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.


Kitchn Lovr said...

The Economist ran an article about the development of the modern kitchen that mentions Beecher and her ideas. She was all about the scientific management of the kitchen (so don't feel bad about getting the Home Ec award, Anna, it's another science award!).

Here's the relevant passage from the Economist:

"But as the working classes prospered and the servant shortage set in,housekeeping became a matter of interest to the literate classes. One of the pioneers of a radical new way of thinking about the kitchen was Catharine Esther Beecher, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the abolitionist. In “American Woman's Home”, published in 1869, the Beecher sisters recommended a scientific approach to household management, designed—with puritanical zeal—to enhance the efficiency of a woman's work, and promote order.

'A full supply of all conveniences in the kitchen and cellar, and a place appointed for each article, very much facilitate domestic labour. For want of this, much vexation and loss of time is occasioned while seeking vessels in use, or in cleansing those employed by different persons for various purposes.'

No corner of the kitchen escaped Catharine Beecher's critical eye, nor the precision of her advice. She recommended the construction of cupboards, shelves and drawers adapted to each sort of utensil. She favoured a work-table with builtin drawers, in order “to save many steps”. She advised a “grooved dish drainer” for the sink, an ingenious idea at the time. She included detailed instructions for
hanging dish cloths, stressing that these should be hung on three separate nails over the sink: one for greasy dishes, one for non-greasy dishes, and one for pots and kettles. “A housekeeper who chooses to do without some of these conveniences”, she wrote, “and spend the money saved in parlour adornments, has a right to do so, and others have a right to think she in this shows herself deficient in good sense.”


Anna said...

Thanks for your comment!

Sometimes I think about my kitchen as if it were a laboratory. After all, cooking is about chemistry.

I love useful kitchen implements and efficient recipes. That said, I'm notorious for eschewing the kitchen timer in favor of... well... ok, I just get lazy and sometimes burn things.

But I do love using an electric scale for weighing my ingredients for baking. It seems so much more scientific, accurate, and (of course) so Euro cool!