the “need” to collect


My grandfather’s hobby was money. He liked to manage it, to watch it grow, passing it from fund to fund, speaking with managers of it, estate planning, and taxes. He collected it and watched it grow, much like heirloom vegetable seeds, except, it made him feel uneasy, even if gruesome tax laws and advisers urged him, to gift it. And I understand that miserly, hoarding way. It’s how I feel about the items in my pantry, foods and condiments I’m not sure I’ll need straight away, but that bring me a sense of calm just knowing they’re there. Arrowroot. Large Pearl Tapioca. Lavender Syrup. Rose Water.

Psychologically speaking, I’m not sure that I understand the need to collect things. I’ve lived a lifetime of hoarding, for sure, because on some level I believed that if I didn’t stow away my most prized possessions (my Barbies, epoxy stickers, the chocolate-covered almonds in Hagen-Dazs Vanilla Swiss Almond), they’d be taken from me, used, or even ruined by someone else. “Someone else” usually came in the form of my little sister, or otherwise, a parent yanking away my plate. I wanted to preserve things, to know they were there for me at any given moment, whenever I wished. It was something I could control and turn to; just to look at it brought me comfort. It’s why I always save the best for last.

I know some collect butterflies, stamps, baseball cards, or at the suggestion of a grandparent, coins. Others scour the Internet for Beanie Babies, Starwars action figures, pez dispensers, and comic books. The more refined collector might take an interest in shot glasses, snow globes, or dare I say it, bobble heads. These seem to be innocuous collections bred quite possibly from either an inherited collection, or a budding interest in the historical significance of rednecks, but most assuredly, people who collect such items do so purposefully.

I’ve accidentally made quite a nice collection of cookbooks and cameras. Ribbons, scrapbook supplies, and cellulite. I never intended to display said items; they’re really just surplus. Still, there they are, decorating my life.

If I were a collector, I might choose to amass pens and inkwells given my profession. I’ve always loved the idea of collecting sands from each of the places I visit, storing and labeling them in small glass apothecary jars. I’d love to display them on a narrow shelf  mounted beneath a series of black and white photographs of the corresponding destination.

I love the idea of collecting perfume bottles, empty vintage ones to display on a silver tray or shelved on a vanity near a sunken Asian-style soaking tub. But without doubt, I realize what I most love to collect are items for my pantry. I need to see my cabinets stocked. Necessity is not defined by a simple Nestle bag of chips, but rather, bittersweet, semi-sweet, white, mini, and mint chips. I need these items at the ready. Just to look at. I know I’ll be ready, any time I’d like, to create.

The other thing I love to collect is Williams-Sonoma gadgets. I need every last zester. A flexible spatula, a grill spatula (extra long for bigger items). Grapefruit knives and spoons, melon scoops, flour sifters, and copper pots, bowls, molds, and cookie cutters. A gelato paddle. Chinois, or a fine China Cap, fitted with a wooden pestle. I don’t know that I’ll use each and every item, but I love having it all, from stackable bamboo steamers to an egg slicer. One thing is for certain: you have to make sure each item can do more than one thing.

I’m not a fan of Lladro, but since I grew up with Herend figurines, I want to begin to collect some. I’ve always ADORED porcelain vegetables: haricot verts bundled with a pink bow, decorative passion fruit, even bulbs of onion. And of course the petite jewel-like limoges pill boxes. But especially Anna Weatherley designs.

I realize it’s all a luxury, being able to collect the silly things we do from pillboxes to Majorca and Fabrege Eggs, it’s all decorative and quirky, and makes me wonder, just a bit, about the amount of energy we put into such collections. But even more important, why do we do it?



  1. The tone and style of your blog has taken an odd turn.

    How are the beans?

    PS I ordered and received Moose, all the way here in South Africa.

  2. As a kid I collected panini stickers (to complete a sticker album), stamps and traditionally dressed dolls (like a matador and flamenco dancer for Spain, a milk girl in clogs for Holland, etc). The stickers were just fun really. The stamps I inherited from my grandfather, the dolls started with a souvenir from my dad's travels. I collected them because I felt I had to, or else I was missing out on something big, I felt I needed something to list when asked for a hobby. By the time I hit my teens I realized both collections really weren't me and got rid of them. Now I collect nothing, or perhaps just shoes.
    Nigella Lawson collects cookie cutters, which sounds like a lot of fun (especially during Christmas when you could use all those special souvenir cutters and recall stories on how you'd got them while eating the results)

    As for the 'why', I guess it's the sense of purpose when working towards a goal (gotta catch em all).

  3. Good question. As much as I abhor a cluttered surface, sure enough, I looked behind me and saw my collection of old books–cookbooks, books penned by ancestors, silver framed photos of my family and friends. So for me it is a way to demonstrate my past, including the past before I was present.

    I think *where* you display your collections speaks as much as what you collect. My mother doesn't like to show old family photographs downstairs and keeps them framed on her her bedroom walls or on bedroom dresser, next to her everyday jewelery and lipstick. She also has a great word for this "stuff"–goo-gahs. I so associate that word with the idle rich, but not to not acknowledge that is where I came from would be like denying that I also collect.

  4. Sorry, this is unrelated to the post. So yesterday was my 30th birthday. It was a birthday I was dreading because I'm still not at all in the place, with "the life" I thought I would have at 30. I have been a huge SATC fan and always identified with Carrie the most. I have had a few long and torcherous on and off again relationships, my version of the Big/Carrie story. A perfect on paper guy who just wouldn't commit but was fantastic at stringing me along because I would sometimes get glimpses of this fantasy life. I have been struggling to get past the fantasy I have of some "perfect man" and to come to terms with the fact that I need to be happy on my own because no man is going to save me. Anyway, these things have been on my mind a lot lately.

    So there I am at Wolfgang in Beverly Hills on my very single 30th birthday and Mr. Big himself sits down at the table next to me with his wife or girlfriend. (Stephanie, I remember you mentioned sometime on your blog that he hit on you when your date, his friend, was in the bathroom.) He's cute in person but he also has a pot belly and he spilled sauce down his shirt and used the table cloth to wipe his hands and stopped to watch part of the game on the television on the way out. I'm not really sure what to make of it. Some kind of sign about the state of my love life? or about men in general? maybe just a silly coincidence. But perhaps my lesson is that the fantasy is not reality and the perfect guy spills on his shirt and makes you wait while he watches sports and there's nothing much I can do but embrace it.

  5. I do the sand thing. Everyone says it's weird. Glad to know there's at least one more like minded person out there..

  6. I'll trade you some of my cellulite for just one of your cameras. Oh, ok — ALL my cellulite.

  7. Hmm – seems that there`s not only a Donald in your family; it`s a Dagobert too … ;)

  8. For me it's books. Lots and lots and lots of books. When I moved 1400 miles from home I actually took clothes out of the care so I could fit more books.

    I envy your pantry collection. I always want to stock up but end up constantly missing one ingredient for anything I want to make. I guess that explains why I had cold chicken wings for dinner last night.

  9. I'm a "saver" i think b/c i grew up without, so i'm scared…I always say "well, you never know". I've had boxes of shit stored in our garage for YEARS from high school and college… I'm actually going to be forced to go through it all soon…garage/tag sale next month.

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE anything kitchen related. I covet my neighbor's pantry. I mean it… If I had the $$, I'd build a home centered around the kitchen…where we all end up anyway. And as I think about the "why" of it all…I remember the times grwoing up and how it was in my Nona's house… It wasn't the food, it was the "event" of it all. Even today certain smells evoke memories that make me look back in time and smile, and look forward to the memories i'll create for my daugther.

    My husband collects shot glasses which i've gently packed away in a box in the garage…:).

    I also have a thing for office supplies, esp. pens and post it notes. Weird.

  10. My parents are collecters, which has spurred me to go in the complete opposite direction. I love cleaning, streamlining and giving stuff away. It also helps that I lived in small spaces in New York, and now a not much bigger rowhome. My one indulgence is paper products — blank cards and thank you notes.

    I'd be curious to know whether you collected when you lived in NYC, or do you think having more space has made it easier to indulge?

  11. I was never much of a purposeful collector, more of a general packrat. I never threw anything away. EVER. Then my leaving for college coincided with my parents moving from my childhood home and I became a bit of a nomad for 4 years – everything I owned could basically fit in the trunk/backseat of my little saturn 4-door, and surprisingly I really liked it. This basically continued when I moved to manhattan and took a 3-bedroom share where my "share" was an 8'x7.5' bedroom. The only pieces of furniture I could fit were a twin (!!!) bed and a dresser. Both from IKEA, nothing special to get attached to.

    Needless to say, my bridal shower threw me into a state of panic. It took 3 SUV-loads just to get the stuff back to my parents' house from the restaurant. Now I am seriously in love with my Kitchenaid mixer (the only wedding gift I really ever dreamed about) and my Calphalon pans. I also now fully understand your attachment to your stocked pantry with 6 different shapes of pasta and every dried herb/spice under the sun. This makes me nervous. On top of it, my husband is a worse packrat than I ever was. It makes me want to tear through my apartment with a big black garbage bag and just purge. But I'd always keep the mixer.

  12. i am a collector, as was my mom before me. my mom saw objects so richly, with so much meaning. she was pretty poor, but even so, everything in her house was chosen, thought about, on not just practical but also aesthetic terms, and those terms, be it color, shape, texture, were wildly animated and laden with value. when she dies, it was so hard cleaning out her overstuffed apartment, because each thing, even stuff you obviously throw out, i could just imagine her holding it, looking at it, trying to get a feeling if this was the towel or toothbrush or pencil set just for her.

    i've collected all sorts of things. RAW comix, things with hands, and nowvictorian mourning artifacts and hidden mother portraits — these 20th century portraits where, due to the long exposures needed for portraits, the only way to capture a clear picture of an infant was for someone to hold them still. for some reason, the style of the time, though was to just get the baby, alone, so often the mother whould be draped in fabric or carpets, and would hold the baby while hidden. often these photos were framed in these little cabinet mats, so you just saw the baby, but remove the mat and you have the human form, draped, like an old timey ghost, with hidden hands holding a baby. my boyfreind things that it's meaningful that i collect them, and i guess it is.

  13. I don't understand the phrase " either an inherited collection, or a budding interest in the historical significance of rednecks"
    Rednecks? What does that have to do with anything? I am mystified.

    I do have the sand collection from different places in those little oddly-shaped jars you get at Pier 1. I put in a few small shells and a coin from that country. A friend paints each one for me with a scene from each place. It's fun. At a glance I can bring back memories of each beach. I guess that's why I collect them.

  14. I seem to collect shoes. John Fluevog shoes in particular. I count it as a real collection because they can be re-sold (not resoled, though that's possible too!) for almost as much as I paid for them.

    I also hoard pearls and Le Creuset.

    My assortment of Spanx may count as a collection, but I'd rather not think of it that way.

  15. It was funny reading today about your "pantry collection" because just last night I was reading the part in your book about going directly to the pantry after school being one of your "rituals".

    I'm really enjoying it, by the way, even though I can't related to the weight loss stuff. I find it interesting how you thought of fat as the thing holding you back from popularity, fitting in, feeling 100% unconditionally loved all the time… because I think most people have that feeling, that there's something intangible holding them from all this, but without having something so specific to pin it to.

  16. Seems you have a preoccupation with "need" v. "want". I don't know if this is a recent thing, but in a lot of your posts recently it appears you've gone above and beyond to clarify what you "need" as opposed to the things that are just your "wants". I don't know if you think people are getting the wrong impression of you lately or if things are starting to slightly veer away from the carefully crafted image you've presented, but it is, as Carol pointed out, odd.

    Not that I don't like it, mind you. I don't know if it's exhaustion from the book tour but It does seem like you have let your guard down the last few weeks with some unexpected results. Sometimes the posts are still painstakingly precise, with overly clever wordplay that screams 'trying too hard', but some have been rather "real" and not like you sat down with an idea and kept wrapping it up in fancy schmancy puns, layering it with witty repartee and meaningful metaphors so that by the end it resembled a Russian doll with the original idea or point hidden inside layers of distraction.

    Someone once told me a real beauty never needs to hide behind layers of makeup. Someone with real style never needs to wear something overtly fancy and a real writer never needs more words than are necessary to make her point.

    P.S. I'm a horrible speller, so yes "kettle, I'm black" but you misspelled Faberge. You know how sometimes you have those words that for some reason you know the spelling of and it drives you crazy every time you see it wrong? I think everyone has something like that.

  17. You know what, I do the same thing with my pantry. You wouldn't believe the odd spices, syrups and flavorings I've hoarded in my cabinets. I also do it with fancy soaps and lotions and jars of jams. I think what it is for me is that I love having these things all neatly contained and I won't use them, or use them often because then I won't have them anymore. Then I'll start to feel guilty and try to use them some but I never seem to use them. Then they get too old to use anyway and I have to throw them out which makes me feel really guilty. Last year I swore I would use the things I have in my cabinets once and for all and stop this silly behavior of having and not even enjoying things. I did it for a little while. I still have six tiny unopened jars of french jams wrapped in cellophane and tied with gold bows.

  18. I wonder if there are food writers in France who jazz up their prose by calling them "green beans." :) Language is so wonderful.

  19. nh- happy B'day my big 3-0 is next week.

    First poster nailed it. This piece feels unfinished, or forced ending. Like an uncompleted thought. I don't mean that as a criticism, I was just wondering where you're at Steph?

  20. I, too, enjoy the personal satisfaction of being able to have a choice in chocolate chips. But mine extends to body wash, underwear, knit fabric and, also, the kitchen gadgets from Williams-Sonoma.

    Part of it is having the choice and the versatility. As far as collecting "things" goes, I like being able to show it off a little bit. I want someone to covet what I have. I know that's a childhood (child-ish? yes) thing where my mother viewed any kind of "excess" or anything beyond the basics as "inventory". That is, money on the shelf and not in her pocket.

    Case in point: she buys one pack of underwear, washes and wears that one pack until they die. And then she buys another pack. Me? Yeah, like 50 pair. And my daughter has at least that many. Because you just never know…

  21. The only thing I have ever collected was when I would line up the whiteheads that came out of my zits on the mirror, then left them there until they dried and fell off.

  22. Dear god. And Dear god again. I wasn't sure if I read that latest post correctly, about Phil and the disappointment… but then I saw that you turned off comments, once again. (Which is just like a challenge, SK, really.) So I guess I read it correctly. Honestly, what's wrong with you and this marriage? I would NEVER EVER air the dirty laundry between my husband & I, and I would CERTAINLY never say anything publicly about him disappointing me.

  23. I can relate. I collect random things for the kitchen, book shelves, vintage winnie the pooh and GI joes. I go in spurts where I do not buy a collectible for months and then I become implusive. My husband is the same which is dangerous.

  24. sorry, but i don't get what that last post means — so are you saying that you disappoint all the time, or are easily disappointed?

    also. bobbi — that is hilarious. i wsh i had a second face — one to keep nice and blemish (and scar) free, and another to pick at. gross but true!

    FROM SK: It was just a typical story… me, as a writer, waiting for some big punchline, forgetting I'd even asked such a simple question. I sometimes look for stories (with beginnings, middles, and endings) where there aren't any. Does it mean I'm disappointed in Phil? Dear God YES! OF COURSE I AM. Please. It takes a whole lot more to annoy/disappoint/ or sadden me. If anything, I was trying to say, we all disappoint those whose hopes are out of whack, and I realize, I often set myself up to disappoint others when they seek to find meaning in the smallest things in my life. Do you know people used to, actually still do, analyze my photos, saying things like, "see the way Phil's head is tilted in that photo? He clearly doesn't love you." It's absurd.

  25. well i don't know why we do it and i suppose the reason is different for every person who collects or hoards. security, desire for order, fear of loss. or maybe a coin collection is just a coin collection. i get collecting money though – i like to see that collection grow. :-)

    i admire your honesty and your recent posts clearly reflect your desire to explore some emotions and internal stuff, without exposing everything (well, nearly everything). and as someone who's still struggling to find her mate, i appreciate how these recent posts reflect that life continues to throw challenges and "opportunities" for growth – even after we get everything we thought we wanted.

  26. I remember as a kid wanting to collect something, but not ever really being able to get excited about anything. I worked with a woman who collected wizard of oz figurines and salt and pepper shakers, and I was sort of jelous; not so much of the stuff, but of the sureness that it would give her pleasure.
    I think hoarding is much better description of my collections–I want to make sure I have enough. My refrigerator is so full of once used condiments, I feel as if I should have a condiment refrigerator in the garage.
    I imagine there is something for me in wantign to feel rich with xyz, as if there is always enough and I don't have to conserve.

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