The best things in life are simple and unadorned
It was close to 10 as I drove home, the CBC’s Tonic on the radio, when one of my favourite Irving Berlin songs came on: What’ll I Do? It’s a haunting ballad of longing and heartbreak – “What’ll I do with just a photograph/To tell my troubles to?” – but this was an instrumental version, unembellished by lyrics.
The song ended, Katie Malloch’s mellifluous voice came back on the air, and she described the song with what I thought was the perfect word: unadorned.
I like things that are unadorned: simple food and understated clothing, spare prose and rooms that are comfortable but never showy. I didn’t always like restrained, though: for a long time, my tastes ran to the busy and the flashy. I was given to end tables cluttered with framed photographs and elaborate dinner parties with too many courses, to matched outfits and convoluted novels.
Credit my increasing dislike of excess and a growing determination to tread upon this Earth with as light a footprint as I can manage, but I have come to believe that less is more. “Simplicity is making the journey of this life with just baggage enough,” wrote Charles Dudley Warner, a 19th-century American essayist and novelist.
For a time I amassed things with enthusiasm – tableware was a particular weakness – but no longer. I have gradually been divesting myself of things I don’t absolutely love; I rarely buy anything these days and, when I do, it’s not without giving something away in its place. There’s way less to display – and dust.
The notion of less being more is often associated with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a proponent of simplicity of style – although he was a founder of modern architecture and my tastes run to the salvaged, the shabby and the worn. I like the patina age gives home furnishings.
Reading Fifi O’Neill’s Romantic Prairie Style (Cico Books), filled with wonderful photographs by Mark Lohman, I was all set to move into any one of the farmhouses she described. I loved their easy comfort. One of them, in northern California, is inhabited by Maria Carr, who grew up on a diary farm in Montana, her husband, Thad, and their five children. The landscape is picturesque with meadows and 200-year-old towns, and the home’s interior is decorated with rustic furnishings paired with vintage linens.
Carr said she likes fabrics with “irregularities and subtleties found in old French linens and European grain sacks.” With help from her mother and two sisters, they are made made into pillows, throws and table runners.
In the flea markets of SaintOuen in Paris, I too, was drawn to the vintage linen – specifically, to the dishtowels. They were white or coffee-coloured, with stripes or checks in red or blue or green; even though they were modest and workaday, many were monogrammed because they had been included in dowries.
At the table, I am happiest with simple food: find me the freshest ingredients, ideally those that have not travelled too far to my plate – and leave the plate unadorned.
Among the noted chefs, people such as Susur Lee and Marcus Samuelsson, and the food writers who contributed to a collection of essays on unforgettable dining experiences in Creating a Meal You’ll Love (Sellers Publishing, 2010, $18.95), several described uncomplicated dishes, unfussy food and family meals. “At home, I like to keep it simple,” wrote Louisville chef Michael Paley.
“I have grown to love cooking more meals that are simple and straightforward, and that I can make without the use of fancy gadgets and by using only a handful of seasonal ingredients,” food and wine writer Tracey Ryder observed.
Skye Gyngell, a Londonbased chef, recalled a lunch with her father one hot summer day years ago in a small trattoria just outside Florence: for dessert, they were servedpeaches–“ripe,downy and sweet – sitting on top of shaved ice … I was struck by the rightness of just one thing – one perfect ingredient, unfussed with – pure and perfect in its beauty.”
It was Laura Ingalls Wilder, the American author who based her Little House series of books on her childhood in a pioneer family, who observed: “I am beginning to learn that it is the sweet, simple things in life which are the real ones after all.”
Simple, real – and unadorned.