Women’s Work

While I do enjoy  figuring out how my great grandma got by without plastic, there are moments, fleeting but real, where I stop and marvel at where I’ve found myself.

The truth is, this is my second go at learning these lost kitchen arts. Long ago, before I succumbed to the mainstream, I was a righteous country girl. I made my share of bread, and had chickens. I learned to can “open-kettle” style (which, if that sounds quaint, is the kind of preserving that causes botulism), and wildcrafted herbs up and down the Rio Grande. My greatest ambition in life was to, well, do what I’m doing now – be a mama who writes occasional poems and whips out two loaves of fresh bread while singing “The Bramble and the Rose.”

Between those tender years and now, I did a little exploring, a little branching out. I’ve never stopped wildcrafting, and making simple medicines, but I also became a registered nurse, and worked long shifts at the local hospital. I kept writing poems, but also studied deconstruction and semiotics. I became hooked on Trader Joe’s. And now here I am, making tortillas, singing nursery rhymes, and nursing my two year old all day long.

Sometimes the strangeness of it all strikes me. And I stop and marvel for a moment.

I try to honor all my teachers, all my passions, every road I’ve gone down, even the ones I’ve backtracked from. And then returned to, when the time was right. Who knew becoming a domestic feminist diva bad ass bread baker could be so empowering? And so baffling?

Where’s all this going? Just here. Where I am is where I am. And the bread tastes better than ever.

Dark Nights, Getting Brighter

(Or, an update on last month’s small change–making room in our life to observe an eco-shabbat)

 

Take the day and give thanks–thanks for the work, the rush, the busy-ness and the gifts they bring.

(Life made rich and, truly, possible, by all that doing.)

Say thanks, and enough.

Mark the calendar with the evenings that are ours alone. Guard them as precious.

Let darkness fall unhampered. Full upon the home.

The heart –our dinner table!– lit by candles, oil lamps.

So much to say in that warm light

(Oh, my husband, how good it is to sit here with you, in the darkness that returns us easily to each other.

To ourselves. To the music we make.

To the love we discovered those many years ago in what could be another world,

but lives, renewed and fed by these quiet evenings.)

A night of watching the candles burn low, the oil run out, the wood turning to ash.

The source of our warmth and illumination no longer removed and intangible,

but here before us–solid and finite.

When the light goes, and the stars and moon come through,

and we find ourselves beneath the same night sky as our ancestors,

(My, the many dark nights we emerged from!)

we can take our time finding the words to that old, half-forgotten song.

Kicking Corporations Out of the Kitchen

Recently my friend Jenny and I were waxing poetic about cooking from scratch. We covered the joys of self-reliance and creativity, frugality and reduced waste, and then she reminded me that many health food brands are owned by corporate food companies. So I added “act of protest” to my list of reasons why the Lost Kitchen Arts matter so much to me.

Curious to know more, I did a quick search and found this interesting chart that breaks down ownership of brands that would be familiar to anyone who shops at health food stores. Hmm. Food for thought, indeed. I’m not going to try to interpret this information. Just putting it out there in case you, like me, want to know just what you are supporting with your grocery money.

I will say, though, that I now have one more reason to celebrate the beauty of mixing a few simple ingredients into as pure a form of edible love as I might ever find, all the while reclaiming my role as a provider of true sustenance.

And no, that’s not for sale.

The Keeper of the Keys

Selected excerpts from the introduction to Laurel’s Kitchen

(it’s called The Keeper of the Keys, but I think of it as the Manifesto of the Mighty Homemaker):

“I have begun to wonder, of late, about this belief that housework is essentially tedious. To what extent do you suppose it has been hoisted upon us by those same commercial interests who so obligingly provide us with dishwashers, dehydrated dinners, and disposable diapers – all meant very generously, of course, to relieve us of all that horrible work, obviously an evil in itself?”

“What really troubles us most about housekeeping is that in our desire to be freed from its tedium, we have welcomed a host of time- and labor-saving devices which have not only not eliminated tedium but cut us off from the truly pleasurable, creative side of our work…Worst of all, these labor saving products and devices represent an enormous sinkhole for the worlds diminishing resources. The world cannot afford this version of homemaking.

“The less than thrilling side of homemaking will always be there. But as soon as we take into our own hands some of the tasks we’d previously consigned to machines and manufacturers, our work becomes vastly more gratifying.”

“Why compartmentalize our lives so that art is a thing apart? There is an artistic way to carry out even the simplest task, and there is great fulfillment to be had from finding out that way and perfecting it. To lead lives of artistry, we have only to slow down, to simplify, and to start making wise choices.”

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No, I don’t sing my way blissfully through all the chores, but folks, these ladies are on to something. Last fall when we began preparing for our plastic fast I revisited this cookbook for practical advice. I found these words (and many others) that inspired and encouraged me at a time when I was struggling with the basic question of what to cook for dinner. I was a little skeptical at first, about how great it is to make lentil spread, but quickly found that they were right. The routines of cooking whole foods from scratch did seem to bring me to new heights of satisfaction and creative fulfillment. Partly this is because simple tasks like making bread and soaking beans are a part of something bigger–they speak to our collective need and longing to live in a more sustainable way. Reframed as such, how could this work that nurtures us and helps us nurture the earth not be gratifying?

Assuming you like lentil spread, of course.


One More Small Change: Eco Shabbat

Ah, February. Time to make another small change. Last month’s change was, if I do say so myself, a bit on the superficial side. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, but for the sake of balance I’m turning now a bit more inward, towards the soul side of life.

Eco shabbat is about rest. For us, and for the planet. It is a time to slow down, literally and metaphorically. In Judaism, Shabbat begins at sundown on Friday night with the ritual lighting of candles, reciting of prayers, and sharing of challah. It ends at sundown on Saturday. The time in between is spent turning away from mundanity and towards the sacred. Without the distractions of technology and work and busy-ness, shabbat creates room for prayer and reflection. For dedicated time with family and friends and one’s own self. It is also a time to lessen our impact on the earth, to let it, too rest.

To facilitate this rest, life gets unplugged for a spell. Everything goes acoustic, as my musician husband was pleased to point out. Time is taken away from computer and television screens. Electric lights are left off. The car is kept parked. No money is exchanged. The radio is silent. Food is prepared in advance. In exchange, one gets to enjoy candle light. To go to bed early. To make music, play games, create art, take naps, journal, go for a walk, or visit neighbors. To give thanks.

My hope is to bring an eco-shabbat into our home at least one full day and night this month. February is full to bursting for our family. We have so much going on–wonderful, enriching things, yes, but the scales are tipped firmly in the camp of do, do, do. One day of rest would be a gift, a blessing, a wonderful beginning. And along the way we’ll carve out small shabbats. Earth hours, if you will. Weekday dinners spent in candle light. The odd day spent wholly at home, with nothing on the agenda. My hope is that it grows from there, becoming more a part of our lives, our rhythm, our days.

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With thanks to the spiritual traditions that have passed this wisdom down.

Today

The girl at my side, the bread rising on the table.

The day bright and fresh and calling me to explore it.

See you out there.

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“Don’t ask what the world need. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it.

Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

–Howard Thurman

Plastic-free Homesteading

(Feeling pretty capable back in September. Oh, to be young and innocent again.)

A while back a friend asked me how the plastic-free homesteading was going and I said, “Great, between the dismal failures.” Yup, sometimes the pressure cooker stew burns or the bread comes out dense (or mutant, see picture) or the goat milk yogurt does whatever it does that doesn’t involve thickening. Maybe you are already thinking that none of these are failures – they are the signs of a fearless housewife embarking into an unknown country (the Olden Days, remember) and learning much along the way.

That’s right, I am. After a few months of figuring things out as I go, of occasionally melting down and wailing “this is supposed to make me happy,” of serving dal all week for dinner because I just couldn’t think what else to make (I know some of you do that on purpose, but gee whiz, enough’s enough), and of somehow persevering anyways because I made a vow but also because I had a hunch that less waste really could equal more joy, things are looking up.

These days, my bread is coming out positively artisanal thanks to the fabulous and foolproof no-knead method. My dinners are a triumph of creative simplicity (right, honey?). I’m saving the goat milk for cheese making, and using cow milk for the yogurt  because it’s tear proof (and cheap and comes in returnable glass bottles). All of this makes it a lot easier to have warm fuzzy feelings about “doing the right thing.” Which every day becomes less and less novel, and more and more just the way we live.

I know, I know, it looks like I’ve got things under control. But not to worry. I’m sure I’ll burn the soup again soon.

Living the Questions

I’ll confess I’ve lain awake at night (well, once, after eating too much chocolate) wondering what we’ve gotten ourselves into. What are the “rules?” How will we keep to them? And why, exactly, are we doing this? Depending on my mood this scheme to go plastic free can seem anything from absurd to impossible to the best thing we’ve ever done. That we are sharing it here, well, that adds an edge. What if we “fail” in front of everyone?

Of course, there’s nothing to fail at. This isn’t a contest or a dictate that we must follow Or Else. It is simply an experiment in simple living. What will happen when we stop buying plastic, I can’t say. We’ve made this commitment in order to find out. Rather than worrying over the details of how we’re going to pull this off, or what it is we’re attempting, I’d like to share two of the larger questions that have guided me on my journey thus far.

In her book The Open Space of Democracy Terry Tempest Williams confronts ecological complacency by asking, “At what point do we finally lay our bodies down to say this blatant disregard for biology and wild lives is no longer acceptable?” She also asks, “If I am committed to seeing the direction of our country [world] change, how must I change myself?” Folks, I have no idea what the answers are. All I can say is that I’ve reached that point and am setting out on a journey of change, curious to find out.

In fact, you might say that if we’re making any kind of a New Year’s resolution, it’s to live those questions more fully and more fearlessly.

Circling Back Around

I consider myself pretty handy in the kitchen. These last weeks though, when it comes time to fix dinner and I face a cupboard full of whole grains and dried beans and a fridge with a few jars of goat milk and muslin sacks of in-season veggies like turnips and kale, I find myself at a bit of a loss.

It was instinct as much as luck that, looking for help, I found the old hardback copy of Laurel’s Kitchen my mama gave me when I left home. Over the years, this classic made its way to the bottom of my stack of cookbooks. No more. All my efforts to reinvent the wheel of simplicity and zero waste have circled me back round to the original movement to do just that. These women figured it out before I was even born.

While modern food politics have rendered some of their glowing recommendations obsolete (soy spread? better butter? wheat germ? yogurt from milk powder? no, no, no, no!) the heart of their approach is timeless. They cover everything from crackers to sprouts to pudding in the simplest way possible, and their ingredients call for fresh, whole foods. Just like the ones that had recently taken over my kitchen.

But lots of cookbooks do this. Some of them with much better recipes. What sets this one apart is that what those ladies were cooking up in Laurel’s Kitchen circa 1976 was a revolution. They speak out about excessive consumption, poor nutrition, the power of the homemaker to transform society, and the extent to which we waste the world’s resources at the cost of our humanity, not to mention the ecological balance of the planet. We have the power to impact all of this, they reminded me, from our humble kitchens.

And then I had to stop reading, because the beans really needed to get soaking.