In Defense of the Ordinary

Collage as a philosophy in writing, cooking, and beyond.

Alex Menache
5 min readDec 17, 2022

Every once in a while I find random objects hanging outside my bedroom window suspended from our upper balcony by a string of twine. It’s become a joke between my roommates and I, like the rear view mirror that brings the sunset into our shower, toilet paper origami, and Miley Cyrus’ wrecking ball hanging from our rice paper lanterns. We have a mystery neighbor of the same breed who puts little dinosaurs in inconspicuous places. I don’t know who they are but I feel them winking every time I spot a new one.

We’re almost a year into living together and while we’re still putting the finishing touches on making this house feel like home, it seems that the key ingredients are the subtle clues that hint at who’s inside even when we’re not: my dad’s record collection turned bedside table, the swing we found made of vintage car seats, the massive fish head protruding from our living room — all the ordinary objects we’ve collected and given new life in unexpected ways. They don’t always serve a clear purpose but they always have something to say.

Among these objects are a series of letters written to myself in collage during the height of the pandemic. Cutting and pasting isn’t anything out of the ordinary – it doesn’t require any kind of specialized skill or material. It’s no big feat but rather a small step that was exactly what I needed to reframe the conversations I was having with myself at the time. Of all the stacks of New Yorkers I found in the stairwell of my Brooklyn apartment, there were certain words that stuck. Even when I’d get impatient and flip through 100 pages a minute, it was so clear which ones I had to keep. The end results felt almost impossible to have written with just a pen and paper, but somehow constructing sentences from a tray of floating words was effortless.

I feel the same type of way about cooking. I love cookbooks for their tradition, techniques and stories, but I’ve never enjoyed the process of cooking from a recipe. The long list of ingredients I don’t have in my pantry feels intimidating. Glancing at the instructions over and over, repeating them in my head, and setting constant timers is stressful. There’s a way it’s supposed to be. That phrase in any context is limiting.

The cooking I enjoy most doesn’t know what it is yet. It requires building a pantry of unconventional staples — spices, mother sauces, vinegars, mustards, pickles, herbs, chili oils, nuts & seeds. The collection of ingredients, like cut outs of words, becomes a kind of umbrella mise en place, a familiar library of ingredients that you get to know over time and an open invitation to use them in any way you want. The best part is that nothing is permanent, you can try things out and taste them until you decide to pin them down. Cooking intuitively encourages exploration – i.e. ramen made of our Thanksgiving turkey carcass, hotpot-style gumbo, “calzones” made of masa, and a lot of other weirdly wonderful (and sometimes offensive) attempts at making do with the things we have.

In the food world they call it “chaos cooking,” which rejects the tyranny of taste and instead celebrates cross-cultural flavors and methods as a sandbox to collaborate and play in. Eater describes the anti-recipe movement as “part neo-fusion, part middle-finger” cuisine, and the Washington Post claims that it’s the “pathway to inner peace,” a form of surrender to the messiness of every day life that’s guided by intuition, individuality, and freedom. It allows us to wander through unknown spaces, make mistakes, and carve out new corners that are both kooky and intelligent. Chaos cooking is Estrano’s street pasta, Sandita’s rainbow dumplings, and The Bad Jew’s porkstrami, which she then purees to make a kind of spreadable pork paté called “faté”. Chaos cooking bends the rules, it faces limitation with creativity and “channels both the challenges and the possibilities of daily life” through food.

Cooking, writing and building a home… it’s all a form of collage. Positioning existing things in conversation with each other is an empowered form of creation that sees artistic potential in everything and everyone. But even though the barrier to entry is low, it does require a special ability to make meaning of experience, to focus less on what we’re looking at and more on what we see. David Shield’s Manifesto (written in collage) describes it as “the transformation, through framing, of outtakes into totems.” It’s not just a craft but a way of living.

At any given moment, there are millions of stimuli fighting for our attention. What we choose to notice feels so obvious and innate that it’s almost hard to identify where the decision making process takes place; we’re like fish in water. But our agency is omnipresent— we’re never not collecting bits and pieces of ourselves reflected in the outside world and assembling them to create our own sense of place within all the chaos.

This writing alone is a type of collage, a triptych of experiences that come together to express an idea that inspires me: that living in collage is an empowered way of living. Even when life feels hard and limiting and like it’s slipping through our fingers, we have agency to redesign with nothing more than what we already have and to make the ordinary extraordinarily ours.