For my junior high school Home Economics teacher, Mrs. Lesca Black, who taught me how to press every seam once you’d sewed it, and for Dr. Sandra DeJong, who said she thought I might be a feminist, after all.
It all began, I suppose, with the hardbound set of Time-Life Foods of the World cookbooks my mother ordered by subscription, lined up on a kitchen shelf between utilitarian metal bookends.
There was one hardbound volume for each European region, and multiple volumes for the regional cuisines of America, each covered in darkly-lit photographs reminiscent of still-life paintings. The volume for France had a picture of a cheese soufflé; the book for Austria (Austria?) had a gingerbread house frosted with royal icing and studded with candies—a Middle American fantasy of an Alpine Christmas.
“Let’s make that!” I always said to the nearby humoring adults, who were willing to let me make a mess in the kitchen but were not otherwise interested in “projects.”
When I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, I lingered, more than anything else, over the detailed descriptions of the process for, say, slaughtering hogs, or studding oranges with cloves for Christmas decorations.
Later on, in Ms. DeJong’s “Images of Women” literature class in eleventh grade, I was far more interested in the descriptions of Mrs. Ramsay’s beef daube and dinner parties in To The Lighthouse than I ever was in Lily Briscoe’s painting career—and argued in a class full of fledgling feminists of the value of domestic labor.
In part, I’m sure, I was trying to fill some of my own mothering needs and emotional deficits that I’ve written about before. But part of it was my own contrarian reaction to the widely-voiced dismissiveness about “kinder, küche, kirke” that prevailed in the “Let’s all go to the office!” culture of educated women at the time.
The funny thing is, I’ve ended up being one of those professional women who does go to the office, most days but not all, and my husband does far more of the cooking than I do.
I cannot tell you the number of times I have sat in the office, stalled on a report I am writing, wondering where I might be able to buy Argo gloss laundry starch (the kind in boxes that looks like crack cocaine) in the Washington, D.C. area, or how to make Cherries Jubilee from scratch.
I have never lost the sense that some dishes must be made from scratch, and that some ceremonial activities must be conducted on their designated days—the brilliant yellow bough of forsythia blossoms placed in a vase on the sideboard, the bathroom sink scoured out every couple of days with a heavy shaking of Bon Ami. My husband and I have both come to love the satiny smoothness of a pillowcase carefully teased flat under a hot iron and a blast of starch.
Nothing raises the scorn of friends on social media more than mentioning that you iron.
These things are important! I want to say.
It amazes me how so many are perfectly comfortable talking about process and practice in terms of yoga, or mindfulness, or self-improvement schemes, but fail to think about cooking and housecleaning in the same terms. More than once, I’ve seen this bumper sticker: “A Clean House is a Sign of Wasted Life.”
Instead—at least where I live—we have upscale carryout being served on pricey dishes from Williams-Sonoma, and people who throw their torn clothes away rather than mend them, because they do not know how. It’s the upper-middle-class version of the stereotype that the beleaguered working poor consume fast-food because they have never been taught to cook.
There are a couple of factors underlying this cultural neglect of the domestic. There’s the 1980s “Working Mother” legacy scorn I mentioned above—“Who has the time for that?” I regularly hear from people carping about homemade bread, or writing out Christmas cards, although they apparently have time to spend two hours on Buzzfeed or watching Netflix each day.
But there is also the relentless way in which cooking and cleaning and decorating have been made into something that, if we do not think we can achieve a bloodlessly perfectionistic standard, we depend on professionals to do for us. It started with Martha Stewart, of course, but has expanded into the whole realm of competing professionals profiled on their own networks.
There’s both a radical bodilessness and indulgent materialism in this turn of affairs, I think—a populace at once disconnected from the sources of its own sustenance, distracted by work and entertainment, and drowning in consumption. Make the phone call / Feels so good getting what I want chants the protagonist of the Iggy Azalea song “Fancy” that seems to be playing every three minutes on my car radio.
Instead, I believe, we are each of us, always, in the business of making a home for each other. And if we happen to live alone, as so many do these days, then it is the wide ambit of the whole world that we to help feel at home—the elderly, the single mother with no time, to say nothing of all those lonely others about which Paul McCartney wrote so eloquently.
For everyone deserves cinnamon and clean grout and starched linen—which may be just as important, in the end, as national security or world peace.
Writer Allegra Goodman dedicated her first novel, Kaaterskill Falls, which concerned the lives of a community of Orthodox Jews, to her mother. Note the first description and the last.
In memory of Madeleine Joyce Goodman
mother, scientist, administrator
and baker extraordinaire.
A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, Caroline Langston is a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is a widely published writer and essayist, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, and a commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
Image used: Pie Counter (1963), Wayne Thiebaud, oil on canvas, 30 x 36 in.