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The Beauty of the Inefficient

Posted by Theology of Home on
The Beauty of the Inefficient

By Mary Catherine Adams

My husband and I recently got deep into ancient nutrition: bone broth, soaked grains, organ meats. Each new method to food prep feels like an initiation.

Realizing, simultaneously, that we need a grain mill so we can eat fresh whole grains on the regular, I canvassed the women I know to see if any of them use a mill and what they’d recommend. Their responses led me to machines made in Germany and the U.S.A. with various boasts of volume and efficiency. A couple women said they didn’t mind their hand-powered mills. Most said they loved their electric ones because they can mill six cups of grain in a minute.

I am still debating whether I’ll buy electric or manual for our household, but the conversation prompted a question: Is the bigger, faster tool unquestionably better? We tend to think so. We drive cars, balk at the thought of a microwave-less kitchen, employ all sorts of mechanized gadgets for daily tasks. “Let’s expedite the process” is in fact a phrase often on our lips like expediency is a virtue. And maybe it is, in the true sense of its Latin roots, “to liberate, make clear, to free from fetters,” but our insistence often accompanies a tone of impatience.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with doing things more efficiently—decisiveness in achieving results can be prudent—and I am not here to disparage our contemporary world, but I think we should question just a bit the presumption that things should be done as quickly and toward as large a volume as they can.

Here’s an alternative good: A long time is sometimes the best kind of time.

Bone broths, sourdoughs and soaked grains, as I've learned, can only become what they are meant to be over a couple of days at least. It’s the one or two days of waiting—simmering, fermenting, folding and turning—that bring these nourishing foods into being—and often the longer the better. These ordinary, nutrition-centered processes teach us the fruitfulness of a slower time, against efficiency’s confidence in immediate results.

As I read more about these ancestral ways of preparing food, I learn how far ahead our ancestors needed to plan just to eat. (On a few occasions, I made the mistake of checking my recipe on the day I wanted to eat a particular meal, only to find that several components need at least twenty-four hours of passive preparation.) For our ancestors, the skill of looking ahead and understanding the duration of a process surely cultivated a fuller sense of time, of the future. They knew themselves (or more likely acted intuitively, without self-consciousness) to be participating with time. Time extended toward them, and they received it. To rush was to botch the whole thing. They had the wisdom to wait.

As I move through my third pregnancy, I find an opportunity to consider this newly. Although much of me would like this baby to come now—for the months of waiting and worrying to pass quickly—I cannot make my body move faster. As we know, pregnancy takes about nine months if all goes healthily, and no one can change that, excepting God. So I have this time—what feels like a long time, although in the scheme of a life, it’s short—to grow a human and grow myself, to let my body do a work that my mind is not capable of.

In making art, in living, in writing, in loving, even, I wonder if our major temptation is toward impatience; we prefer immediate, visible productivity. This is understandable; we are decades into the ruins of industrial culture. And although some projects and people achieve a kind of beautiful quickness, even then, this beauty arises from the gracefulness, the appearance of ease, with which much is accomplished. Would an attitude of less efficiency (though not laziness--living well is hard work) bring us some peace? In fact, low efficiency doesn’t mean less productivity but rather slower and quieter; there's a lot happening as the sourdough rises. Let’s trust the hidden fruitfulness of a longer time and rejoice in the good that comes of it.

Mary Catherine Adams is a writer and interior stylist, living in rural southern Michigan with her husband and children. More of her writing may be found on her Substack The Interior Life and her design work, on her website

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