Modern Housewifery

When I first started cooking I was friends with a woman who did not have very much of an interest in food. She was very skinny, and in the NYC style suppressed her appetite with huge amounts of coffee and cigarettes. I mentioned that I was going home to make dinner one day, and she made a comment like "How oppressive! What is this, 1950?"

While planning a wedding, I can't help but think about what it means to be a "wife" in these modern times. All the imagery of a traditional wedding creates a story very different to what our marriage will actually be like. We're grown ups and have been for quite some time. We both have graduate degrees. We both have jobs. In fact, he mostly taught me how to cook. Yes, things are different now than they were in 1950, but my friend's reactionary viewpoint doesn't do anyone any good. The thing about spending all day Sunday cooking something is that you get to eat the leftovers for lunch at work all week. The thing about you doing the dishes is that you just cooked something that he doesn't like and isn't likely to eat any of. The thing about cleaning your house is that you also enjoy a nice place to live. It is not about oppression at all, it is about practical skills that make your life better. Also, I love him and want to make him happy.

I remember a scene in the movie "Cold Mountain" where Nicole Kidman's character was starving in some cabin on a hillside, and she said that everything she ever learned was useless. I remember when I graduated from high school, and I had taken French for 6 years, read the Iliad 3 times, but when I got a flat tire I had no idea what to do. I had no idea how long it takes to cook a chicken, or anything relating to food safety. This is an interesting column about the subject.  In addition to learning French, kids should know what makes a balanced meal. There are actual issues involving science and economics involved in running a sensible adult life, for both males and females. My grandmother and my mother both took "Home Economics" in school. I remember laughing at that as a teenager. And ok, my upbringing is well suited to my adult life of working in an art museum (lots of time at a computer, creative pursuits, reading about history, learning concise writing, being able to stick with tedious tasks without complaining), but part of the reason our dining room now is filled with cookbooks is because no one ever taught me what women learned in Home Ec in past decades. I am sure women in the 1800s didn't need Martha Stewart to explain to them how to clean their leather riding boots because they were probably taught from a young age. We visited with my paternal grandmother 2 weeks before she died, and I asked her for her pecan pie recipe which was related to many happy memories for me and she wouldn't give it to me. She was too busy trying to find out if my job at the museum I worked at was a paid gig or a volunteer internship.

Martha Stewart is an interesting part of this subject. My maternal grandmother made everything from scratch. Her baked goods were legendary. She grew up during the Great Depression, and came of age long before the onslaught of processed foods in every form in America's grocery stores. Then, when every possible food came already made, housewives were freed from hours of housework at the same time that women were increasingly entering the workforce.

I remember as a child my aunts sitting around making fun of Martha Stewart. They would say "She expects you to grow the blueberries yourself if you want a pie!" and laugh with a tone of resentment in their voices. And then to think I would grow up and be a person who not only subscribes to her magazine but checks this book a lot. Why do I need to check that book? Because without it I didn't know how to hard boil an egg, truss a chicken, or pick out escarole. No one taught me.

Perhaps no one taught me because of modern conveniences and the wide availability of pre-packaged processed foods. However, obviously the more processed foods you eat the more expensive and filled with chemicals they are. That is not sustainable, and once you figure out how easy, cheap, and tasty it is to make things from scratch the idea that you would ever buy frozen entrees just boggles the mind. Also I actually enjoy being in the kitchen and the process of learning about how things are made. 

The fact that many other of the domestic arts, like knitting, have been rebranded as feminists pursuits in recent years is also interesting. The fact that yarn can be really expensive and that it takes an enormous amount of time, I think makes it a separate issue than cooking from scratch. I can make pizza from less than ten cheap ingredients in the time it would take the delivery boy to find our house (about an hour).

So since I will soon become a wife, I compare the idea to historical and family examples, and I think about my friend's question 2 years ago, and the answer is "No, it is not oppressive to cook a nice dinner". We cook for each other. It is healthy, tasty, and cheaper for us. Those are our dirty dishes. And whether either of us does the dishes or we forget and leave it there, we still both have to go to work the next day.

There is a pendulum that swings throughout the generations. My maternal grandmother won state fair ribbons for her baked goods and had recipe cards littered all over the house. I get really excited about going to specialty food markets, and write this blog (probably the modern day equivalent of recipe cards). And as far as the idea that all 1950s were somehow oppressed, most of her recipes have comments written on them like "This makes everyone so happy!" and "Your dad LOVES this!" There are some similarities. It just happens to be a totally transformed economic, cultural and technological landscape.

(I should mention I have a large growing collection of frilly aprons, but I think in addition to protecting my clothes that it is mostly for irony's sake.)


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