April 20, 2004

Made from Scratch, Jean Zimmerman

Subtitle: Reclaiming the Pleasures of the American Hearth

I was ill-disposed to believe in Zimmerman's good intent, or clarity of thought, can't tell, after page 3:

A woman named Elrina lived with her husband in a small wooden shack in the corner of the back lot behind the house, and she helped out in the kitchen. Mostly, though, my grandmother herself dished up the stewed tomatoes, chicken-fried steak...

If you're claiming to honor the work of taking care of a family, it's insufficiently generous to extend honor only to your grandmother, giving her the credit for dishing out the food (that Elrina had cooked?). If it's honorable work, Elrina gets her share of the honor. The lady of the house doesn't get moral credit for work done by someone else.

I think Zimmerman wasn't actually playing that game, although it's so familiar from nineteenth-century social engineering that I also don't think she should go that close. I think Zimmerman's problem is that she hasn't really decided how she wants to live (she's guilt-stricken by SAHMs, gourmet neighbors, etc.), she doesn't have Laura Schenone's capacity to live imaginatively in two contradictory understandings, and she didn't digest her source reading well enough.

I found it difficult to credit her scholarship after p. 58, when she claimed that Homer was the scribe of the Odyssey as the Brothers Grimm were scribes of folktales. Less clunking error: it's all very well to go swimmy about Hestia's honor as the ancient goddess of the hearth, but do remember that she was knocked out of the Top Twelve to make room for Bacchus. Nor am I convinced by the interpretations Zimmerman puts on plausible facts; she seems to take 19th. c. discussions of the woman's sphere at face value. E.g., p, 84, by 1916 there were 17,778 home economics college students, most wanting to teach home economics, compared with 213 in 1905. This is not great evidence that seventeen thousand women wanted to practice, or preach, the home arts. It's great evidence that they wanted to be paid. And if the time she cites as rich in the home traditions wasn't good enough to justify them for themselves, it's not good justification for them in ours.

I quit reading somewhere in her introduction of first-stage feminism. I'd rather reread her sources. The rest of this is really not a fair review, since I just flipped through the last two-thirds of the book.

It seems to me that she wants to justify taking the time to make her family surroundings pleasant by imbuing them with all the grandeur and importance of goddesses and cultural transmission. But Etheldred of The Daisy Chain could explain why that doesn't work; if you're devoted to taking care of other people, you can't send in a bill explaining how you want them to reward you for it. (You can if you're doing it professionally, of which more later.)

I also don't recognize her narrative of what monobloc feminism wanted women to do. She seems personally to have swung from wannabe groovy hippie teen-hood to 1980s careerism to her current state of doubt. I know more feminists who combined interesting work with whole-grain bread-baking from the start, and don't have to have a midlife crisis about it. Besides, Schenone again was more interesting about generational attitudes towards traditional women's work.

There's the ghost of a book on how to arrange the very survival of non-market activity in here. Zimmerman says, repeatedly, that everyone needs to do some of the housework, that we have to value the work of caring and maintenance and cleaning up, because (my summary) not doing so will lead to environmental, health and labor-market disasters. Works for me, but previous go-rounds have indicated that no degree of sententious belief in the sanctity of the home was sufficient to defend the homes of the poor from the garbage of the rich.

I was totally unconvinced by her assumption that buying professionally made food doesn't involve caring, even if it's just as good as you would have made yourself. For one thing, remember Elrina. Think of the good wife in Proverbs, or any cheesemaking farmwife. They fed many people; they cooked or oversaw cooking for the spinning maids, the hired hands. Cooking is a skilled art as well as drudgework, so there's always good reason to let the best cook cook for everyone; and the best cook cooks with care and attention even if she's selling the result. Maybe we should be thinking about how to recognize love and care whether they're paid or not.

I'm sorry I didn't get to Zimmerman's chapter on sewing and needlework, because I have been cynically wondering whether the current fashion for knitting is a feeble attempt at self-sufficiency before the Depression hits, or preparation for the anti-women's-rights backlash. When I'm not cynical, I find it adequately explained by the starvation of the senses that indoor life and cars and mass production have given us. Making anything is better immersion in several senses at once than shopping can be.

ISBN: 0-684-86959-4

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