Maybe I Just Like to Say “Helpmeet”

I saw a mention of a book called Created to be His Helpmeet today, and that title is…well, it is exactly the sort of title to provoke outrage and indignation from educated women like myself, and not without reason.

Now, I haven’t read the book, and I almost certainly will never read the book.  But I do think of myself as my husband’s helpmeet.  The thing is that I also think of him as mine.

In this modern life, there are two big things that need doing:  the first is the bringing in of money (it would have been the bringing in of food, I guess, in some long-ago time) and the second is the keeping of the home.  As a culture, we tend to celebrate the former and denigrate the latter, but the keeping of the home is important.  It is what makes a family and makes a good life for that family.  I don’t believe that a well-kept home has to be, in the manner of the stereotypical 1950s housewife or of people who have many servants, constantly scrubbed to a shining perfection, but it seems obvious to me that everything goes better in life, for everyone, if the home is a reasonably clean and comfortable place to be.  Along with this goes the preparation of nutritious and tasty food, the raising of children, the tending of any outdoor space you might have, and keeping tools and the like in good condition, among other things.

In my mind–and, thankfully, that of my husband–the keeping of the home is a job of equal value and importance as the bringing in of money.  In many ways, it is more valuable, though one does need money, however vexing that might be.  We see ourselves, then, as the two halves of a whole.  I do most of the keeping of the home (not all), and he does most of the bringing in of money.  He helps me and the children by bringing in money, without which, of course, our lives would be pretty awful.  I help him and the children by keeping a decent home (I am not a good housekeeper by nature, but I’m working on it.  I do better with the cooking and raising kids issues).  We’ve divided up the labor of life in such a way that we function as a cooperative unit, with neither role dominating.  This may be the one big secret to a happy and successful marriage; certainly, our agreement about this keeps us from having many of the arguments married people seem to have, about who isn’t helping enough and so on.  Most of those arguments occur either because both partners are trying to be the breadwinners and so no one is really keeping the home or because the one who is charged with keeping the home is or merely feels undervalued, as if that work weren’t as important as the work of the partner who earns the most money.

It isn’t that I think women “belong” in the home.  It’s frustrating to be a woman–especially if you did not have the idea to become a housewife and did want a career and so on–whose existence is dictated by the routines (many of them very boring and repetitive) of home-keeping.  I think probably most women would benefit from working part-time in some capacity while also being the primary keepers of the home.  (I also have nothing against men who stay at home to do that work, but I think it is noteworthy that most such men do have some kind of part-time or freelance work that they’re doing at the same time, while many women who choose to stay home give that up.)  But we have too much tendency in our pursuit of ever-greater material wealth to neglect the home, to neglect our food and family, to let our inner spaces become uncomfortable or to let the people in them go their separate ways and ignore each other.  Then people become resentful and families start to fall apart, to the detriment of everyone.

In that sense, I don’t think the book is entirely wrong, even though I think its apparent focus on women as the helpers instead of the family unit as a cooperative whole is wrong.  I do think that the point that making and keeping a real home is worthwhile work bears repeating.  Not because we all want a Martha-Stewart-like perfection, but because the home is the place where we tend our relationships and where we are most able to be who we truly are.  There is value in that, even if it isn’t a monetary value.

Knowing How Little

I’ve been thinking lately about how things that are not hard seem hard until you start doing them and get the habit.  This occurred to me the other day as I was making salad dressing.  I didn’t always make my own salad dressings.  I am not sure quite how or why I started doing it, even, although it was probably some combination of urging from Alton Brown and Mark Bittman and running out of store-bought at an inopportune moment.  And I just started doing it, and now I do it every time we have salad.  I make a new salad dressing pretty much every time we have salad, just making enough for that night’s salad, even though I could make a batch and keep it for a while.  The other night I made a salad of smoked (smoked by us, no less!) salmon, poached egg, arugula, and tomato, and I topped this with a creamy lemon dressing, and it was brilliant.  I can remember back to a time when I felt sure that the additional time it would take to make the dressing would just be a hassle and impossible to fit in, but it’s not, once you get the habit.  It takes time to really get the habit, but once you do, it’s just there, part of the routine.

I can remember, too, when I first started canning.  I started with jam–marmalade, to be precise, and it started because of a particularly wonderful cookbook, The French Farmhouse Cookbook.  The whole Farmhouse series (there are 3:  Farmhouse, French Farmhouse, and Italian Farmhouse, and I have them all) is fantastic, and my copies are all splattered and dog-eared, and much loved.  Anyway, they all have some recipes in them for jams and other preserved foods, since that is a typical part of the farmhouse cook’s routine.  The French Farmhouse Cookbook, indeed, has a recipe for orange marmalade that intrigued me.  I love orange marmalade, but a lot of commercial marmalades disappoint.  She made it sound pretty easy in the cookbook, so I thought I’d give it a whirl.  I made that, and then the orange-lemon marmalade.  Then I made the Basque-style plum-vanilla jam.  And the rhubarb-raspberry.  All from the same cookbook.  And then, once you start, the store jams just don’t taste very good anymore.  You can taste their deficiencies, that you could never taste before, just by comparison to the real, amazing deal.  So, you won’t settle for them anymore, so the next summer (well, now I do orange and orange-lemon during winter, since citrus is in season and cheaper then–we most certainly do not grow our own citrus here in Idaho) you just do it again, because of that hankering for the goodness.  You do it often enough, it gets to be a habit.

I don’t remember exactly when I started in on the pickles.  I do remember that once I had the canning bug, my mom gave me her old canning cookbook.  It’s the Farm Journal cookbook from the early 1960s.  It’s kind of hilarious, in the way that books aimed at housewives in the 1950s and ’60s are.  But it’s also full of pickle recipes (it’s also full of bizarre recipes, in the way that cookbooks from that time period are:  “salads” that consist primarily of mayonnaise and canned mandarin oranges, for example.  Lots of molded Jell-O things, too, of course.  It’s also funny in that it implies that zucchini is still mainly a vegetable grown and enjoyed by Californians and Italians.  Oh, those wacky Californians!), and I think my first attempt was beets.  I never liked beets until I learned how to pickle them myself.  I always thought those tinny, unspiced things you get in the store were “pickled beets,” but it always seemed to me that the beet had potential to be great.  And it certainly does.  I’ve played around with my beet pickles and found a couple of pickling methods that I like.  One adds the traditional cinnamon and clove to the vinegar solution.  The other, and I made this one up, is pickled and flavored with fennel instead.  I sliced fennel bulbs and Chioggia beets up last year to make a really pretty little salad pickle or pickle salad, and it was tasty.  This year I’ll probably do it with golden beets instead of Chioggia, since the Chioggia beets lost some of their stripes in processing.  I’ll save the Chioggias for applications where their colors are shown off to better effect.

The next habit I’m going to try to acquire is making more of my own soaps and shampoos and stuff like that.  After that, I’ll be moving on to cheese-making.  I’ve already started making my own laundry soap and most of my own household cleaning supplies; why not shampoo?  And I believe Barbara Kingsolver completely when she says that cheesemaking can fit into your normal routine.  I feel sure of this, because I have already acquired other habits that I felt sure I would never have time for.  It is true that now any time I am watching Netflix, I am also doing something else:  chopping onions for relish, pitting cherries, pulling dill seeds off their heads.  But that’s all right.  If you’re going to sit on your ass and drool over Bear Grylls anyway, you may as well be doing something constructive with your hands.

Anyway, you get the habit, or I do,  and make them part of your life, and then you want to learn more.  My forays into pickledom have now taken me to a place where I find myself reading up on molarity and buffering as they apply to pH levels in pickled vegetables.  It’s really remarkable how you get to be 34 years old with a Master’s! Degree! and thinking you know a little something and then you find out that, really, you don’t.  You have no idea what the fuck “molarity” is and why it should matter to your precious cucumbers, but it does, so you have to find out.  Despite the fact that I can discourse at length about Heidegger and Chomsky and the grammatical complexities of Navajo, I don’t know shit.  Except that I know that I don’t, so I think that’s a good place to start.

Put ‘Em Up

We’re in that season again, the season where I feel like I’m cooking all the time.  This end-of-summer time brings so much food to preserve, and because of the impending doom snow, it all needs to be done right now.  The green tomatoes will be fine one day, and then they will be turned to mush by a hard frost.  The apples and carrots and beets will last a little while, but we don’t have adequate cold storage for them, so if I don’t get them done soon, they will get mushy and will not can very well.  The pumpkin seeds from the pumpkins we carved today will turn moldy quite quickly if I don’t clean them and roast them tonight.  And the greens are growing too thickly, so everyday I need to go out and remove, say, every other Chinese cabbage so that the others can grow better.  Since we cannot eat all that cabbage in one day, something must be done with it, so I will make kimchee or something…something, anything, just don’t let the food go to waste.  Letting food go to waste is against everything that I stand for.

So, I cook a lot in this season, and I get tired of it and grumble about it and shake my fist at the box of apples our neighbor gave us from her tree.  All winter, though, we eat well.  It’s very satisfying, that feeling.  It’s a sense of accomplishment like few others; because  my husband and children and I all love the products of my labors, it not only gives me that very tangible sense of accomplishment, it makes me feel like I’ve really done something to make their lives better.  Our lives better.

I want to say more about this, but there are 30 pounds of apples staring at me accusingly right now, so I think I will attend to them before they revolt.