America’s Kitchens (and the women who shaped them)
Back in January, I went to the New Hampshire Historical Society to take in a long-awaited exhibit called America’s Kitchens.
Sponsored by Historic New England, this exhibit covered the entire history of the kitchen in this country, as well as recipes, cooking techniques, and most importantly, the role/s of women in these important chores. Although fairly small in scale, it featured not only print materials, but some fascinating antiques, a vintage 50s kitchen complete with appliances, and even a few hands-on displays. As a real foodie, I’d gone into the exhibit thinking this glimpse into the past would be pure entertainment. But it left me grappling with my own ignorance. Although I can recollect recounted snippets of my great grandmother’s and my grandmother’s childhood chores, they’re fuzzy at best. As a modern woman, I have never known the kitchen as anything but fun. This exhibit reminded me that until very recent times, the kitchen was anything but.
Historically, cooking and kitchen work fell principally if not solely to females, and before the advent of today’s convenience technologies, the preparation, storage and keeping of food, and all associated & very necessary cleaning tasks were nothing short of grueling. It’s one thing today to make a choice to cook or clean, but back in the day, women (unless they were wealthy) had NO CHOICE. Sun up to sun down was devoted to maintaining fires, tending to livestock, working fields, preparing food, feeding families, raising children – and by raising I mean everything involved with their upbringing, be it nursing, changing, teaching, playing, and so on. All day long there was cleaning to be done, not to mention seasonal activities, like canning, pickling, the smoking and salting of meats, butter making, and more. And let’s not forget other important tasks like the making and mending of clothes, along with their maintenance. Laundry alone would take hours of backbreaking labor. The Whirlpool Corporation (well, technically its predecessor) wasn’t even founded until 1911!!
Women Worked (with a capital W) all day, every day, until they finally dropped dead of exhaustion. Rarely was there expectation of eventual betterment or any other role to fill.
Home life for our predecessors was more than thankless; it was mandatory indentured servitude. No wonder women were so eager to escape! The kitchen was and is the heart of the home, but historically it was also a place of undeniable struggle. Against hunger, against nature, and against gender roles. While some women embraced their expected place, you can understand why others railed against it. Choice, my friends, can make even unappealing tasks palatable. Which brings me to another interesting point raised by the exhibit. When American housewives had the finance and good fortune to pass their labor onto others, they happily did so, in the form of paid servants and unpaid slaves. Interesting to note how often these unburdened women were quick to complain about the poor performance of those toiling on their behalf.
Many modern women, such as yours truly, complain about having to do simple household chores. We gripe about having to push a vacuum across the floor or wipe down counters with magical germ killing cleaners. We grudgingly toss clothes into big shiny machines which do ALL THE WORK FOR US. In comparison to what our forebears had to slog through daily, we’re a bunch of pampered pansies. But even now, some women struggle just as they always have. They wash clothes by hand in filthy streams, they draw water from wells, carrying it miles back to their homes – often with their children in tow. Women are still scraping by, cooking meager food, making clothes by hand, even here in America. Fortunately, most of us reading this have a choice. Whether you love or hate the kitchen, you’re not bound to it. In 2010, women have the luxury of opting out of cooking altogether if they so desire, and some do.
I have been thinking about this exhibit a lot lately, not only because I recently finished reading the excellent accompanying book, but because of my own life circumstance. I am someone who loves the kitchen, but who is forced to cook out of necessity. When I was diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease and told I’d have to give up salt, I traded freedom for health. Living in a 250 year old home, and spending hours each day in my modern-yet-historic kitchen
I wonder about the women who used to work in these walls. I envision them laboring in front of the open hearth, baking bread in the beehive oven, having to constantly maintain the fire. How exhausting it must all have been. It makes me further appreciate all of the advantages I do have, circa 2010. Like my beautiful new appliances! Which do EVERYTHING FOR ME, including cool, cook and clean.. God bless them.
Last week was Vacation Week here in Maine. If you are picturing me lounging in the sun, fruity drink in hand, keep dreaming. The only downtime I got was Sunday, between the hours of 12:30 and 2pm. I didn’t see a single fruity drink the whole week, unless you count the orange juice I had to wipe off the windows when the kids missed the sink. The one highlight? My husband also took the week off. Normally this would have rocked beyond belief. But since we are LIVING THE DREAM of 250 year old home ownership, Vacation Week was Hell.
Highlights of Hell included:
Cleaning out the basement. Normally I wouldn’t complain, a little tidying here & there, but our basement was so congested we had to rent a jumbo sized construction dumpster. It arrived Friday afternoon.
Life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness
It’s amazing how a day away from things can give perspective. Severed from my electrical umbilical cord, I AM A WHOLE NEW PERSON. Well not really, but it did allow me to put a day’s distance between me & THE DISH.
Part of the reason I had to stay off the computer was so I wouldn’t cave. B/c part of me just doesn’t want to stop doing The Daily Dish. Day in and day out. Forever and ever. Amen. This *part* of me is stubborn. It doesn’t care about ME. It is devoted to others. Their well-being. Their welfare. Their nutritional goals. SCREW YOU, it says. I call it Utilitarian Me, after John Stuart Mill. This part of me is always super determined. Disciplined. Moral. And now. ANGRY.
It is hard giving something up. Doubly so, when a part of you reeeeaaaaalllly doesn’t want to. Even if it’s bad for you or drives you crazy or makes you smell. Which isn’t my case, really, but you catch my drift. The Daily Dish is a good thing – a great thing, even. But it isn’t good for me right now. I am already juggling too much between the website, the kitchen, and my life. And now that summer’s fast approaching, I have been spending an exorbitant amount of time stressing over how I will get everything done with BOTH daughters at home. I shouldn’t be worried about any of that. I should be thinking of all the fun we’ll be having over the next few months. The beautiful weather. The hot days full of adventures and memories and time together. Instead I am thinking about the stupid website.
My daughters are, and have always been, my first priority. I gave up my career to stay home full time and I’ve never regretted it. I should feel no obligation to maintain a website I created out of the goodness of my own heart. And yet, I do. OF COURSE YOU KNOW I DO. But WHY? When I do it for no pay and it is becoming too taxing for words, that’s a bad thing. Lately I’ve felt like a fox in a trap, wondering whether I’ll have to chew off my own leg to save myself. My urge to maintain the status quo is almost too strong for my own good.
For now, it’s necessary to take a break. The website will remain as it’s been. I am not taking it down. I have avoided even changing it from the Memorial Day page, for fear I’ll CAVE. For the past year and a half, some part of my brain, sometimes all of it, has been consumed with this website. It’s like a baby. I literally gave birth to it, and it has been my passion. Developing recipes, deciding what to make, how to make it. What to work on, what to drop. I was already crazy about food and photography, but you put them together and I AM INSANE. When I was sick, I kept going. Doing anything dizzy is not a lot of fun. But still I did it, because I felt others were counting on me. When I went on vacation, I worried about my readers. Would they be okay? Would they be cheating? I thought more about them than I did myself.
I cannot tell you how liberating it is, after all these months, to taste FREEDOM. I spent 8 hours today cleaning my house. And even though I despise cleaning, today it felt good. No website. No recipe. As I scrubbed toilets, I thought about how SPARKLING THEY WERE. As I vacuumed, I thought how wondrous a machine a vacuum is, and how glad I am to have one. As my back ached while I bent over mopping the last floor of the house, I thanked GOD that I was finished. I wasn’t preoccupied with getting THE DISH done so I could take pictures while the light was good. Or having to orchestrate cooking of THE DISH so that it would conveniently coincide w/ mealtime. I didn’t have to think about any of that. Now my house is clean. And NOT ONLY THAT. BUT my priorities are straight, and summer is almost here.
So please don’t be sad. I want you all to know that this isn’t the end – it’s really, truly, the beginning. I have the next 3 months w/ my girls. I am SO EXCITED!! We will have so much fun together, and I will be blogging here about it all, sharing everything w/ you, my friends. In the fall, my daughters will BOTH be going off to school. And then – the fun BEGINS. The start of a real adventure for me. I’ve spent the past 8 years at home, being here for my family. Loving them, taking care of them, making everyone else a priority. For good bad & or UGLY, I’ve done it all. But come September, it’s Christy Time. IT’S ALL ME. And then anything is possible. Stay tuned. B/c come what may, I promise, it’ll be fun.
WOW. I just won another contest. ROCK ON!!
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