Thursday, April 1, 2010

Black Humor

Photo courtesy Flickr

There’s a deep and rich tradition of black humor in housekeeping. As far as I know, Seattle’s own Betty MacDonald wrote the first book in that vein, The Egg and I, about a Twenties move from a privileged neighborhood in the North End to a chicken ranch on the Olympic Peninsula. MacDonald's social views were as limited as most from that period, and Peninsula natives took exception to her characters. One couple sued, but the story was strong enough to generate the Ma and Pa Kettle series of films.

MacDonald went on to write The Plague and I, about her experience with TB before penicillin, and her sister Mary Bard wrote her own series. Portland’s Peg Bracken added the I Hate to Housekeep series, and Irma Bombeck came along after college reading lists claimed all my attention.

The wife of the Episcopal bishop of Washington, D.C. received founding Catholic Worker Dorothy Day into a Sixties parsonage roiling with children and visitors. Listening to a remark about how hard it was to keep up, Day put the solution in a nutshell: “Lower your standards.”

I’ll have to think about that, but while I do, I’ll be grateful to the neighbors who never once complained about the yard when I was over my head with children and restoration. I will always be grateful to my best friend from first grade, who said, “After three, I just sit on the floor and play with them.”

-30- More after the jump.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Photo courtesy Flickr
Sticky notes were not filling all my needs, although they are a huge improvement over previous memo formats. One of the needs stickies were not filling was the need to save money. Stickies are expensive, I often make a dozen notes a day, and I have no patience trying to pick out letters on something electronic. I still use many stickies a week for sticky purposes, but some purposes are slick.

Inspired by the salvaged business card of an exhibitor at Flatstock, I made blanks out of leftover art paper and clean food cartons, using a small paper cutter. The heavy stocks respond readily to making notes with whatever tool is in hand.

I can record separate concerns on individual cards and deal them out as efficiently as the game of solitaire they truly are. So far salvage is keeping up with demand, but I won’t complain if I have to cut papers to order. With these blanks stashed away, every time I make a note, I keep my hand in and learn something new about the format and the materials.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Week-end Editor

Photo courtesy Flickr
My partner was out of town last week. I used the solitude to concentrate on editing inventory in lieu of spring cleaning. We bought this place to use as shop and studio space, but the stork turned it into a comfortable domicile. Having recovered from mission creep, we’re getting back to work.

Recently I received a little windfall of heirlooms. Every time this happens, things jostle each other on the shelves. Days of silence gave me time to gaze on objects and figure out what they were doing. Nothing, it turned out, most of them. I subtracted all but four place settings of table ware, redundant serving dishes, and a fair amount of decorative uselessness. Parts of sets live in an archive, things cousins don’t want will go into a sale, and some things can’t go out into the alley fast enough.

When my pard came home, the first thing he said was, “Oh, you set up for speed!” Indeed I did-my eyes scan the shelves powers of ten faster, I’m faster on my feet in uncluttered space, and there are no barriers between me and the work tops. I can put the “Hesitation Waltz” out in the alley with the rest of the stuff.

More after the jump.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution

Photo courtesy Flickr

Saturday ABC broadcast a show, new to me, narrated by a chef I had previously watched on morning news. Seeing most of one episode convinces me the series is a long-due address to the first of the three basics: food, clothing, and shelter. It looks as if Chef Oliver is poised to do for the table what Ms. Winfrey did for domestic abuse: shine a light on problems and present a solution to millions of people.

A dear older friend lost her mother when she was seven, and grew up without female supervision when gender roles were rigidly defined. Her house was a good place to visit, but the kitchen lacked even a sharp knife. To cook a steak, she set it in a cold frying pan and turned the heat on high. This approach was a surprise, and I noticed that she could have gotten much more out of the tools and ingredients she had to work with. It seemed a needless waste.

A few years later, another friend who had done social service in Appalachia told me about a meal he had been served: four courses of badly managed starch. He was culture-bound, well-intended, scornful, disturbed, and unaware of the limits of communication in back woods areas.

Those were the culinary low points I knew about when I was younger. Unconsciously I assumed things could not get worse. President Johnson’s administration made huge efforts to educate and nourish low income citizens. The federal home economy publications from this period are a gold mine of value. At the same time, the women’s movement advocated working outside the home. One of the nineteenth-century sources cited in support of women entering the paid work force proposed that central kitchens prepare and distribute food.

I suppose this is an example of being careful what one wishes for.

Chef Oliver has established a cooking facility in a southern storefront. He visited a local elementary school, selling his approach to the table. The first scene I stumbled across showed him addressing a first-grade classroom. He held up vegetable after vegetable, potato, tomato, eggplant, cauliflower, beet, and none of the children recognized or could name any of them. They readily identified pizza, hamburgers, and fries, though.

It’s not clear how much art went into editing this production, but the result is a stunning indictment of the de-skilling of the culture. A scene in the school kitchen showed Oliver discussing the presentation of the next meal. He suggested providing the kids with a knife, fork, and spoon-it’s hard to imagine anything more fundamental-and ran into a stone wall.

Surprised that the school did not offer basic cutlery, the fundamental tools of Western etiquette, Oliver was driven, in shock, literally against the wall, after commenting that English schools always provide those amenities. A hard-eyed woman looked him straight in the face and said, “Do you have any documentation on that?” and repeated the statement when, incredulous, he asked what she had just said.

The race to the bottom began a long time ago.

The Christian communion service is a haiku version of a meal. Embedded in the ritual are the procurement, preparation, and sharing of food and drink.

In his Book of the Eskimos, Danish anthropologist Peter Freuchen writes about a people in the darkest, most bitter reaches of the north who lacked certain skills. They survived the winter without mittens. Frostbite reduced their hands to blackened claws. Hunting and butchering prey were even more difficult for them than for other groups in slightly more benign regions of the Arctic.

The school Oliver is visiting is administered by people who care about the children. Oliver got cutlery into the lunchroom and went around the tables showing the kids how to use it. The principal, an honest man, picked up the dialogue and made the rounds of the tables himself.

Domestic systems are a fragile collection of links protected by custom. Using a knife and fork trains fine motor skills and protects against hand-borne pathogens. When the early two-pronged fork came to England from Italy during the Middle Ages, there were problems with violence at the table. Barons found the new tool good for stabbing and would settle their differences on the spot. It took a while to work out the wrinkles in the system.

When Chef Oliver proposed setting out knives for the children, the staff said, “Knives?!” as if they were dangerous. Oliver might not have been aware of Columbine, but a table knife is less dangerous than a sharp pencil. Really, the point is to keep one’s mind sharp, and nothing keeps it sharper than a good meal.

In the Fifties, nutritionist Adele Davis published a series of books. She mentions that the determining factor in a child’s intelligence is the quality of the grandmother’s nutrition. Messing around with diet is a high-stakes game with long-term social and military consequences. For the past hundred and twenty years, society has known that home nurture is the foundation of a vigorous nation. A small investment in time and minor know-how allows one to turn the time, fuel, and cash it takes to run for take-out from a loss to an hourly task worth hundreds of dollars in health and education.

-30- More after the jump.