"Our most ancient metaphor says life is a journey. Memoir is travel writing, then, notes taken along the way, telling how things looked and what thoughts occurred. . . .This is the traveler who goes on foot, living the journey, taking on mountains, enduring deserts, marveling at the lush green places...as a pilgrim, seeking, wondering." -Patricia Hampl

December 26, 2010

Little Miss Homemaker

I've been thinking a lot lately about how my great-grandmothers made it work: raising families, getting clean clothes on backs, feeding everyone, keeping a clean house, etc.  No dishwashers, no washing machines, no food processors, etc.  Even my mom, who had the comforts of such machines, made it look easy when we were growing up; I feel like I can hardly keep up on account of a tendency to need to multitask. On the verge of 2011, having spent a good deal of time as a stay-at-home mom (until next year), I can't decide if I am nostalgic for a time when life might have been more simple, or incredibly grateful for modern technology.

NPR recently aired a segment about a new notion of "home economics."  Yes, you heard me right.  HOME EC.  Like, the class you took in 6th grade about how to sew pillows and make cookies.  And ever since that segment, I've been thinking fondly of my middle school home ec teacher--whose name I've sadly forgotten, but who I'd like to thank dearly for putting a little voice in my head that reminds me to put wax paper under dough when I'm rolling it, or to use the round end of the rubber scraper to get the last gooey bits out of a measuring cup.

In one of my favorite movies of all time, The English Patient, Katherine Clifton says to her lover, Count Almasy, A woman should never learn to sew, and if she can she shouldn't admit to it.  Of course, Katherine and The Count are having a hot, wartime affair and are soaking in a tub somewhere like Marrakesh.  But I digress.  If writing is supposed to be honest, then allow me to inspect my own home economics.

Maybe I should not admit here (write it, Gebell) that I've taken a liking to wearing an apron when I'm making dinner sometimes.  In my defense: I like to get messy when I cook, and there have been frequent occasions that necessitate my needing to be clean after I'm finished prepping dinner.  Also, the apron was a gift from a dear friend's mother, whose Iraqi-Jewish dishes are some I can only hope to replicate in my time, and because I hold her in such high esteem (as both a person and cook), I try to channel her while I wear the red and white striped apron.

(Side note: Heath came home once while I still had this apron on.  There were two pots and a pan going on the stove, the laundry was tumbling on itself in the dryer, I was handing my daughter her sippy cup and had my son on my hip.  He kissed me hello before he took off his coat.  Was this 2010 or 1950?)

I should probably also not admit here that I own a sock darner, and I've used it--it belonged to my dad's mom.  I keep it in a shoebox with other sewing knick-knacks procured over the years, most of which belonged to my grandparents.  Thimbles and needle-holders and the like.  I unearth this little box when a button needs to be resown or more recently, when I made my daughter's halloween costume.

This is where my domestic talents end.

I tried this past week to make two different desserts for people who'd invited us over (for Shabbat and for Christmas, how multicultural).  I first attempted baklava, and then made something called overnight cookies.  Both were lessons in What They Don't Teach You in Home Ec.  The first rule here is that you need 1) a quiet house, 2) a lot of free time, and 3) no interruptions to make successful desserts.  How do I know this?  Because after Christmas dinner, several women asked me what the secret ingredient was in the overnight cookies--was it ginger?  lemon?  No.  It was nothing.  There was nothing like those warming, savory tastes that went into my cookies along with eggs, flour, sugar, cocoa, and vanilla.  But I did remark that the dough had to sit overnight.  Oh, one woman said to her mother.  That's what gives them that...consistency.   Luckily, the baklava went over well, but I had to admit that I didn't have sufficient time to thaw the phyllo dough.  What I didn't say was that instead of using a margarine (the recipe had to be non-dairy), I used a non-dairy butter substitute because I'd forgotten to buy margarine--which would have tasted better--the third time I'd gone to the store in two days.

My laundry piles are now sorted into: pooped on and not-pooped on clothes.  One day, they'll go back to being color, whites, towels, etc., but as it is, I can hardly keep up.  A day without doing laundry is someone going without a bare necessity, like undies or socks.

Also, I hate to admit that I've had to rely on a professional cleaning company twice in the past four months (between the last month of pregnancy and having two kids under two years old) to storm my house armed with cleaning products and implements I don't have (but should).  It's a guilty pleasure, one that would be really expensive if I let it be habit.  It seems to me, though, that more than a couple of you reading this have done the same.  No one likes to admit they've "hired out," but it's perfectly understandable that a modern mom would do so--especially if she's working.

I don't aspire to have a perfectly clean or kept house--any of you who've been here know that!  But I do have a little wish that if needed, on a moment's notice, a drop-in guest might find some semblance of order here at the homestead, be able to nibble something nice, and use the bathroom without fear of what lurks in bathrooms.  And I can hear you--especially you, MOM--telling me to relax, enjoy the babies (oh, I do!), enjoy my time off (ah, I am!), and not to get caught up in trying so hard to play happy homemaker.  Let the house go a little (yeah-- I do).

The last thing I'll admit here: I sure like wearing that apron.

An excerpt of the NPR segment.   Click on the blog title above for more (scroll down the page for the copy).

So how does this new idea of "home economics" differ from the one being popularized by homemaking stars like Martha Stewart or Rachael Ray?
"This is [home economics], but in such a different way," argues Singer. "The Martha Stewart approach to home economics is more of a hobbyist pursuit. What these women are thinking of, it's not about a scrapbook room — they are modern girls, they live in little apartments in New York City. It's not about the perfection of your Christmas tree and your Christmas ornaments. It's about knowing how to sew a patch on a garment or knowing how to darn a sock. Or knowing what the difference between broiling and steaming is."  (source: http://www.npr.org/2010/12/23/132230490/elegantly-old-school-nostalgia-books-on-the-rise)

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