Wednesday, May 2, 2007

the more we change...

the more we stay the same.

I finally broke down and purchased the weighty tome that is Martha Stewart's Homekeeping Handbook: The Essential Guide to Caring for Everything in Your Home.

I don't know why I feel so compelled by these all-in-one domestic management manuals. Perhaps it's the bibliophile in me - all the answers to your most obscure and your basic mundane questions: "How to care for cloisonne" and "How to get the most out of your dishwasher," it's all there!!

Maybe it's because I actually kind of like keeping things tidy, cooking, sewing, and knitting. One the one hand I did receive the home economics award at my eighth-grade graduation, a fact both embarrassed and enraged me even at 13. Why didn't I get the geography award or the English award? I did well in those classes too! Even in high school I did fine in my classes but got an award in economics, a class I cared little for that taught skills I prefer not to actually implement in my current life because they make me think about how little money I actually make... Maybe they just drew names from a hat for those school award ceremonies, I'd like to think so.

And on the other hand, maybe it's just because these books are so darn useful. After all, I would like to get the most out of my dishwasher, wouldn't you?

I think at the root of my recent purchase is my desire for a book long out of print and now found only in libraries and archives: Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe's The New Housekeeper's Manual, published in 1873. How I would love to own a copy of my very own. While I was preparing a class on American women in the nineteenth century I was able to browse a copy in the Cairns Special Collection at the University of Wisconsin. It had really great stuff in there, like how to make your own potting soil with old composted manure from your cows, how to set up a house for proper ventilation, how to make dried pea soup. You know, useful stuff.

Here's Catherine Beecher's recipe for Dried Pea Soup (paraphrased from my notes):

Soak a quart of dried peas in water overnight
Rinse them in the morning
Add the peas to four quarts of water
Add 1 t. sugar, two chopped carrots, two chopped small onions, one chopped stalk celery
Boil three hours
In another pot boil 1 pound salt pork for one hour
Remove the skin from the boiled salt pork and add the pork to the pea soup
Boil one more hour

I also copied the recipes for spongecake and potato soup. I'm a little nervous about the spongecake, given the fact that we're baking in two completely different kinds of ovens (open hearth vs. gas?), but I aim to try it one of these days. This also gets at my fascination with historical cookbooks and recipes. But that's a story for another day.

How do I reconcile this compulsion for housekeeping books with my own third-wave feminist-ness? Well, they published a domestic manual, but the Beecher sisters were no wallflowers. Since I can't have the Beecher sisters' book, I guess I'll just have to settle for Martha's. At least she talks about composting. Martha may not be an abolitionist but she's feisty. I can live with that.