Home economics gets a very bad rap. It’s honestly unfair, given that, ideally, these are the skills which everyone needs in order to be self-sufficient. From personal finance and budgeting to cleaning and cooking, home economics is a useful and important class. While it’s sometimes looked down on today, to the point of being re-branded “life skills,” home economics has had a very weird and fascinating history, and the author Fannie Merritt Farmer had an instrumental impact on the development of the field.
The History of Home Economics
Over the course of the first half of the 19th Century, economic forces and increasing mechanization, especially in textile manufacture, shifted the center of production out of the home and into factories. In tandem with this shift, a social movement toward centering the life of (middle class) women in the home resulted in a burgeoning market in literature aimed at these very middle class women, intended to teach them how to be a housewife. If something has to be taught, it’s new.
The separation of homemaking from production was never complete for women of lower socioeconomic status, and even well into the 20th Century, girls were educated in needlework, crochet, and knitting, not just to make decorative pieces for their own homes, but also as a backup plan, in case they had to earn money for themselves. (A backup plan that my own great-grandmother took advantage of.) Doing fancy work for egg money was commonplace. Looking at vintage needlework, crochet, and knitting patterns and comparing them to modern books in the same genre gives a real sense of just how common these skills were, and just how high the standards of average achievement in them. For reference, here’s a book on filet crochet, from 1914. Just a couple of pages of definitions and basic instructions, and you’re off into the incredibly complicated patterns with absolutely no hand-holding. If it looks like computer code to you, you’re not wrong. It’s effectively code for printing pixel art with thread. This kissing-cousins relationship of the needle arts and early intelligence and computer applications is exactly why women predominated in early calculating, code-cracking, and computer software development.
By the close of the century, the old-school Progressive push to optimize labor resulted in formal education in homemaking, now termed home economics in a bid to add the gravitas of rationality to the field. This is where Fannie Merritt Farmer comes in, as headmaster of the Boston Cooking School, and author of one of the most influential cookbooks ever written.
The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book
If you measure your ingredients by cups and teaspoons, this book is why. Responsible for the standardization of American cooking measures that we all know and love, this book was a breakout hit and shaped every subsequent cook book in the United States. How does it hold up? Well… not so good. As it turns out, there’s a huge section on nutrition, which has very much failed to age well, not the least because the information here predates the discovery of vitamins. What do the food groups look like in 1906? There’s protein, fat, carbohydrates, and water (five pints a day!). The nutritional section doesn’t even mention veggies, and gives a passing nod to fruits, but only if you’re careful to only eat the ripe ones. You might get away with preserves, but watch yourself. Veggies are either poverty food like beets and turnips, or seasonal luxuries like asparagus. Fresh and preserved fruits are firmly in the rare treat category. It’s no wonder everyone was teetering on the edge of scurvy, rickets, and pellagra back then. The recommended ratio of carbs to protein to fat is 36:9:2 by the way. I imagine that a healthy plate in 1906 looks like a gargantuan heap of mashed potato with some meaty gravy and a pat of butter. Yikes.
Here’s a quote from page 3, so you can see the general tone of the nutrition section:
For school children the diet should be varied and abundant, constantly bearing in mind that this is a period of great mental and physical growth. Where children have broken down, supposedly from over-work, the cause has often been traced to impoverished diet.
Mmmm. Yes. Supposedly from over-work. Nothing to do with being a 10 year old coal miner or sweated labor in a sock factory. Cool.
There’s definite reasons that child labor laws exist. To cheer yourself up after all that, here’s some modern cranberry harvesting. With lots of labor-saving devices.
After that ghastly interlude, here’s some more Fannie Merritt Farmer. So much for the information, how about the recipes? Are there heaps o’ carbs? Boy howdy are there ever.
Here’s a good rough estimate of the place that veggies and fruits have in the diet espoused by Fannie Merritt Farmer: vegetable recipes take up 29 pages, fruits 19 pages, but desserts (counting from the iced ones because puddings weren’t universally dessert back then) take up 122 pages.
I know what you’re really here for, though: weird recipes! Here’s a few that are very achievable:
Baked Bananas II (p. 571)
Arrange bananas in shallow pan, cover, and bake until skins become very dark in color. Remove from skins, and serve hot sprinkled with sugar.
It’s like baked potatoes, but it’s bananas. If I were to hazard a guess, it would be that the bananas in question are a different strain than our modern Cavendish bananas, more starchy and not as sweet, hence the added sugar. Maybe they were more plantain-ish.
Raspberry Whip (p. 414)
1 1/4 Cup Raspberries, 1 Cup Powdered Sugar, White 1 Egg
Put ingredients in bowl and beat with wire whisk until stiff enough to hold in shape ; about thirty minutes will be required for beating. Pile lightly on dish, chill, surround with lady fingers, and serve with Boiled Custard. Strawberry Whip may be prepared in same way.
Thirty minutes of beating that egg white, and if there’s any butter or grease anywhere near it, it won’t work. Have fun. When she says to chill it, she means in a literal icebox, or terrifying first-generation refrigerator, both of which were pretty expensive options. This is why anything served chilled in hot weather, anything that involved whipped cream or egg whites, like meringue, and anything jelly-like was automatically fancy. All of these relied on expensive technology, lots of labor, or lots of time. The explosion of jelly recipes in the coming decades was a response to convenience gelatin and refrigeration: now, everyone could serve aspics and molded salads! Now that we have all sorts of kitchen gadgets to make the mincing, pureeing, whipping, and chilling easier, the pendulum has swung the other way, and super-smooth consistencies, jellies, and cold are no longer high-prestige. Our fancy artisan whole grain bread would have been peasant food in the past, and a fresh mango salsa in Winter would have been an inconceivable luxury.
Turkey Soup (p. 120)
Break turkey carcass in pieces, removing all stuffing ; put in kettle with any bits of meat that may have been left over. Cover with cold water, bring slowly to boiling-point, and simmer two hours. Strain, remove fat, and season with salt and pepper. One or two outer stalks of celery may be cooked with carcass to give additional flavor.
This, however, is a perfectly sensible thing to do with a leftover turkey, or any other whole bird, really. I’d use a slow cooker, to make it easier, and just let it go on low for eight hours. I’d probably also add noodles or rice. Some things don’t change that fast.
I listen to Tegan and Sara all of the time. In fact, there was a moment not long ago where it was possibly the ONLY music I listened to, several of their albums on repeat like they were going out of style. Tegan and Sara have had a bit of visibility in the Indie scene over the past couple of decades, but only recently have I dug into their catalog as a whole. At the peak of my obsession, they released a memoir – titled High School – and an accompanying album of songs that they wrote in High School – titled Hey, I’m Just Like You – but revisited them with mature eyes and arranged them in a way to make them sound like new. A “retrospective”, you might call it.
I was so obsessed with Tegan and Sara at the time their memoir came out that I couldn’t help but read it. And it is exactly what you think it might be – a tale of two Queer Canadian twins, trading chapters to tell their high school story. Its rife with angst, punk ideologies, first time recreational drug use, and all of the emotional things that make a teenage personality engaging, like their struggles with identifying as Queer in the 1990’s to their first experiences with live music and the creation of their band.
I got the impression that this narrative came at the right moment for the twins, because it feels like the calm recollection after the youthful storm. Without the context of their musical catalog that statement lacks substance, but their music has always felt raw and energetic. Even with their early, more mild and folky sides, the twins have always had something urgent to say. When they matured into a more pop sensible tone, it still sounded like they had butterflies in their stomach. My favorite era is their mid career, which is the bridge between folk and pop to a very emotional indie rock that cuts the deepest.
Now, with their memoir, they’ve found a new space with only their words to express themselves, and their maturity has cultivated a simple and descriptive way to showcase their honesty. I think they set out to recall their High School experience as a way of understanding how the progression of their identity has benefited their music career. Their honesty is what has brought me and so many others great joy in listening to their music, and by writing it all out and comparing it next to their 20+ year catalog, it helped me place each album in it’s moment in time – seeing the existential characteristics in these musicians just like I might see in myself or my family and friends. It all feels so incredibly personal without feeling invasive, illustrating a unique take on life while still being relatable.
Their accompanying album makes so much more sense in that regard too, harping on old emotions with a more mature sense of reality. When I made this connection to the album title – Hey, I’m Just Like You – I realized that … they aren’t lying! Tegan and Sara ARE just like me! And you! And all of us! We all grow older and learn more things, but there are pivotal moments in our life that we remember and use them to describe ourselves. Whether we want to or not, we’ll likely keep those moments as pillars of our identity but see them in different lights as we grow smarter. It’s a lifelong process, producing a wide variety results, all with their own quirks. For me, its a gentle reminder that life is a series of chapters and doesn’t happen all at once.
If you use the library- which you probably do, as you’re reading this post- please read this book. There is so much the general public doesn’t see or understand about the working of public libraries and Amanda Oliver lays it bare here.
Part memoir, part expository nonfiction, Overdue: Reckoning with the Public Library illustrates just how much libraries do with what usually amounts to very little money and resources. The author begins by describing a key incident at the branch where she works, immediately clueing the reader in that this portrait will not align with the idealized version of the library the public still holds dear. She leaves much of library history to the first third of the book, even noting how Thomas Fountain Blue, born to formerly enslaved parents, led the first public library branch run entirely by a Black staff here in Louisville. Oliver deliberately acknowledges how exclusionary libraries have been and continue to be –to minorities, poor patrons, unhoused patrons and, those with disabilities, among others. She grapples with how to answer the question “so, what do you do?” when the answer is difficult to explain and how so many public libraries have become de facto homeless shelters. As a library worker, most of the information Oliver relays is not new to me. The value is more that she is arguably the first to gather all these (what for many will be) revelations together in one book accessible to the reading public.
The sort of people drawn to library work are those who give freely of themselves, which is great for the patrons, but for staff it quickly leads to major burnout. Amanda Oliver relates her experience with burnout, first as a school librarian and then as a children’s librarian at one of Washington D.C.’s most beleaguered library branches. She left library work for an MFA program after nearly a year at that branch. That MFA program, in a way, led to this book. And so while Oliver is no longer working in a library, she continues to advocate for libraries. I sent the author a message when I finished reading Overdue, where I told her I felt seen. She captures so well the mixed feelings library workers have about their profession–passion and love combined with stress and fatigue, along with everything in between.
Overdue: Reckoning with the Public Library by Amanda Oliver is available in print format as well as ebook and e-audiobook on both Libby and Hoopla.
Part of what I love about reading children’s books as an adult is the ending. In most adult fiction, there is no guaranteed happy ending- unless of course the genre is romance, which always includes a happily ever after (if it doesn’t it isn’t a romance!) – and this is generally more realistic. But children’s literature usually, at the very least, leaves some hope at the end.
Front Desk in particular deals with some very heady issues, and what I appreciate most is how it does so in a realistic way that still leaves room for hope. It is not a rags to riches story of the American dream, but instead the all-too-common story of barely getting by. Mia Tang and her parents have been in the United States for several years and are still very much struggling. A glimmer of hope arrives in the form of the opportunity to manage motel in California. Unfortunately, the miserly owner barely allows the family enough profit to survive and is unnecessarily strict. As a student whose first language is not English, Mia has an especially hard time adjusting to middle school, where her thrift store clothes stand out compared to her peers’ new name brand ones. The motel owner’s son gives her a particularly hard time; this tension illustrates the range of immigrant experiences, even from one country: his family is also Chinese, but culturally and economically their circumstances are quite different.
Mia and her parents support a longtime resident of the motel, Hank, when he is racially profiled by the police because he is Black. This is what separates Front Desk from many of the other immigrant stories I’ve read: the author offers the experiences of other marginalized populations in America, not just immigrants, which she easily could have kept to. The Chinese Tangs didn’t have to go out of their way to help Hank, but they did, because their struggles are similar and they have the opportunity to lift each other up. It’s a good entry point to the concepts of intersectionality and solidarity, not only because it’s from a child’s perspective but because it offers some (nuanced!) hope at the end.
Front Desk is the first in a series of books. So far there are three out and another volume scheduled to drop this fall.
I had reached a dead end reading long novels and bios about writers. I was going to take a break from reading, but browsed our shelves on a Friday afternoon hoping to find a new book that was fairly short and I found it right in the section that I shepherd: Biographies. It was new and by a poet that I never heard of. But the title drew me in, Studying with Miss Bishop by Dana Gioia with a picture of Elizabeth Bishop on the cover. I devoured it over the weekend. It was pure gold.
It contains 6 vignettes about his learning. Four were famous writers, one was a dead uncle, and the last was a long forgotten poet that he never met. Two of the writers were also his professors at Harvard – Bishop and Robert Fitzgerald, famous for his translations of the Iliad and Odyssey. It is like taking the juiciest parts of a full load of college classes.
The most famous writer he met was James Dickey, his book Deliverance and then the movie made him extremely well known. He had been a great poet up until his fame took over. Meeting Dickey should have been a great thing except Gioia met him at the wrong time. And he learns that telling the truth is sometimes the hardest decision to make and live up to.
The writer that I was least familiar with was John Cheever. Although, he don’t interest me, I went back and reread his daughter Susan’s bio on one of my favorite poets, E.E. Cummings: A Life.
Gioia is a poet also, and definitely a poet I wish to explore more.
So this also led me back to reading poetry. And I found my way back to one of my favorite poets who is a much overlooked poet, Jim Carroll. I decided to reread his memoirs, The Basketball Diaries, because the last line of the book, “I just want to be pure,” kept floating in my head repeatedly.
I read it about 30 years ago and loved it. At 58, I read it with much different eyes. I was more distanced to it because of mucho personal experience. In my 20’s, he sounded like a punk and smart aleck. Today, it sounds like the purest writing that I have ever read. No wasted words or pretense.
Carroll was 13 when the Diary begins and 16 at the end. In between he discovers drugs and sex, and a lot of both. He experiments with everything and becomes a heroin junkie. He is a star basketball player and good looking, and that is enough to get him through many struggles and into a lot of potential trouble.
There were probably many boring days in the life of a junkie but this doesn’t include any of them. Along the way, I went back and read a bit of The Catcher in the Rye (a must read). Teenage Carroll can be seen as the Vietnam Era’s version of the postwar Holden Caulfield, in proportion to the way America has progressed with the uglier things in life.
Also, I finally got around to reading a book on my TBR shelf, The Adding Machine by William S. Burroughs (who – among other things) taught Creative Writing at the Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado). It is a collection of essays roughly about the art of writing. Basically, what works for him, and what works or doesn’t work for other writers. Also, his thoughts on Hemingway, The Great Gatsby, and Jaws.
Jack Kerouac called Burroughs the smartest man in America. I believe this to be true. Kerouac was my first favorite writer and probably still is. It has been almost 30 years since I read some of his books, so onward to explore them as an old man.
In Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World, Danielle Friedman sets out to do something ambitious. Friedman chronicles the rise of women’s exercise in the 20th century, the pioneers and the programs that rose to prominence and became cultural obsessions, as well as the overall trend towards health and fitness. Friedman argues that women came to exercise for aesthetic rewards, the goal being to look good, but that women stuck with exercise because it made them feel good.
Freidman begins her story in the 1950’s when the first calisthenics style exercises for women became popular. Bonnie Pruden was one of the first to become nationally known for encouraging women to “keep fit”. Her work on fitness for women and children would lead her to be on the team that later created the President’s Physical Fitness Test (yes, you have Bonnie to blame for that rope climb). After Bonnie, Freidman takes us through a tour of fitness trends from barre to jogging, yoga to Jane Fonda. This is the part that Freidman does well. We’re given lots of interesting facts and tidbits about the history of fitness. Before “athleisure” was an everyday word we had the women who invented the sports bra. (One of those women would go on to win several Emmy’s for her work costuming the Muppets on Sesame Street.) It’s fun to see how trends emerged and how fitness influencers like Jane Fonda reflect bigger societal and cultural patterns.
Friedman tries to explain that these fitness fads, and indeed all personal fitness, is largely aimed at middle class women who have the leisure time and money to devote to fitness essentials. However, other than asserting this fact time and time again Friedman doesn’t offer a lot of context or definitive proof. She does feature a few Black influencers and talks to them to uncover their struggles to “make it” in a world where no one looked like them. I would have liked to hear more from these women and other women who don’t fit the traditional mold of what an influencer typically looks like. Freidman also states repeatedly that women often come to exercise for physical transformation, but stick with it because it transforms their mental.
“Leah fell asleep outside the night after her brother disappeared, outside to get away from the sounds inside, and she saw two little girls in brilliant calico dresses walk from the garage and climb up the maple tree. They didn’t come down, not that she saw. The night was silent. The stars were silent. The grass was silent. The world was empty.” – Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky
Once in a while you come across a wild, profound, terrifying, beautiful book that reminds you of the ways in which literature is such a beautiful art form. Then, sometimes, you look up the author and find that once upon a time they dropped a book like this and it’s also their only work to date, which makes the mind reel. Did creating this story with its intricate narrative consume all the literary energy they had to give? Was it the work of years, and maybe they’re crafting another such book right now? Or did they just wake up one day with an idea for a completely devastating novel, release it into the world, and decide they were done? David Connerly Nahm wrote his only full-length novel Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky in 2014, and he has a minimal online presence excepting an interview or podcast guest spot, a rarity in the social media age. This was a disappointment to me only in the sense that it didn’t take long into my reading to realize this novel was a work of art, and once I’d finished the rollercoaster of dramatic intrigue stretching through the course of Ancient Oceans, I immediately wanted another ride.
Nahm employs suspense incredibly well to keep readers hooked throughout a very poetic novel that, lacking sufficient levels of ghostly intrigue, may have gone over a lot of peoples’ heads. (Honestly, if you prefer a straight-to-the-point storytelling style with no additional commentary or complex themes, this still might not be the book for you.) But Nahm knits together a stream of consciousness style and third person perspective in his book that creates an eerie, almost out-of-body narrative voice to tell the story of Leah, a woman whose entire life as it exists in the present of the book was defined by a traumatic event in her childhood, the disappearance of her little brother Jacob. It is through Leah’s perspective that we’re shown the rural Kentucky town of Crow Station (heavily influenced by Danville, Kentucky) and the people who live there, many of whom Leah has known her entire life. This cast of personalities fills out Crow Station’s tableau of those who, in the course of the book’s two acts, live, alternately carve out joy or succumb to cruelty, struggle for survival financially and philosophically and leave their mark on the ever-shrinking pocket of Kentucky in which they are fated to live and die and leave behind their stories to haunt generations to come, and even the land itself.
A deep understanding of folkloric themes is obvious in Nahm’s narrative as he employs both the suspense of gradually uncovering the truth of Jacob’s loss and elements of ghost stories throughout the book to engage readers and to suggest the possibility of the supernatural as a running theme. From Leah’s childhood remembrances of local ghost stories to the way the actions of one generation can define not just their life but linger in the experiences of their children, heritage and memory are explored by Nahm as he gradually strips away layers of forgotten or misremembered events in the rural, underfunded and fading town to bring some of the threads of the plot to light, while raising even more questions about others.
Ancients Oceans parallels ghost stories – and specifically, regionally, the concept of haints – with themes of being haunted by the past, the choices and events that constitute a life. As the novel progresses, early references to random snapshots of events that initially felt poetic in purpose are revealed as moments in the lives of the orbiting side characters. And throughout, courtesy of the guilty memories of a very unreliable narrator, readers find themselves trying to solve the unsolved mystery of what really happened to seven-year-old Jacob Shepherd, but also, in what form and for what purpose has he perhaps returned?
Nahm drew from his own life experiences for his portrayal of rural Kentucky, as well as different scenes and snippets of dialogue throughout the book. In an interview leading up to its release he said “While I remember myself as a kind older brother—though maybe a touch dictatorial—to this day I am sometimes filled with an ill-feeling when I abruptly remember some long past misdeed: A time I wrestled my brother and hurt him on purpose because I was mad or when I failed to stand up for my sisters when they were teased in a playground. It is this inability to let these things go that informed Leah and Jacob’s relationship—or, more accurately, her memory of their relationship.” These added layers make the novel deeply personal and honestly, more than a little vulnerable in a way that I as a reader physically sensed. As an older sister who, being a child herself, occasionally picked at her younger sibling and resented being followed around, Leah’s guilty memories of her childhood relationship with her brother – including her occasional bullying – definitely stung. Readers are often presented with unflattering anecdotes of ways she was unkind to him prior to his disappearance, what some would call typical sibling behavior that became magnified in her memory once he was gone. In a climactic scene, Leah, the quintessential unreliable narrator, discloses a new and crucial piece of information to readers who have spent the last couple of hundred pages learning every detail about her life and may have assumed that, having been inside her mind, there was nothing left for her to hide.
The unavoidable point of tension and confrontation in that scene and an ending that can be interpreted any number of ways almost require the reader to sit in judgment on Leah and decide whether or not to absolve her of her childhood sins. I personally found myself poring over different aspects of Leah’s story and I still have no concrete answers, but while I’m sure Nahm knows the truth of what was factual or imagined in his narrative, the potential for conversation and dissection of the events of the story make this the perfect book club book, in my opinion. I could discuss it for ages, and unfortunately for the people in my life who don’t enjoy speculative fiction, I will most likely be doing so for the foreseeable future.
I would recommend Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky to fans of Kentucky authors, Southern Gothic themes, family-centric dramas, and books you’re still thinking about in the car on the way to work the next day.