Friday, October 03, 2008

Rummage-sale kitchen

An odd thought I keep having lately is what will happen to the store of accumulated female familial wisdom of which I have been some sort of repository, though imperfect, over time.  I think this while I am using various of the cooking implements that I have collected from women in my family: my grandmother's "Lightning Shredder," for example, which is a metal frame with a wooden handle onto which one may slide three separate grating attachments.  The Lightning Shredder cannot go through the dishwasher or it will rust.  So I wash it by hand, as I do the wooden sandwich boards, and certain of the wooden spoons I have.  And several old knives with wooden handles of which I am fond.  

After my grandmother passed away, and my aunts (her daughters) had divided up most of her remaining household goods, a great deal remained that was headed to rummage or into the hands of whomever would take it: the old wool car blankets, as well as the various kitchen pieces I picked up above, and odds and ends of silver-plated serving spoons.  My uncle joked with me that I aspire to a rummage-sale kitchen, which is not far off.  Old crocks for utensil holders near the stove, including the old tea jar (for which I still have the lid) that was retired from use due to a stress crack that finally gave way and is super-glued now and up in my office.  It traveled with me from Vermont, through graduate school in NYC, and in and out of DC apartments before ending up in my own home.  The list could go on and on.

More valuable, perhaps, is my great-aunt's full service of well-made service, silver plate, which includes a complete set of 10 iced tea spoons (useful for mojitos, we discovered this summer), fish and pickle forks, and the right complement of various forks, odd serving utensils, and other sorts of spoons.  And her set of what appear to be sorbet dishes with pedestals in different colors, and two sizes of etched glass cocktail and shot glasses.  Random serving platters and a handful of other saucers and salad plates (made in Japan before the war) that are simply pretty in an early industrial mass-produced way.

These objects and others trail along after me, telling stories that are hardly interesting, but fill me with warm images when I use them.  Many years ago, John Updike had a poem in the New Yorker about the hidden life of furniture.  Furniture is more grand and worthy of a poem, perhaps, but I much prefer this collection of small, random objects.

More important than beat up pie tins--and my only cake tins belonged to my great-aunt and are in the shape of hearts--is an odd store of old knowledge about householding that is something I doubt will be passed on to my daughter.  A friend whose mother raised her not to cook or know how to take care of a household so she would focus on career is often impressed by my cooking skills (which are modest) and the tiny details I know about cooking and caring for these objects.  

I know how to bake a pie and manipulate the recipe to make it what I want--and, what my daughter and husband love, know how to turn the excess crust into cinnamon tarts.  I used to be quite good with an old family recipe for pie crust, but, perhaps it is the humidity down here in DC, can no longer make that one work--so I have another.  My cake-baking skills are admittedly abysmal, but I can pull off a good loaf of bread from a recipe for white bread with cardamom handed down through my maternal grandfather's side.  I watched both my mother and grandmother make it repeatedly and helped and learned.  I know what yeast looks like when it's ready and I can tell by testing on my wrist when the water is the right temperature to take the dry yeast--and what the dough feels like when the knead is done.  The last time I made this, I used whole milk (it also calls for butter and Crisco) and the bread had a crumb like cake.

I used to know how to knit, and I still know a few tricks for repairing seams and holes in knits without a machine.  I don't sew well with a machine, but my mother and I used to pick out patterns for clothes I wanted, and I remember how to cut the pattern and pin the material.  I did the full complement of 4-H activities for girls--the farmwives' routine of knitting, sewing, cooking, and learning nutrition.  And I remember washing all the dishes by hand with my grandmother the right way, how to store bread, potatoes, squash.  I wouldn't dare do it now without refreshing myself on the basic principles of avoiding botulism contamination, but I've watched and participated in canning and pickling operations, know the basic supplies for making jelly and jam (and some of the tricks and problems with it), and have a basic grasp of how to set up a home sugaring operation (maple) without burning down the house--and the different stages of sugar past syrup--maple butter being my favorite.  

Where does this knowledge go when these things have passed the point of useful, daily husbandry?  When time is money?  For each of my aunts, these skills receded into hobbies, and then the practice tapered off into memory.  We are a nation of disposable and manufactured goods.  For me, still, though, regardless of my feminism, these skills are part of a collective knowledge of running a household that it seems sad to let go.


Leslie said...

I too have a full compliment of these increasingly arcane skills and objects, and nobody to leave them to.

And I make something my mom just called cinnamons with the extra pie crust—roll out, sprinkle heavily with cinnamon & sugar, roll up and bake with pie for 10 minutes.

My whole family has always loved these way more than the actual pies.

But my grandmother canned like a fiend, caned chairs, embroidered, knit and crocheted and I can do none of these (except embroider).

Sara said...

I think I've held onto these arcanities (is that a word?) not despite of my feminism, but because of it. Partly to reinforce to myself that women's lives, whatever shape they took or take, matter(ed). Also, out of sheer practicality: at 4'11" it has always been necessary to hem pants, alter sleeves, etc. AND, particularly after having been married to a chef who NEVER let me cook, it feels like a reclaimation to fool around in the kitchen again. And even though I cook, can sew (costumes, clothes, curtains are this month's projects)I've always had a career.

jeneva said...

Yes--it seems sad to see this collected homemaking wisdom vanish into the practicum of what Pamela Stone calls "intensive mothering," which is child-centered, and a professionalization of child-rearing practices. Not that there's anything wrong with it, I guess.

There's an interesting article in this quarter's Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers ( called "Eco-Housewives" that discusses a movement where the stay-at-home mom kind of returns to the land, grows the vegetables, cans them, etc., etc. It's not one that's readable online, though. Local library? This, of course, has a political overlay that is different from what we grew up with.

Yes--what you "cinnamons" we made almost exactly the same way! My mom would brush melted butter on the crust prior to the administration of cinnamon and sugar, perhaps yours did as well. And we often did like them better than the pies!

Leslie--looking forward to reading your book when it comes out next year. Sara, I think you'd really like Brain, Child.

Elizabeth said...

I was a pastry chef before I had children, and my husband is a chef. We both find it increasingly difficult to "make things from scratch" (my Swiss husband still does everything that way), but I do think there's sort of reaching back toward that. I am stunned by the number of blogs I've come across written by women who are masters at various handicrafts. I don't know what their political persuasions might be, but I'm certain that husbandry is actually not a dying art. Perhaps it's just gone underground.