflon, a semi-functional electric knife, a juicer that I hadn't used in two years, and a Kitchen Aid stand mixer that I mostly used for whipping cream (my large-scale baking days are behind me). Getting rid of these tools cleared out my workspace, reduced my danger of teflon poisoning, and netted me about $300.

Little Tools

One of my first jobs in high school was working in a knife store. As I was just learning to cook, I took advantage of Hoffritz's generous employee discount policy and built a pretty impressive knife collection. A few years later, I worked at Williams-Sonoma, where I sold incredibly specific kitchen tools to obsessive home chefs. Again, I made use of my employee discount to fill out all of my kitchen needs.

Years later, I found myself drowning in kitchen implements. I never used my asparagus peeler, my ice strainer, my salad tongs, or about a billion other little items. In fact, a clear-eyed analysis of my kitchen habits revealed that 99% of my kitchen tasks require the use of one or two knives, a few wooden spoons, some measuring devices, a vegetable peeler, and a couple of strainers. In the end, that's pretty much all that I kept.

Under the Sink

My wife recently asked me if I still needed to keep three bottles of Armour All, now that we've gotten rid of the car. Something tells me that she was being a little sarcastic.

Even a cursory examination of the toxic waste dump located under the sink reveals lots of things that are ready to go. Almost-empty bottles of Brasso, leftover pet training sprays, and cans of oven cleaner were just the beginning. Nowadays, I try to weed out my personal Love Canal at least once a month. Better yet, I try to avoid buying any solvents or cleaners that I don't need, and try to stick with lowered-environmental impact cleaners like the Method line.

Cookbooks

Cookbooks were a tough one, and I kept a lot of them. Some, like Bistro Cooking or Bernard Clayton's Breads, don't get a lot of use, but come in handy from time to time. Others, like Julia Childs' The Art of French Cooking, Chili Nation and The Joy of Cooking get pulled out with fair regularity. Even with my desperate love of cookbooks, however, I was able to get rid of twenty or thirty volumes. After all, how many charity cookbooks or 1950's-era Southern cookbooks does one man need?

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and co-author of Military Lessons of the Gulf War and A Chronology of the Cold War at Sea.

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