The Lost Art of Homemaking

Is the Time We Save Worth What We Gave Up to Save It?

I have a sneaking suspicion that homemaking is becoming a lost art. It all started when I bought a book, "Manual of Home-Making" at a used bookstore. Published in 1921, it was apparently one of a series that also included "Manual of Farm Animals" and "Manual of Weeds", but since I don't have any farm animals, and I already know how to grow weeds, I was only interested in "Manual of Home-Making".

I knew from the start that the book wasn’t going to be of much practical help to me. I mean, I need to know how to remove nail polish from my microwave oven (don't ask!) Instead this manual offered detailed instructions on cleaning a kerosene lamp.

Still, it was fascinating reading, and I just couldn't put it down. Did you know, for example, that before the days of refrigeration, women stored their vegetables by burying them in trenches, and fermented their meat in acid brine? While it's true that occasionally my family would love to bury my vegetables in a trench (especially my cauliflower casserole) and I'll admit that fermenting my pot roast in acid brine might actually improve its flavor, in terms of food preservation, these methods seem pretty archaic.

But back to my point about homemaking becoming a lost art. After reading this book, I can't help but feel sad at some of the skills we've abandoned in all the "domestic progress" we've made in the last century. Has it occurred to anyone but me that we might be the very last generation of women who know how to cut up a chicken? I'm perfectly serious. How many young brides possess that ability? Virtually none. That's because they all prefer fillets of white meat, and think that chickens come into the world with no other body parts besides big boneless breasts.

The "Manual of Home-Making" also devoted an entire section to sewing, and even included instructions on millinery (a term that most girls born after 1970 couldn't even define). Now I don't do much sewing anymore, but at least I know my way around a bobbin. My daughter, on the other hand, recently handed me a blouse that had lost a button. She held it gently as if she was cradling a sick puppy that had lost a toe. Her helpless, pleading eyes said, "Fix it, Mommy". I'm almost embarrassed to mention that my daughter is over thirty years old.

And then there's baking. Naturally we all love to watch Martha or Ina or Paula whip up a batch of fresh, hot scones on the Food Network, but seriously – how often do we actually tackle something like that ourselves? Can you explain the difference between pie dough, biscuit dough and pizza dough? Have you convinced yourself that you've made "homemade bread", just because you dumped a bunch of stuff into a machine? If you’re like me, this is all starting to pinch a little bit.

Oh I don't know. Maybe I'm getting all bent out of shape over nothing. I mean, I don't really want to return to the days where women boiled water in giant pots outside to wash their clothes. And I certainly don't want to give up my self-cleaning oven or my auto-propelled vacuum cleaner.

Still, I wonder if the time I've saved with my all modern conveniences is really worth what I gave up to save it. Yes, it only takes a minute to stir up instant potatoes, but there's no comparison to the ones I can make from scratch. Clothes dryers are nice, but clotheslines leave sheets smelling like heaven. And it takes no time at all to load the dishwasher after dinner, but then I miss the peaceful therapy of plunging my hands into a sink full of hot, silky bubbles.

In some ways I feel like a painter who discovers a way to mass-produce his art by machine. He works at perfecting his machine until he can churn out hundreds of pictures at the flip of a button. And then one day he picks up a brush, only to discover that he has lost the ability to paint.

If you'll excuse me, I think I'll go cut up a chicken, while I still remember how.


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