Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Me? Martha Stewart?

So my wife overheard an interesting little exchange with my sister-in-law two weeks back that stuck in her head.

(Ok, here's a question: if by "sister-in-law" I'm referring to my brother's wife, then what is the official term for the relationship between my wife and this woman? Is that still just a "sister-in-law", or is that a sister-in-law-in-law or something more exotic? Just curious....)


So my wife overheard an interesting little exchange with this relation-by-marriage.

Tonya had earlier been explaining to my aunt about our recent experiments in making butter. Now, it's not as complicated or as exotic or as ambitious as it sounds; basically, you just pour some heavy whipping cream into a chilled jar, tighten the lid, then shake the jar for thirty minutes, or until your arms fall off, whichever comes first. Then you decant the liquid (which has now become buttermilk), you carefully rinse any extra buttermilk off the lump of butter which has formed, add a pinch of salt (optional), and voilá.

Well, later on, my aunt was having a conversation with my sister-in-law that Tonya just happened to overhear. She had just described Tonya's butter-making experiments, when my sister-in-law declared: "That's too Martha Stewart for me..."

(Ironically, this was not long before she presented us all with sealed ziplocs filled with Amish Friendship Bread starter....)


Now, we don't watch a whole lot of Martha Stewart. In no small part this is because we don't have a TV (see three posts back), but as Tonya just said, "I wouldn't watch it even if we did have a TV." Tonya sees herself in many ways as the polar opposite of Martha Stewart: when Tonya sets a table, it's all business: Fork if necessary, spoon if necessary, napkin if necessary--and this is just a folded paper towel, so we have one fewer thing to put on our grocery list. None of this fish fork v. salad fork v. dessert fork; our centerpiece is a box of Kleenexes, which gets used frequently during meals. (You can't do that with gardenias....) Tonya was raised by a mother who, while possessing a definite artistic streak, was similarly no-nonsense when it came to the necessities of life. Simple meals, simple settings, clean decor (to the point of being stark), and she hated to have to entertain. If Tonya and Martha Stewart entered the same room, they would mutually annihilate in a burst of gamma rays.

So why did my lovely bride suddenly get the bug to make her own butter?


Despite the romantic notions it inspires about healthful living and sustainability and whatnot, it actually has nothing to do with anything being wrong with the butter you get in the supermarket, which Tonya is just fine with using.

It's pretty complicated, but I think it comes down to one part survivalist complex and one part understanding one's roots.

I touched briefly on this back in February, after we visited the Carding/Spinning/Weaving show. I wrote at the time:
You know, I think that most of us guys, deep down, are closet survivalists. We enjoy knowing how things work because in the back of our minds, we're fantasizing about the fact that civilization is really fragile, and when the whole thing falls apart, I need to be prepared. While spinning and weaving aren't normally considered mannish things, having been to this kind of show still gooses the survivalist in me. After all, when the big one comes and we have to go to the hills, I now know just a wee little bit more of what I'll need to know to keep my family alive. All I have to do now is figure out how to chase down the wild alpaca, wrassle it to the ground, and shear it; but for the rest of the process, I'm down with that.
And about the same time, my wife wrote:
The people among whom my parents were around as children worked hard providing many basic items for themselves. These days, we have a multitude of labor saving devices to make our lives easier and a huge marketplace to shop for everything else. But are we better off? Materially, yes. But, we have lost something in the process. We saved our labor so that we could do lots of other things that our forebears never did or perhaps never wanted to do. We are just as busy, but don't really have that much more to show for it. Most of us have no idea how to make the things we use in our everyday lives.

There is part of me that wants to turn the clock back in some ways. If only we could keep the best parts of both worlds...
At the time I termed this as "the feminine side of the survivalist complex". It embodies the sense that our ancestors had to put up with a whole lot more than we did, and in some cases, not so very long ago. They worked hard to keep themselves fed, and to provide a better future for their kids. Now, we moderns, if we're reflective enough, note their hard work and are thankful that we don't have to get up at 0-dark-30 to go milk the cows; and at the same time, we occasionally wonder, could we be tough enough if we had to be? Could we measure up to the standards set by our ancestors? And, as my wife mused, could there be some personal value in the hard work that our ancestors did--some benefit to virtue and character that accrued to our forebears--because they had to do this hard work to survive?

So Tonya decided to make butter. This wasn't because she wanted to press it into little, pretty butter molds that could make individualized pats that she could put out on the good china in the morning while we fed crêpes to our many overnight houseguests. In a way, it was to try to get a little understanding, just an inkling, of what her grandparents and great-grandparents went through every day, just to survive. (And even her parents. Tonya is only one generation removed from her farmers' roots.) Tonya has always been fascinated by history and geneaology, particularly the history of the common man, and the stories of how our ancestors lived: how did people live then? What were their challenges? What were their hopes, dreams, fears? What kept them going? What got them up out of bed in the morning?

(Probable answer: really cold feet. Someone let the fire go out during the night....)


So Tonya makes her own butter for one reason, and it appears to be quite different from the reason Ms. Stewart might have. But it seems to me that these two completely different reasons extend far beyond dairy products, and permeate entire worldviews.

Take the craft of quilting (and, for that matter, this is true of many, many crafts). Nowadays, quilts are generally seen as a labor of love. And there's certainly nothing wrong with that. And I and my wife have been in quilt museums, and seen the beautiful specimens on display at various county fairs and trade shows. Some of these can get very artsy--to the point that they are utterly inappropriate for use on an actual bed.

But the reason that patchwork quilting became such a big thing in America, originally, was so that some very poor but industrious people could make something useful, and even crucial for their survival, from scrap material. Say you've made a bunch of clothes, in some cases using the burlap from your feed sacks as the fabric. You don't have any money for any other fabric. So now what? If you're industrious and frugal, you take all those scraps left over from the making of the clothes, and you sew them together into a big patchwork; then, when you have two of these big patchwork pieces, you put a whole bunch of loose cotton (or loose wool, or old threadbare blankets) in between them, and sew the whole sandwich together. There you have it: a big, thick, warm bed covering, obtained while spending the absolute minimum of cash, meaning that you can actually survive on your own homestead through your own work.

And the fact that these quilts over time became things of great beauty and complexity, if anything, shows us the resilient spirits of the women (and men!) who made them. You must make something warm to sleep under; but for people sometimes living on the edge of survival, to take the time to make these things absolutely lovely--well, that takes sheer audacity, sheer pluck, sheer gumption. You really have to admire the spirit of people like that. And that by itself is enough to earn their quilting work more admiration than even the most elaborate modern non-functional art-quilt hanging in a gallery somewhere.


So Tonya has a desire (not all that different, in its own way, from Mr. Derbyshire's desire to walk thirty miles to see if he could do it) to understand something of the way people used to live--to feel it a little deeper than she would if she merely read it on a page--and perhaps, just a little, to live up to her heritage, if that makes any sense. And I completely understand the feeling, because I feel it too--yet another reason that Tonya and I are made for each other. This isn't about making our house sparkle to the outsider's eye or to score points or bragging rights. And heaven knows, it's been a long, long time since our house has had any sparkle at all....


Well, just for the fun of it: because I've recently blogged about Sesame Street, and because this post mentions Martha Stewart, I thought I'd post this little video clip that combines them. Enjoy!


Arby said...

I grok. It's why I appreciate everything that I am learning about surviving out doors since my oldest joined scouts (and I've learned lots) even though I hate camping. The answer to the question, "Are you tough enough?" is, "You'd better be. Only the tough will survive." My friend, I will survive. I'll be a little thinner, a little scruffier, and a little crankier (if that is possible), but I will survive. I want to be around to point at a dark black box and tell a generation of youngsters, "I remember what that was. It was called a television..." said...

her thing about Martha Stewart and others like her is that it's all flash over substance. I think the best embodiment of it all is a show on the Food Channel called "Semi Homemade". It's all about how this lady buys stuff at the store and then "improves" it to make it look homemade.

So, essentially, she buys really cheap nasty store cookies and then spends two hours icing them elaborately. It's completely the anti-me. I'd rather spend half that time and make really tasty cookies that just look like cookies. She's rather spend more time and more money to have really ho-hum cookies that look like something special.

Martha Stewart and that ilk are all just like gilding. They are Ikea. They are fake on the inside and sparkles on the outside.

I'd rather have a nice piece of really well-made, plain furniture, with a pretty stain. They are all particleboard and veneer.

Stephanie said...

LOL, this whole figure-it-out thing is why I have a spinning wheel, a loom, and a back yard full of ducks...not to mention the brewing setup or the soaping equipment. This could be a much longer list but it's a small house with a large family and the dh has declared a hobby moratoriam :)).