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Posts Tagged ‘Little House’

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Skimming through my 1924 Hallowe’en party book (written back when they still threw in the apostrophe), I’m struck by all of the activities people did by hand. The book offers hosts and hostesses ideas such as cracking whole walnuts, removing the nuts within, slipping a fortune inside and gluing the shell back together; making homemade cakes and hiding more fortunes within; and setting up tubs for apple bobbing. Water, paper, mud, flour, paste—all are liberally applied in the projects provided. It’s clear the author assumed people would put their hands in stuff and think little of it.

I’m also amazed at how fearless it seems earlier generations were. In 1924—long before the advent of the Sharpie marker—instructions direct hostesses to heat the point of a knitting needle over hot coals and burn it into walnut shells to make facial features; to poise chestnuts at the tips of knives, then give to children to hold during relay races; to bob for apples with no worry for germs (the biggest risk, it seems, was spoiling your hairdo); and to douse cattails in kerosene and set them on fire, as makeshift torches.

The drawing above is on the cover of the book I mention. The little girl stands on a chair so she can reach to scoop the inside of a pumpkin. She’s five or six at best, but no adult is standing behind her to make sure she doesn’t fall. And the boy—eight? nine?—wields a chef’s knife bigger than the one in my kitchen; and again, adults are conspicuously absent.

The Little House books, which recall everyday life in the late 1800s, similarly depict an ease with skills—again, from a very early age—that may surprise us. Here is little Laura chopping vegetables alongside her mother over a primitive stove, there is her five-year-old sister Mary stitching on her nine-patch quilt. With a real needle. I used to work in nursery schools, and any project that required stitching was done with a large, plastic, dull-tipped ‘needle’. And even so, we teachers supervised at every moment.

It’s fascinating to me that earlier generations took hands-on skills for granted. I don’t support helicopter moms who scamper after their kids all day long with mini bottles of Purell, but neither would I let a child of today use a sharp needle, let alone handle a knife or hold a lit torch. I wouldn’t let a child take food out of a hot oven, or cook over a hot stove top. But apparently it’s a modern-day phobia.

A chicken and egg conundrum comes to mind: Were people a few generations ago braver than we are today? Or did handling knives and needles and fire on a regular basis make them braver, just by cultivating confidence in their ability to use tools and to harness elements safely and effectively?

Let’s take it a step further. Looking around at where we are today, ever in pursuit of the faster, the shinier, the more advanced, have we lost pertinent skills?

With a few exceptions, we tend to buy our quilts today. Meals often mean microwaving or eating takeout. Not many prepare party foods from scratch, opting instead to cater some or all of it. Does the average person know how to slice an onion anymore? Does it even matter?

I posed this question to a friend who both cooks and thoroughly enjoys his gadgets. He said some skills are worth more than others, and one could argue that it matters more to know the ins and outs of technology rather than kitchen skills. If you really needed something chopped, you could hire someone to do it or (increasingly) buy it already prepared.

Most of us in the modern world need to know how to operate cell phones and work laptops, as those before us knew and used skills that were essential for their time. I’m all for any technology that brings people and ideas closer together.*

I guess I’m just wondering if forgetting how to sew on a button by hand or how to slice an onion is worth what we’ve otherwise gained. I’m a cook and an artist, so my hands are everything. I’m compelled to get my hands dirty to access a personal, almost primitive power that makes me feel more human. But that’s one person’s take.

What’s yours?

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*Recently set myself up on Pinterest (http://pinterest.com/mcproco/) and Twitter (@evesapple7).  Come play!

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There’s a cyclone of ambivalence going on within and between women these days. I don’t even know why it started, but that’s beside the point. The media started it, though.

Should women be skinny, what half of the media (who must have been car salesmen in another life) calls ‘slender’ or ‘willowy’, like knobby-kneed Victoria’s Secret models or that beautiful misguided 84-pound Romanian model, Ioana Spangenberg, who says it’s impossible to be too thin? Or should women be what the other half of the media calls ‘healthy’ (what my mom would call ’round’) like the women in the Dove soap campaign? Whatever is a girl to do?

Now, the media dictating what women ought to look like is no new box of Jolly Ranchers. Every generation has a different arbitrary (so it seems) set of requirements when it comes to women and size. Curvy Marilyn and Elizabeth in the 50s. Skinny Twiggy and Audrey in the 60s. If you happened to be born looking the way the media said you should, hooray. If not, you took it in the shorts, because the media Harpies (your newspapers, magazines, tabloids, glimmering girls at the cool table in the cafeteria) were going to remind you of it at every turn, every day of your life.

In case you’re wondering if I’m speaking in generalities—no. I was a size-14 teenager (back then that was pretty chubby). I secretly loathed girls who had flat stomachs and depressed myself looking at photos in Seventeen magazine (regrettably, before airbrushing was publicized). I stuffed myself full of Heavenly Hash, the most delicious ice cream on the planet at the time, and then wrote in my diary, ‘I did it again 😦 now what?’ Once I was late to a wedding because I thought my arms looked fat in the dress I had on (for real). I had drunk the Kool-Aid just like old Ioana did. It was bad.

Except.

And this is The Whole Point.

It would be very easy to say it’s all the media’s fault, that they’re mean and we’re victims. But we are the ones who decide to drink the Kool-Aid or not. And we have to remember: they can’t sell it if we’re not drinking it.

To wit: I remember reading about women and corsets in the late 1800s in the Little House books. The goal of this almost-24/7 torment with corsets was to make your waist teensy (and thus make you more likely to snag a man). You were even supposed to wear it to sleep every night. You’d put this thing on, made of fabric, laces and actual whalebone—and you can bet that was plenty comfy—and your sister would take the laces in her hands, brace herself with one foot on the floor and one foot on the edge of the bed, and pull within an inch of your lungs. Laura Ingalls’s mother, Caroline, proudly tells her daughters that her waist was so small when she married that her husband could span it with his hands. Laura, heroic girl, wouldn’t wear her corset to bed, causing her mother untold distress. But she wouldn’t back down. There are others as well, I am sure, who wouldn’t have any of that—100 years before the women’s movement, I might add. If they can tell the Harpies where to stick it, we can too. We choose what works for us and what’s a crock.

I’m not a size 14 anymore, but I will never be skinny skinny 1) because I’m not supposed to be; I am small and round by nature 2) I love food way too much. Yes, for sure, sometimes I still worry that I look fat (old habits die harder than cockroaches). But most of the time I’m able to shake it off. It didn’t just hit me that I look fine out of nowhere last Thursday at 6:30 or anything. It took me most of my life to get that through my head. I balance eating and moving and get on with my life. Usually.

Food isn’t just supposed to be something that you put in your mouth and chew and swallow so you don’t die. And you’re not supposed to be afraid of it, the way I was. It’s supposed to be a joy, and a solace. It’s supposed to evoke, in different turns, nostalgia, pride, celebration. We shouldn’t overdo it or underdo it. Balance is key.

We women need to remind ourselves that we aren’t victims. I need to decide for myself what’s the right weight for me, and so you do. If we have that squared away, it won’t bloody well matter what anyone else says.

The same idea: when you hear about women who take offense at men who hold open doors for them, calling it sexist and getting all worked up, saying men are trying to keep women down. But it doesn’t even matter what his intention is. Why? Because any woman who knows her own power is not going to be threatened by a man holding a door.

So while the media started this nonsense, I won’t say that’s where it ends. You know as well as I do that it ends with us. All we have to do is say so.

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