Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Merry Christmas

Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men.
God bless you everyone.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Strange Thing

Christmas is my favorite season. I love the joyful anticipation of the coming of the Lord. I love thinking about what everyone on my Christmas list might want and trying to devise presents that they will like. I love to send out Christmas cards and keep contact with close friends and friends I rarely see but care for. I love to decorate my house for Christmas, gathering the outdoors to bring into the house--Berries! and greens! I love to see my family at Christmas. To me Christmas is about everything that I treasure in life--that makes life worth living,. The coming of the Lord, this infant babe, brings us back to the deepest chords of love in our own life. It is celebration of the Great News that Christ brings--of the joy of love in our hearts and of our redemption through this love for God and for others, this joy of love that unites us all in God's love for each of us.

So it was with deep disappointment that this year I had to forgo many of my Christmas pleasures, because of the exigencies of work. All plans to make presents for all the ladies on my list crumbled to dust. Trying to get a weekend day off to drive out to the country and find berries proved impossible. Present buying? Feeling ashamed, I did the simplest and easiest online shopping and assigned the rest to my daughter. This is not what I had planned.

A candle of penance, a mirror of self-reflection. Detail of Magdalene and Two Flames by Georges de la Tours, 1638-39.

But maybe God plans things to bring us back to Him. At the mass of the first Sunday of Advent, our priest reminded us that Advent is a season of penance, not partying, that in Advent we are called to penance, to prepare our hearts for the Lord, and charity to others. It seemed that it was because of lack of time that the only lights I could put up were the candles in the window. I found that I wanted less decoration in the house, the trees with lights only and no ornaments. I bought cream poinsettias to make up for the lack of berries and found I loved their quiet serenity. But most importantly, this lack of ability to do all the Christmas things I love forced me to contemplate more the preparing of my heart, the starkness of penance, the suffering of all humans--no matter how young or old or rich or poor, and my deep unconditional love for my family.

So I will only have the lights in the window til Christmas eve, and then perhaps put out more outside in celebration of Christ's birth. I am so far from being free of sin and fail so miserably in most of my resolves. But there is beauty in starkness and in penance and withdrawal and in thought, knowing that our Savior will be soon be born--the infant child lying in the manger, the Prince of Peace.

Blessed be the hour and the moment when the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in piercing cold.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Woman's Work

Please see A Mother's Journal for a lovely description of woman's work from Caddie Woodlawn.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Advent Thoughts on Housekeeping

Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, 1476-78.

There is no reason to keep Christmas house for only oneself in the present, only for those we love.

There is reason to keep Christmas house for the memory of the past and to honor that past.

There is a reason to keep Christmas house for the future, so the traditions of civilization and comfort and love for our beloved future generations are ever alive.

Christmas and all the housekeeping that it brings to the lady of the house is what housekeeping is all about: the celebration of love, family, and redemption through love and sacrifice for others.

And so Advent is a time when we prepare our house -- our hearts -- for the birth of Christ.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Winslow Homer: Watercolor Genius

Here is Winslow Homer's watercolor, For to Be a Farmer's Boy, again. Aside from using this painting for a Happy Thanksgiving post, I also sent it out to some friends and family as a Thanksgiving email. Numbers of people sent replies about what a beautiful painting it is. I have always found it mesmerizing. But when I chose it about a month ago as the painting for Thanksgiving greetings, I was stunned by looking at the cabbages--the middle row of turquoise in the painting. As far as I know, watercolor is an unforgiving medium. How Homer managed to paint these cabbages, which somehow convey the essence of growing cabbage, is beyond my imagination, since the light (white space) seems to fall on them perfectly in their dance across the page. Then there are the colors themselves. Evidently some of the red pigment has been lost from this painting, and the sky originally contained a beautiful sunset. This must have made this painting breath-taking. It is a painting that conveys God's bounty, especially against the blue of the hills of the behind. This boy looks proud to be a farmer, but he is also in harmony with the nature of his space.

(Click on the paintings to get a better view of them.)

Here are two other watercolors that Homer painted in the year, both of them remarkable. In the first, the corn takes its turn to come alive.

Among the Vegetables, also known as Boy in a Cornfield

At the Well

Sunday, November 30, 2008

In Praise of Edna Lewis

Edna Lewis's books are among my favorite cookbooks. I have three:
In Pursuit of Flavor
The Taste of Country Cooking

The Gift of Southern Cooking, which she wrote with Scott Peacock.

All of these books are fascinating and filled with good but relatively simple recipes. Among her achievements, Mrs. Lewis brought to the American table the great African American culinary tradition.

In a 1989 interview with The New York Times, Lewis said: "As a child in Virginia, I thought all food tasted delicious. After growing up, I didn't think food tasted the same, so it has been my lifelong effort to try and recapture those good flavors of the past."

She was ahead of her time in emphasizing the importance of the freshness of food and food in its season. With a foreword by Alice Waters, The Taste of Country Cooking is organized by season, with recipes and menus for each one.

Lewis's books not only are filled with wonderful recipes but her essays on foods, the food traditions that we hopes to revive and enable to survive, and the best way to make simple food delectable, her reasons for using non-double acting baking powder, and fascinating reminiscenes.
Ms. Lewis was a professional chef, who made the came to New York at a young age and first worked as a seamstress. Then, she became the chef for the new Nicholson cafe and helped make this watering hole for the cultural literati famous. She began writing up her recipes when she was forced by a broken leg to suspend her career as a chef. After A Taste of Country Cooking was published she became the chef of the famous Gaye and Bollner restaurant in Brooklyn, until her retirement in the mid-1990s.

Over a period of time she became friends with Scott Peacock, another Southern chef, but with an Alabaman culinary tradition, whereas Edna Lewis came from farther north--Freetown, Virginia. They eventually began cooking and Peacock took care of Ms. Lewis in the years before her death in 2006. Their co-authored The Gift of Southern Cooking is a real treasure. Just now looking at this book, I was surprised to see how few of the recipes I have actually made. I guess this is because I have read it from cover to cover so many times, I feel very familar with every recipe. Very simple and very good recipes that I have made are Shrimp Paste, Puree of Pumpkin Soup, Thyme-Smothered Chicken, Baked Pork Chops with Cranberries, Salmon Croquettes, Baked Eggplant with Peanuts (quite something), perfect Macaroni and Cheese, Asparagus and Scallion Pie, Chicken Hash, White Loaf Bread, and various corn recipes.

Fried Chicken and Sweet Potato Pie is a documentary on Lewis that you can see right online.

Although I come from Pennsylvania, a state I have nearly religious adoration for, I love Southern cooking the best. I first learned about it in the November 1988 Food and Wine special issue on "Southern Food Rises Again." You bet. I immediately made the Greens in Potlikker, which was delicious and intrigued my family. Here is an essay by Ms. Lewis on southern cooking.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!

For to Be a Farmer's Boy by Winslow Homer

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Wyeth's Pilgrims

See Life at Willow Manor for a reminder about N.C. Wyeth's Pilgrims. See Encore Editions for more paintings by this fascinating painter-illustrator and father of Andrew, grandfather of Jamie.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

An Autumn Arrangement

A dear friend made this lovely autumn bouqet for the Happy Birthday party on Sunday. She has a genius for artfully creating floral arrangements--here are just pieces of lamb's ear, juniper, and nandina with berries. I received many compliments for it and had to point people to the actual creator. This friend also does such beautiful gift wrapping you feel like a vandal opening your present, is a superb cook, and always presents her culinary creations beautifully, even when you just drop by for a casual tea. Always a pleasure.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Happy Autumn Birthday Party

The cake and tea station.

I had an autumn party this afternoon for a friend's birthday with about fifteen family friends. My friend likes spicy food and cheese, so we had a cheese, soup, and cake party--buffet-style.

I was inspired to give the party by the recipe for Vermont Cheddar Ale Soup, a recipe I found through Chez Loulou. Thank you! Everyone loved it.
I also served Pumpkin Soup with the recipe from The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock, which is just about my all-time favorite cookbook. Everything I have cooked from it has been perfect. The third soup was Red Lentil Soup from Weightwatchers and here is the recipe:

Red Lentil Soup

2 tsp olive oil
1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/4 tsp ground red pepper
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1 small sweet red pepper, chopped
1 medium carrots, chopped
29 oz of chicken broth
8 oz dry red lentils, washed
1/8 tsp salt, or to taste
Cream to smooth it out

1. In a medium nonstick pot heat oil; add cumin, coriander, red pepper, and cinammon, stir until fragrant, 30 seconds. Add bell pepper and carrots. Cook until just tender, 8 minutes.
2. Add broth, lentils, and salt. Bring to a boil. Simmer until lentils are tender about 20 minutes. Puree in batches in the blender.
3. Smooth out with cream.

The biggest hit of the afternoon though was Phyllo-Wrapped Brie with Apricot and Rosemary Chutney from Epicurious. My talented sister-in-law served this last Christmas, and it was out of this world, and I knew my friend would love it. Everyone did and it was scarfed down in minutes flat.

Dishes were stacked on the dining room table, and the soups in crock pots and salad were served from the kitchen counter directly opposite.

We had also assorted cheeses, bread, crackers, salad, a little bit of smoked salmon and proscuitto, and wine. For dessert we had Aunt Polly's Apple Cake compliments of Gracious Hospitality. Thank you! and lastly Spice Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting from Fanny Farmer. Mmmm good. I am a very big fan of Marion Cunningham.

I love the fall, and I had a great time preparing this autumn fare over the course of the last three weeks. Everything could be prepared in advance. I think everyone was happy to sit around and eat good, kind of unexpected food on this blustery November day and just relax after the elections--which had everyone, no matter whom they voted for, a bit tense.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Apple Season

Apples and Flowersby Pierre-August Renoir


by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Apple cobbler, apple-cake,
Apple sauce and apple pie—
No one can resist their taste,
Or pass an apple dumpling by!

Cinnamon and powdered clove,
Grated nutmeg, sugar, crumbs,
Make apple Betty fit for kings,
And sweet as sugar-plums!

Apples by the bushel box—
Everyone can help himself,
Children never beg for sweets,
With apples handy on the shelf.

When Eve put her white hand forth
And picked an apple from a tree,
She helped all housewives’ menus out,
And planned six months’ dessert for me!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

L.M. Montgomery on Balancing Family and Career

Lucy Maud Montgomery in a photo taken before the 1920s.

Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of the beloved Anne of Green Gables and many other books, was married at the age of 39 to a Presbyterian minister Ewan MacDonald and had two sons. As a housewife, she took care of the family’s needs and raised her children, while she also performed all the social duties expected of a minister’s wife. Throughout this time, she continued to write her books, her journals, and many letters. Alexandra Heilbron’s book, Remembering Lucy Maude Montgomery, features an interview with Montgomery by the Toronto Star published November 28, 1925, in which the writer was asked to comment on if it is possible for a woman to balance a career and family.

Montgomery, almost 51 years old at the time, gave a reply that could be an argument for telecommuting today: “There are really two answers to this problem. One is affirmative and the other is negative. I would say that a woman may successfully combine a profession of her own with the oldest one in the world, that of wifehood and motherhood, but only if she be able to pursue the career at home.” All professions involving the arts and even being an attorney, she said, could be done at home. Today’s communications have, of course, created a home option for many occupations.

“It doesn’t seem to me possible for a mother to be to her children what she should if they are only the recipients of her left over time, and are, for the major part under the care of paid help,” the writer explained. As evidence, she noted that infant mortality is far higher in institutions than it is “even in poor families,” to argue that the love that a mother bestows on her children cannot be replaced and is crucial to their well-being. “Children have died, and more will die for love,” she said. Montgomery extended the same argument to why women should do a lot of housework themselves—because of the love that attends it.

The Presbyterian Church's manse in Leaksdale, Ontario, where Montgomery was wife and mother from 1911 to 1926.

The secret to achieving a balance between home and family at home, Montgomery, said is “system.” “Just take that homely old adage ‘A place for everything and everything in its place,’ and add to it ‘and a time for everything and everything in its time.’” She then described the schedule for her day, which lasted from 7 in the morning to midnight. In the morning, she arose, got breakfast on the table, packed her children’s lunches, and squared away the post-breakfast kitchen. Then she went upstairs to “a room of her own” and did her writing from 9 until noon—no more. She then attended to whatever activities of that day were required in her role as minister’s wife and to the day's household and motherly duties.

“Give a woman a profession which she will be interested in and devoted to, give it to her within the four walls of her own home and the knowledge that she is not neglecting her home, her husband or her children will give her greater strength and purpose for the career which will be satisfying her need of self-expression, and will bring pride to her family, without any of the pain of renunciation.”

This may be ideal for many women who have reached a certain level of household. Of course, many mothers have no choice but to work outside the home—either because they are single mothers, or because the income of the husband alone is not enough to cover necessities and they can only find jobs outside of the home. This poses a different question that needs more exploration, I think.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Haunting Story and Picture

Please see At Home with the Farmer's Wife for a very moving post by Suzanne on the ghostly image of her grandmother with her grandmother's stepdaughter. I urge everyone to daily check Suzanne's blog, because she always has fascinating and beautiful photos and writing that matches them.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Gentle Art of Domesticity

The Purl Bee has an excellent review of the U.S. edition of The Gentle Art of Domesticity by the color-infused-and-enthused and very creative Jane Brocket. I have not read the book, but I am sure it is a delight, as is Jane's blog, Yarnstorm.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear

Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear is a comprehensive biography of the brilliant creator of the Tale of Peter Rabbit and all the wonderful tales that followed.

In this well-researched biography, Lear steps to the side, and lets her subject shine, unclouded by biographer ruminations or speculations. Based on Beatrix’s journals, letters, artistic works, and in-depth research into all the people that touched her life, Lear’s biography gives us a more complete portrait of Potter than ever before. Seeing her in this now fully rounded view, we discover that Beatrix Potter—you mean the lady that wrote those little stories?—was by any definition of the phrase, a renaissance woman, capable of scientific, artistic, and practical genius.

All of her life, Beatrix leapt from science to art to fancy and back again as effortlessly as a child playing hopscotch. She started out at as a precocious naturalist, sketching and painting the animals that she managed to draw close to her during summer vacations in Scotland. Her purpose was to capture the subject with ever-increasing accuracy. For every adorable mouse in a print apron or rabbit in a blue coat on the pages of her little books, there were probably hundreds of sketches and paintings of this animal over years. The secret to the charm of her anthropomorphism is the precision of her knowledge of the responses of the creature in movement and emotion.

In writing and illustrating her books, Beatrix, as in all else, was a perfectionist. She created her illustrations from life again and again, poured over her manuscripts to perfect cadence and rhythm, edited and re-edited her text to make sure just the right word was there and no more. “’Leant against’ instead of ‘stood’ and ‘conversed,’ children like a fine word occasionally,” she wrote to the proofer at Warne’s, her publisher. It is this minute attention that made the stories so taut, balanced, wry—and, well, perfect.

Make sure you have Potter’s tales by you as you read this biography, because Lear does a wonderful job of mapping the animals, rooms, gardens, doll houses, and landscapes of the illustrations in her books to Beatrix’s life and environs at the time she wrote them.

In her review of Lear’s biography for The Guardian, Kathryn Hughes lamented that Potter “endured one of those dark, musty girlhoods which has come to stand as a kind of shorthand for what the Victorians did to their clever young women. Her wealthy parents had all the financial and intellectual resources required to prepare their elder child for a useful, creative future. Instead she was kept confined to the upper floors of their gloomy house in Bolton Gardens in London, where she populated her old nursery with a small army of pets, from store-bought snakes to wild mice enticed from behind the skirting board.”

Beatrix with one of her pet rabbits.

But if Beatrix’s was a typical musty Victorian childhood, where are all the other Beatrix Potters? And she led an extraordinarily useful and creative life, which is undeniable to anyone who has read the book. She was isolated by her parents’ Unitarian religion and her mother’s snobbery, but her childhood blossomed in other directions. Although Beatrix’s relationship with her mother was never without tension, how many mothers permit a child to bring an assortment of mice, hedgehogs, rabbits, snakes, bats, newts, toads, frogs, lizards, birds, and insects into the nursery in a London house, where they are housed, fed, tamed, drawn, played with, and lost and found—not to mention pack up the whole menagerie in their cages to go on summer holiday with the family? Beatrix’s father, aside from taking her to the British Museum and encouraging her artistry, introduced her to his own peers who became significant mentors in Beatrix’s scientific endeavors and later her preservation efforts. Although her family may have been aloof from her book creation and business dealings to get her books published, within the Potter household, her intellect and imagination were given full rein to flourish in whatever directions they might flow. By the time she was a young woman, she was an accomplished artist, botanist, and naturalist; was fluent in German; and had many of the classics of literature under her belt.

Beatrix was a mycologist and even secretly brought dry rot into the house for examination.

For Beatrix there was no boundary between art and scientific accuracy. She was schooled in art by her father, himself an amateur painter, but her sense of scientific inquiry was prompted by her ability to absorb herself in the world around her and her desire to know it in detail—to know how it ticked. This ability to concentrate fully on the life outside of her own being and to grasp it in all its rich aspects is the gift that carries her throughout her life and across the spectrum of all of her interests. Her love and knowledge of all plants, animals, lichens, fungi, and fossils enriched each other. In the same years that she was painting illustrations for the great classics of children’s literature, she was avidly studying mycology and in 1897 submitted to the Linnean Society a scientific paper on her discovery of hybridization in the reproduction of lichens, “On the Germination of the Spoors of Agaricineae.” The paper was rejected by the Society’s challenged botanists, because she was a mere young woman without a degree, but her theory, it was later recognized, was absolutely correct.

Hilltop Farm, the first and beloved farm that Beatrix bought with proceeds from her Tales.

Beatrix translated her love of the natural world into fantasy and books that delighted children worldwide and to husbandry and breeding, with equal success. She devoted the latter half of her life to preserving the fell farming and husbandry of the English Lake District, where she had spent so many happy summer months. As with her publishing operations, she proved to be a formidable businesswoman. She became a master of the region’s ecology, daily directing her shepherds and managers in minute detail on what had to be done.

Despite her crustiness and refusal to allow electricity or radio antennas on any of her properties, she extended herself to bring medical care to this isolated region. Alarmed by the way in which the 1918 influenza epidemic had ravaged the families in their cottages, she led neighbors in the area in 1919 to gain certification for a District Nursing Association, which would enable a Queen’s nurse to come serve the Lake District’s hills. Beatrix directed the local association for several years and was often the first to inform the nurse in which cottage she would be needed on any given day.

Perhaps because as a young girl Beatrix was without playmates and had only her brother Bertram to play with, and perhaps because she had given up at a fairly early age on marrying and having children, Beatrix reached out to any children that came within her purview—the offspring of her former governess and the nephews and nieces of her fiancé and publisher, Norman Warne, among them. Her Tale of Peter Rabbit first took shape in an 1893 letter to Noel Moore, the oldest son of her governess. In her later life, she opened up her land to the Girl Guides, coming down to their campfires and telling stories and inviting them up to her house for tea. She was a great friend to the American Bertha Mahoney, editor of the children’s Hornbook magazine, who promoted Beatrix’s work stateside and who like, Beatrix, was devoted to nurturing the imagination of children.

Watercolor of the view of Hilltop.

Although eminently practical in all of her dealings with animals and in her farming enterprises, Beatrix never squelched the wonder-filled child within her. The Fairy Caravan, her last book, was written when she was 56. All of her life, she drew close to the plants, the animals, the trees, and hills to learn their secrets—in science and fancy. In a remembrance of “The Lonely Hills,” the elderly Beatrix wrote: “In the calm spacious days that seem so long ago, I loved to wander on the Troutbeck fell. Sometimes I had with me an old sheep dog, ‘Nip’ or ‘Fly’; more often I went alone. But never lonely. There was company of gentle sheep, and wild flowers, and singing waters. I listened to the voices of the Little Folk.”

And so when you read this book, you will not want it to end.

Whither Thrift? Part 2

Grant Wood's famous painting American Gothic, named after the window of the house, not after the couple, but their image was the first that came to mind when I thought about American parsimony.

See Part 1

As many know, in the mid-19th century, there arose ladies, prominently including Catherine Beecher Stowe, who wrote books and magazine articles of advice to middle-class housewives and mothers. The advice was enclosed in the moral message of the Victorian age to women: it is the mother’s duty to raise strong, moral children to be proper citizens of the United States. Thus began the ceaseless drumbeat we have heard in thousands of books and tens of ladies’ magazines ever since. During the 19th century and into the early 20th century, this advice industry consciously bolstered the virtues of hard work, self-reliance, and thrift as hallmarks of the middle class.

What I never knew is that during the early years of the 20th century, a new trend emerged that called for loosening the middle-class values of thrift and self-reliance, according to a fascinating article by Daniel Horowitz in American Scholar (Summer 1985), entitled “Frugality or Comfort: Middle-Class Styles of Life in Early 20th Century.”

Horowitz contrasts two mavens of home economics who were born a generation apart: Ellen S. Richards (1842–1911) and Martha B. Bruère (1871–1953), who both offered instructions on how the family income should be spent. Both of these women were highly educated, Richards at Vassar and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Bruère at Vassar and the University of Chicago.

Ellen Swallow Richards: MIT's first woman graduate and first woman professor. Trained as a chemist, she was an expert in all areas of sanitation and domestic chemistry.

Richards argued for the standard model of the old middle class of small-town merchants, farmers, and entrepreneurs, with its emphasis on frugality and savings. Amenities, comfort, and vacations and recreation outside of the home were eschewed for savings and investments: home ownership, education of children, and books and other objects in the home that would be long-lasting. To withstand the centrifugal forces moving against the family as the husband moved into the world outside the home, Richards argued for home-based social life and family dinners in which everyone was present.

Bruère, an editor of Good Housekeeping, literally argued that women should not ponder the family budget when purchasing a hat.

Bruère was an editor of Good Housekeeping, and sought the household budgets from the magazine’s readers. She and her husband, an industrial relations expert, became the first analysts of the middle-class household budget, rather than the ideal budget, and published a book, Increasing Home Efficiency, on their findings in 1912. Bruère describes a family whose budget represented the Richards’ way of thinking: in their early married years, the family had saved money for the education of their two children, so these offspring could move a “step above” their parents. Even with their children earning their own way, this couple still saved 17.5 percent of their income and spent only 1.6 percent of it on vacations, travel, books, and amusement.

Horowitz notes that Bruère contrasted this family unfavorably with another that had chosen “conveniences and ease over frugality.” Bruère urged households to increase the money they spent on comfort and what were called advancements—charity and cultural recreation outside of the home—to attain a worthwhile standard of culture alongside an adequate standard of the necessities. Although this standard of culture was meant to differentiate the middle-class—and the ethnic and racial distinction is clear in the work of both women—Bruère and her husband argued for a more cosmopolitan outlook and for the family to look outside of itself for entertainment and social life.

Woman's Home Companion is another magazine that Bruere wrote for. One motivation for both Bruere's and Richards' interest in home efficiency was a desire to boost the birth rate of middle-class families, which had fallen precipitously with the dramatic increase in divorce and other social and economic changes in the 1890s.

As reported by Horowitz: “Society and individuals need to plan, they concluded, ‘and perhaps the most important result of all budget-making will prove to be the harmonizing of our individual plans with a program of social welfare.’… For the Bruères the most problematic kind of excessive saving occurred when middle-class people limited present pleasures in order to provide for retirement. The fear of poverty in old age, they believed, was ‘paralyzing’ the middle-class home. … The three hundred dollars (twelve percent of income) that the average middle-class family put aside for savings and insurance, their ‘most serious financial mistake,’ forced them to ‘cut off $300 a year from their pleasure and usefulness.’”

Then, most fascinating, the Bruères also argued for some form of Social Security, as Horowitz quotes them: “We still labor under the delusion that that we can provide individually for retirement. These old people are pensioned without honor, and yet every one of them who has lived in this country, who has paid for the products of industry, who has ridden on the railroads, has contributed to the government. Suppose they had contributed directly their $300 a year savings, would they not then be sure of incomes in their old age, whether the individual judgment on investments was good or bad?”

The fact that the $300 is not going to be spent by the family directly on ease and comfort but handed over to the government, seems contradictory to the Bruères’ emphasis on consumption in the present. The unifying thread of both propositions though is that the middle-class family cannot be a fortress onto itself. It must become part of the wider stream of society and begin to rely on others and, ultimately, it seems, the government.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Does Great Literature Help Children Become Prodigiously Productive Adults?

There are two people, Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) and John Buchan (1875-1940), whose lives were among the most productive I have ever encountered. Potter was English, Buchan Scottish.

Beatrix Potter: behind her success in stories was a mind steeped in Shakespeare and great novels and poetry.

As related in Linda Lear’s Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, Potter was not only a writer and illustrator of children’s books, she was a naturalist, a scientist, a wife, a farmer, a breeder, a land preservationist, manager, and organizer, who excelled at everything she ever put her hand and mind to.

A Young John Buchan

John Buchan is far less known but is the author of 39 Steps, a spy novel made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock. One day I picked up the book in the library to read, since I had enjoyed the movie’s supreme spy suspense. But in contrast to most spy novels, 39 Steps was a treasure of poetic prose. I continued to read Buchan’s novels; my favorite so far is Witch Wood. Aside from writing, Buchan was an attorney, private secretary to High Commissioner for South Africa Lord Milner, a war correspondent during World War I, a member of the wartime military intelligence services, Director of Information and Director of Intelligence under Lloyd George, a director of Reuters news agency, a Member of Parliament, Lord High Commissioner of the Church of Scotland, Governor General of Canada (for five years until his death), husband, and father of four. In his lifetime, he wrote 33 fine-quality novels and tens of nonfiction works.

Despite the differences in their careers and literary output, Potter and Buchan similarly devoured great literature in their formative years.

As Buchan relates in his autobiographical Memory Holds the Door:

“My boyhood must have been one of the idlest on record…. I was always reading, except in the Border holidays. Early in my teens I had read Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, and a host of other story-tellers, all Shakespeare; a good deal of history, and many works of travel; essayists like Bacon and Addison, Hazlitt, and Lamb, and a vast assortment of poetry, including Milton, Pope, Dante (in a translation); Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and Tennyson. Matthew Arnold I knew almost by heart; Browning I still found too difficult except in patches.”

39 Steps: suspense with poetry.
[Caveat: Buchan went out of favor for anti-Semitic and racist tinges in some of his works. However, it is my belief that this was an attitude of the times in which he lived. I believe that his beautiful and heart-breaking last novel, Sick Heart River, also called Mountain Meadow, written on the eve of World War II, bares his true heart and humanity.]

Likewise, biographer Lear reports that Beatrix Potter’s “appetite for books was large, especially after she started reading for herself.” Lear quotes Potter as saying in 1929: “I learned to read on the Waverly (sic) novels [of Sir Walter Scott]. I was let loose on Rob Roy, and spelled through a few pages, painfully; then I tried Ivanhoe—and the Talisman—then I tried Rob Roy again; all at once I began to READ (missing the long words, of course).” Lear notes that Potter’s “rich diet of art and literature contributed to a lifelong delight in rhythm, cadence, wordplay, humour, dialect and dialogue.”

Then in her mid-twenties, Potter deepened this word wealth by memorizing six plays by Shakespeare. She “repeated them randomly as mental practice, keeping account of her progress in an exercise book…. Beatrix not only loved the language of Shakespeare and the Old Testament, but was fascinated by the mind’s ability to recall something once thoroughly learned.”

A mouse that reads.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Whither Thrift? Part 1

This is the first of two reflections on how Americans lost their zeal for thrift.

In the midst of the current financial crisis, I think Sarah Palin was the first public figure to say that “Main Street” Americans all had a responsibility to live within their means. The Washington Times chimed in with an unabashedly old-fashioned editorial on October 12 titled: “A Penny Earned…”

Above, Benjamin Franklin, aka poor Richard, America's most famous promoter of thrift.

The Times notes: “As the financial crisis that apparently started here at home winds its way around the globe, the order of the day for ordinary taxpayers is hiding in plain sight. Politicians and economists call it fiscal discipline. Our Founding Fathers called it personal responsibility."

"The days of thrift seem long gone, as Americans now seem to prefer debt-financing as a way of life. Credit-card debt has tripled since 1990, with the average American owing approximately $9,000 on their credit cards, according to USA Today and bankrate.com. Since 2000, Americans have saved just 2 percent of their income compared with 8 percent in the 1980s. According to CardWeb.com, approximately 43 percent of American families spend more than they earn each year and personal bankruptcies have doubled in the past decade…. Who now adheres to Benjamin Franklin's dictate that ‘a penny saved is a penny earned’?... For centuries, capitalism has been buoyed by a Christian ethic that champions hard work, self-reliance and thrift—values that have been, well, devalued in recent years.”

That is certainly the case. However, we have also been told that it is a patriotic duty to buy, buy, buy, as the American consumer has been the engine of the global economy and the service industries here at home.

Abigail and John Adams and their home in Quincy (below).

The debate over consumer spending and debt as opposed to household thrift is nothing new in America. Even in the days of the founding of our republic, the life style of Abigail and John Adams, for instance, stood in stark contrast to that of Thomas Jefferson. Abigail’s letters to her husband and children show that, for her, living within one’s means was a cardinal family virtue, and their homestead reflected it. Their personal friend and political foe, Thomas Jefferson, was a connoisseur of fine wines and antiques, enjoyed high fashion, and poured a fortune into his sublime home in Monticello. The third President was always way over his head in debt, having to borrow from friends and foes alike to keep his financial house of cards from turning his life into ruin.

Thomas Jefferson and his home, Monticello (below).

I don’t know if the differences in life style between the two families translated into the fiscal policies of their respective parties, who were locked in bitter political war in the first two decades of the republic. However, for many Americans who came to these shores as immigrants and the many that headed west to the American frontier, frugality was hardly a choice, but a necessity. On the wagon train routes across the prairies and the Rockies, possessions were a liability—and often had to be left behind or be tossed over the wagon side on the trail.

The history of quilt making also testifies to the importance of frugality in the American colonial and 19th century home. Quilts were pieced together from scraps of fabric that had first been clothing. The scraps were too precious to be thrown away. The quilts were filled with the remnants from worn out coats and torn blankets.

Illinois quilt, 1860: a study in thrift.

Families who managed their own homesteads were severely punished for waste and over-consumption. Money saved was needed for the year when bad weather wiped out the crop or disease ran riot among the livestock. Money saved was also reinvested in the homestead—an iterative process of investment that has made American farmers the most productive in the world.

These are among the reasons the domestic arts were all geared to enabling a family to achieve the maximum gentility with the greatest thrift. That was the housewife’s job. (It makes me wonder if today's high level of women working outside the home has fueled the consumer frenzy.)

Hard work, self-reliance, and thrift persisted as virtues of American culture throughout the 19th century. The devaluation of thrift and frugality was helped along by social scientists, who began to agitate in the beginning of the 20th century for the more urbanized middle class to decrease savings and increase consumption. See part 2.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Nose News

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' kitchen (photo compliments of Suzanne of At Home with the Farmer's Wife. Read about her visit to Rawlings' home)

Nose News

by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

I could smell my neighbor’s gingerbread,
Cooling on a shelf.
Its fragrance put it in my head
To bake a pan myself.

The morning breeze blew down the street
My gingerbread’s spiced whiff.
My other neighbor stayed her feet,
And paused a bit to sniff.

Before the noon-day whistle blew
I saw her baking there—
And soon the scent of ginger grew,
Delicious on the air.

That evening all the men-folks said:
“Nose news must travel fast.
We could smell fresh gingerbread
In every house we passed!”

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Support Feminists for Life

Just in case everyone does not already know, I'd like to briefly talk about Feminists for Life, an organization that Sarah Palin, vice presidential nominee for the Republican Party, is a member of. I first heard of Feminists for Life when I was on the DC Metro commuting to my job. I saw a poster that said: "Women Deserve Better Than Abortion."

The poster was sponsored by the Knights of Columbus of the Catholic Church, but the slogan, the poster made clear, came from Feminists for Life. I was overjoyed, because for the first time the anti-abortion movement, which I supported, was acknowledging the terrible damage that an abortion does to the mother. I jotted down the FFL website URL and went to their website, called them, and then joined.

The Feminists for Life's founder is Serrin Foster, who was kicked out of the National Organization of Women when she declared that she was pro-life. As Foster has brought to the fore through Feminists for Life, the suffragette movement was opposed to abortion and fought for laws against it. Their compelling logic was that if women did not want to be treated as pieces of property by men, then they in turn could not treat their children, their unborn children, as pieces of property.

Feminists for Life founder Serrin Foster addressing students at Georgetown University in February of this year.

This, of course, is in sharp contrast to the feminist movement of today, whose slogan is a woman's right to choose [abortion]. But as Feminists for Life has made clear and as many, many women know, often a woman is not "choosing" in any meaningful sense of the word. Often she is being coerced, by the baby's father, by her family which may demand abortion on pain of being thrown out of the house. She is coerced by pressures on her to make a career or by financial difficulties. In short, she is not choosing, but bending, giving up her baby because conditions are unfavorable and no one will support her in having her child.

I believe that no matter how much a woman believes that she has a right to an abortion, the very act of deciding to kill her own baby, causes extreme distress and will change the woman's life forever. She may believe that in having an abortion, she has done the right thing, or the only thing possible. Perhaps she will never look back. That does not mean that she has not been damaged. It does not mean that her capacity to love has not been damaged It does not mean that even without knowing it, she slips into depression, which to her, may seem to have no reason at all. It does not mean that she sinks into a cynicism whose origin she may not even know. It does not mean she does not suffer guilt. It does mean that at some point in her life she will not suffer a deep pain of regret. It is impossible to kill life within you and not lose something precious in yourself.

The suffragettes believed that if a woman had an abortion that society had failed her. In other words, it was not the woman who had failed society by being pregnant. Society had failed any woman, who believed there was no alternative for her but to abort her baby. The idea that society must support women to have their children and to raise them or give them up for adoption is a much healthier attitude than an attitude that leads to murder of the child in one's own womb. I say murder of a child, because scientific evidence continues to mount that from the moment of conception, a child represents a unique genetic combination--it is the only one, there can never be another just like it. Further, we know now that at a very early point in the womb, the child can feel pain. Left to develop, this child in the womb will become a new precious human being out in the world.

There is only one, unique in itself from conception.

The Feminists for Life has therefore concentrated its efforts on college campuses, to try to force colleges and universities to offer the resources that will permit a pregnant woman to stay in school and to complete her education, rather than face the choice of either abortion or dropping out of school. Their work has borne fruit as abortions on campuses have declined.

For all of these reasons, I support the Feminists for Life, although I do not think of myself as a feminist. And I hope you will support it too.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Symphony of Supper-Time

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings as a young woman in college, where she met her husband Charles. They married in 1919.

In the latter half of the 1920s, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings published weekly poems in the Rochester Times-Union in upper-state New York, where she lived with her husband. Many of the poems were published in a book edited by Rodger L. Tarr entitled Songs of a Housewife. In motivating her column of a poem a day chronicling the life of a housewife, Rawlings told her editor in an interview published June 8, 1926:

"I was brought up to believe in the modern myth that housekeeping is only drudgery, and the housewife is a downtrodden martyr. I thought that any seemingly contented housewives were only 'making the best of it.' When I first began housekeeping in my own home, I felt that I had entered the ranks of the mistreated.

"After a time I began to realize, to my amazement, that I didn't feel at all downtrodden, and that I was thoroughly enjoying myself. I began to look at other domestic 'martyrs' from a new angle, and I have learned many things.

"I have found that there is romance in housework: and charm in it; and whimsy and humor without end. I have found that the housewife works hard, of course--but likes it. Most people who amount to anything do work hard, at whatever their job happens to be. The housewife's job is home-making, and she is, in fact, 'making the best of it'; making the best of it by bringing patience and loving care to her work; sympathy and understanding to her family; making the best of it by seeing all the fun in the day's incidents and human relationships.

The housewife realizes that home-making is an investment in happiness. It pays everyone enormous dividends. There are huge compensations for the actual labor involved. It will always be so: as long as human beings living together and eat and sleep and wear clothes. Even if community kitchens develop, and community nurseries, women will get a fundamental satisfaction out of making men comfortable and well-fed, and children 'well brought up'....

"There are verses in almost everything that fills a housewife's day....

"There are unhappy housewives, of course. But there are unhappy stenographers and editresses and concert singers. The housewife whose songs I sing as I go about my work, is the one who likes her job."

So for fun, from time to time, I will post a poem from Song of a Housewife, and here is the first:

The Symphony of Supper-Time

I like the sound of silver
When the table’s being set,
In the early Winter twilight,
With the lamps unlighted yet.

I like to hear the kitchen door
Swing slowly out, and then,
When Mary passes, laden, through,
Swing slowly back again.

I like to hear the kettle sing;
The hissing of the roast;
The children coming in from play,
A hungry, noisy host.

I like to hear the murmurings
When my dessert appears.
The symphony of supper-time
Is music to my ears!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Fine Arts Friday: Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus

Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus by Diego Velazquez

This remarkable painting was painted by the great Spanish artist Diego Velazquez in 1618, when the painter was 19 years old. Here we see not simply a maid, but a young African woman who is most likely a slave, in a kitchen--the kitchen of the inn where two disciples and Christ have stopped for their evening meal.

As told in the Gospel of Luke 24:13-32, the disciples had not recognized Christ as they were walking together to Emmaus: "It happened, while they talked and questioned together, that Jesus himself came near, and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him." And as soon as they do recognize him during their Emmaus repast, Christ disappears: "When he had sat down at the table with them, he took the bread and gave thanks. Breaking it, he gave to them. Their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished out of their sight."

Therefore, the painting depicts a moment before the disciples have recognized Christ. However, we may look at the stunned expression on the face of this young African slave. With one hand she grips a pitcher, which perhaps she has just brought from Christ's table. Perhaps she was about to wipe the table before her with the rag. But she is now in a state of arrested attention, her head turned slightly toward the window through which we see Christ. She is listening--intently--to Christ--in the painter's recollection of the words from Matthew 13: "Who hath ears, let him hear" and "They that hear shall live."

Christ in the House of Mary and Martha by Velazquez

Velazquez is deliberate in making an African maid the subject in his Emmaus painting. In Christ in the House of Mary and Martha painted in the same year, Velazquez also shows us the kitchen where a maid--clearly Spanish-born--is preparing food for Christ, whom we see with Mary ad Martha through a serving window. However, in this case, the maid is not listening to Christ. Rather, an older woman points to the window to draw her attention to the guest.

In this Emmaus painting, we see the African slave alone in the forefront. The text in Luke recalls the Last Supper and the Eucharist, as Christ breaks the bread and gives it to the two disciples. Velazquez could have painted the maid in the act of serving and placed her near Christ, as in Vermeer's Mary and Martha. But she alone is the major pictorial subject in recollection of Matthew 20:16: "So the last shall be first."

With this painting, Velazquez takes his stand on the raging debate in Spain during his time: Whether Spain, as a Christian country, had a right to enslave the Indians of the New World and to enslave Africans. Through his Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus, Velazquez declares that enslaved Africans have immortal souls and have ears that can hear Christ's Word. There is no moral justification for their enslavement, and if by misfortune they be enslaved, they yet have souls and, indeed, their lowly state makes them more open to the Word of Christ than even Christ's own disciples.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Irish Chain Quilt for a Wee One

Just in the nick of time, this week I finished this hand-sewn single Irish chain quilt for a beautiful little girl who arrived yesterday. Her mom is a friend of my daughter and me. When I started the quilt I didn't know if the baby would be a girl or a boy, but the mother's favorite color is blue, so I chose a blue and white palette. I wanted a light blue toile for the large squares and was pleased as punch to find a light blue toile with scenes from Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit. I figured that the dotted swiss would also be light enough to make it suitable for a girl.

I have the top hand-pieced for a child's quilt, but this is the first quilting I have done. The prospect scared me so much that I did not use a hoop. Somehow I felt that trying to use a new contraption would make the project so daunting, I would not be able to do it at all. So this was kind of experimentation, and the next time I feel I will be relaxed enough to try a hoop. There are really a lot of imperfections in the quilting, but I learned a lot.

I quilted the larger blocks with an apple pattern from Irish Chain Quilts: Single, Double, and Triple by Sharon Cerny Ogden.

I love the Irish chain pattern. For a beginner, it is nice and simple, and I love the lattice look of it across a bed. I have collected the fabric for a yellow-orange flower triple Irish chain, which is the next quilt I would like to piece. But before that, I think I better quilt the other top that I have pieced and before that...Christmas is on its way like a high-speed train!!!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Women Farmer Writers

I know of three famous women writers who were also independent farmers: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1896-1953), Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), and Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) (1885-1962). Do you know of more? For each of them their life on their farm and surroundings became an important source for their work.

Karen Blixen in the doorway of her home in Kenya with her beloved Scottish deerhound.

In the case of Karen Blixen, she found herself in Africa and built and created her own coffee plantation there. When she had been thoroughly bankrupted in this enterprise, she returned to her native Denmark at the age of 50 with the prospect of creating a whole new life for herself and chose to write stories (Seven Gothic Tales, Winter's Tales, and others) and became a celebrated writer with a strong following in the United States. Out of Africa recounts her life in Kenya and is a masterpiece of beautiful writing. Her letters from Africa are also fascinating. See the movie Out of Africa, which is based on both the book and her letters. In contrast to the movie, however, which focuses on her affair with Denys Finch Hatton, Dinesen makes clear in her writings that her greatest love was Africa.

Beatrix Potter at the doorway of her home at Hilltop Farm.

A naturalist since she was a young girl, Beatrix Potter defied her parents to buy and live in Hilltop Farm, in England's Lake District, where she had vacationed since she was a child. Here she became a highly respected sheep farmer, a top sheep breeder, and a judge at agricultural shows. I think her beloved children's books need no introduction. See the movie Mrs. Potter and the lovely books about her: Beatrix Potter: Life in Nature by Linda Lear, and Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller, and Countrywoman by Judy Taylor.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings at the gate of her orange grove farm in Floria.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings left her husband in New York to move to an orange grove sight unseen near Gainesville, Florida (home town area of Zora Neale Hurston), and broke through in her writing career when she took the advice of her editor, the famous Maxwell Perkins, to write about the people and life around her that she loved. She was a hunter and successful orange grove farmer. From here she wrote her biography, Cross Creek, The Yearling, the Cross Creek Cookbook, and her volumes of stories. See the movie about her: Cross Creek.

I also have photographic evidence that these three ladies all loved dogs.

Why is their work so closely associated with their farming lives? I am not exactly sure, but one thing is clear: the deep love that they had for their farms and the people around them gave them the energy and courage to draw beautiful books from themselves.

The parallels of the lives of these three women came to me thanks to The Farmer's Wife and At Home with the Farmer's Wife.