Sunday, February 27, 2011

Housekeeping in the Great Forest: The Trees 2

Detail of an early 19th century quilt from Pennsylvania

Here are quotes from The Trees by Conrad Richter that describe various domestic activities. I deeply appreciate Richter's descriptions of these tasks and his respect for what women accomplished in the wilderness in creating a home from nothing but what they could find in the forest.

What they brought from Pennsylvania:
In that pack under his rifle were a frow [a cleaving tool] and auger [tool for boring holes], bar lead and powder, blacksmith’s traps and a bag of Indian meal wrapped up in a pair of yellow yarn blankets. Sayward carried the big kettle and little kettle packed with small fixings, Genny the quilts thronged to her white shoulders and Achsa a quarter of venison with the bloody folded buckskin her Father had taken since the last trader. Even the littlest ones, Wyitt and Sulie, had their burdens of axe, bullet mould and clothes.

Shadbark hickory tree

Making a broom:
Her mother’s old broom was worn til it wasn’t more than a club, and she cut a green hickory stick, her knife splitting a splint at one end. This she turned back and split another, and another. When she was done and the handle whittled down, she had a fine, new broom.

Making bread:
She spilled the grey white meal soundlessly in the little kettle, hoarding every pinch, feeling of it between her fingers. Not even the fur on the belly of a mink or beaver was soft and velvety as this. They must have run it through the deerskin sifter. Never had she baked wheat bread before but she well knew how…. Now the girl’s firm hands mixed the flour and some water together, working in a little precious salt and maple sugar with the miller woman’s yeasty stuff. By the time she set it by the fire to rise, her father had taken off his buckskin leggings that were wet from the fording of streams and had lain across her and Genny's bed,* some of the quilt over his bare legs, dead as a log from his long tramp.
"Bed" is very loosely speaking, a bed of leaves on the clay floor covered with a bottom quilt and a yarn blanket or a top quilt.

Making a buckskin shirt:
Now she went on about her business, working a doeskin with her hands. They had taken hair off with lye from fire ashes and tanned it with oak bark liquor in a log trough. Once the hide was worked soft, Jary would lay it on the table and cut it out with the cabin knife, and Genny’s nimble fingers would sew up a shirt for Wyitt. He had some squirrel ready that he wanted it trimmed with.

New neighbors have brought considerably more to the forest:
Genny said they had pewter and copper ware, a looking glass with a towel they hung on a tree, more pots and kettles than you could shake a stick at, a grind stone and grubbing hoe. And that wasn’t half of it. They had two chests; fine patched quilts; a big iron shovel and a small one Genny thought for the fire; a candle mould, reels, a flax and spinning wheel. And the woman had all the bushes airing with shirts, britches, petticoats, bedgowns and sheets like great folks had. The walls of the Luckett cabin, Sayward expected, would look mighty bare of clothes to such a woman.

Ladies Yellow Slipper (cyridedium pubescens [orchidacaeae])

Getting ready for a visit from the new neighbor:
Then she went and redd out [tidied up] the cabin. She was glad she had set sour dough to raise that morning. Only yesterday Wyitt said he knew where it had early yellow lady slippers and she had him fetch some for Genny to stick in cracks between the logs. She told him to fetch some fresh mint and cucumber tree leaves, for they made it smell good and welcome over a swept dirt floor... When the kettle started to simmer, she used it a fifth time, as a teapot, putting in a lick of dittany and sassafras root shavings. Then she poured out a pair of steaming wooden cups and set them with her two breadstuffs on the table.... Her sour dough biscuits were not fine and scanty but of a hearty size with a square of smoked bear’s bacon set in the top of each to run down over the sides and bake with a tasty crust.

Leaves of the cucumber tree (magnolia acuminata)

Getting ready for a new husband:
Quickly she turned back indoors and redded up the cabin. Her splint broom scraped and hackled the bones, gristle, bed leaves and black boot dirt off the hard clay floor. The hearth she swept clean with a turkey wing. Her old buckskin rag wiped dust off logs and chinking. The clean-washed blankets she lugged down from the marriage bed and spread them over the everyday place she slept in. Last she fetched out a choice slice of roast venison she had saved back for her man if he came home, and set a place at the table....

Dittany (cunila mariana), also known as stone mint, which Sayward used to make tea

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Trees by Conrad Richter

About a month ago, Alicia at Posie Gets Cozy asked her readers for suggestions on novels and other reads on the American frontier and pioneers. I appreciated this request as a good way to compile my own list on this topic, which is always of interest to me. From the long list of recommended books, many of which sounded wonderful, I chose to read was The Trees by Conrad Richter, which I had recently found out about and was very curious to read.

Suffice it to say that this is one of the best books I have ever read in my life.

I did not expect it to find it so. The Trees is about the Luckett family in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War and their move from Pennsylvania to the great forests of Ohio, where they build their cabin so surrounded by trees that in the summer months, it is impossible to see the sky. It is hard to imagine living in such a remote, unsettled area, so closed off from a landscape of human modification. It is doubly hard to imagine it with as few human-made amenities as the Lucketts had brought along. Yet, they carved out an existence there that permitted the father, Worth Luckett, to hunt--the reason for their move being the draining of the Pennsylvania woods of the game that Worth Luckett pursued as his meaning in life.

Richter well evokes the vulnerability of human beings in the elements in which the Lucketts find themselves alone. Even with neighbors slowly making their way into the area, life remains exceedingly precarious. It doesn't take anyone too far into this book before you are worrying about the Luckett children like a fretting mother yourself, racing home from work to find out if they will survive what surrounds them--unrelenting darkness, creatures of every kind, plants beneficial and dangerous, the giant trees, and the unknown-unknowable. We are in awe of the enterprise these weakling humans have undertaken, children in tow, and their imagination and resourcefulness in bending nature's productions to their own every-day needs.

Even if the author had told his story in a down-to-earth humdrum style, this would have been a good book. What makes it an extraordinary book is Richter's language, as if the tale were being told by an omniscient woodsman observer striding right alongside the Lucketts in this dense 18th-century American forest. The cadence of this language hurls us into this distant world, like a fast river that does not stop til the last page.

In his introduction, Richter tell us that this language
approximating as it does the store of 18th- and early 19th-century speech collected from old manuscripts, letters, and records, a speech quite different from the formal written and printed language of the time into which the talk of citizens, the testimony of court witnesses, and even the conversation of ladies and gentleman in the privacy of their family circles, had almost invariably to be translated before reaching the respectability of public print. This early, vigorous spoken language, contrary to public belief, had its considerable origin in the Northeastern states, whence it was carried by emigrants into Ohio and adjoining territories, where today [1940] it has largely disappeared, and, along with the Pennsylvania rifle, into the South and Southwest, where it has more widely survived and it is sometimes thought to be a purely native form of speech but which, wherever found, should be recognized with its local variants as a living reminder of the great mother tongue of early America.

This language makes The Trees a tour de force and in so doing plants the story of our early American forebears firmly in the heart and mind. The Trees is the first of a trilogy and is followed by The Fields and The Town. I am excited to read more of the Luckett family, but I imagine that The Trees is in a class all its own.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Who's Minding the Kitchen While Mom Is Out Working?

Holy Family at Supper, from the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves.

In the United States, most mothers work: In 2007, the labor force participation rate for mothers with children under 18 was 71%, and this figure must be rising as women have gone to work as their husbands were laid off in the Great Recession.

Now, researchers at American University, Cornell University, and the University of Chicago studied 900 school-aged children and found a mother's employment outside the home correlates with a small but measurable increase in the child's body mass index (BMI). The researchappears in the January/February issue of the journal Child Development.
[A]mong sixth graders, a mother’s entry into employment was associated with an increase in BMI of about two fifths (40%) of a standard deviation, and those children were about 6 times more likely to be overweight. Additionally, among fifth and sixth graders, entry into employment was associated with an increase in the likelihood of being overweight of 8 and 11 times, respectively. However, there was no evidence that TV time or physical activity mediated this relation at either fifth or sixth grade, or that total HOME score, time spent unsupervised, in structured settings, or with parents mediated this relation at fifth grade (the HOME scale and time-use data were available at third and fifth grades only)....

Our FE results provide evidence for a cumulative influence of maternal employment; every period (averaging 5.3 months) a mother was employed was associated with an increase in her child’s BMI of 10% of a standard deviation. For a child of average height, this is equivalent to a gain in weight of nearly 1 lb every 5 months above and beyond what would typically be gained as a child ages. This link between maternal employment (vs. nonemployment) and children’s BMI is consistent with a growing body of evidence on this question (e.g., Anderson et al., 2003), including studies that have adopted comparable analytic approaches....

The results of this study have implications for policy and practice. We find that maternal employment has a cumulative influence on children’s BMI that, over time, could lead to an increase in the likelihood that a child is overweight or obese. We also find evidence that, among older children in particular, maternal employment status is linked to an increased likelihood of being overweight. Excess weight in childhood is a risk factor for excess weight in adulthood (Strauss, 1999), and the effects of obesity on chronic conditions have been found to be even larger than those of current or past smoking and problem drinking (Sturm, 2002). On average, in 2002, an obese adult and an overweight adult spent an additional $395 and $125 in health care costs per year, respectively, than healthy-weight individuals (Sturm, 2002).

In addition to the physical health and economic consequences as adults, being overweight as a child has social-emotional implications. During the early elementary school years, higher BMIs are associated with greater internalizing problems (Bradley et al., 2008). In adolescence, overweight status is associated with an increase in depression among girls (Needham & Crosnoe, 2005). Additionally, overweight teens have lower academic achievement, especially in contexts in which being overweight is stigmatized (e.g., schools with high rates of dating or lower average BMI; Crosnoe & Muller, 2004). For girls, higher BMIs are also associated with a reduction in dating (but not in having sex; Cawley, 2001; Cawley, Joyner, & Sobal, 2006). Overall, research suggests that stigma against overweight individuals is commonplace, including in the workplace, in the health care system, and in schools (reviewed in Puhl & Brownell, 2001).

Since many of the other factors measured in this study--such as TV time, sedentary life styles--did not budge the overall statistic, it appears that the culprit is the actual food consumed--its quantity and quality. A working mother is also simply less able to monitor her child's food intake and teach good eating habits throughout the day. My sister-in-law, who was a stay-at-home mom, did a great job of this with her children.

As a working single mom for more than half of the years that my daughter was growing up, I know that it is fatiguing to come home from a long day of work to make a decent dinner, set the table, and clean up after. In the days when I had a long commute, I resorted to feeding my daughter and myself like the mother in Little Miss Sunshine--fast food and ready-made frozen food. Since the food is basically unsatisfying and also heavy in salt or sugar (not to mention expensive), the tendency is to eat more.

Finally, I decided this was not fair at all. Why shouldn't my daughter be able to smell a good dinner cooking or be able to enjoy fresh homemade baked goods? So I tried to clean up my act.

Marion Cunningham -- to the rescue.

My cooking savior was Lost Recipes: Meals to Share with Family and Friends by Marion Cunningham. You can read about this wonderful book at Letters from a Hill Farm. I also used Mrs. Cunningham's The Supper Book, which has more easy recipes for preparing an easy and fast evening meal. A lot of her recipes can be created straight from the pantry and don't require a hunt for expensive exotics. Some recipes appear in both books. I especially savored her descriptions of the recipes and how she found them and her exhortations to revive the ritual of the family meal. For working mothers, who may be harried people, we need this kind of encouragement.

I also started baking with these books and Mrs. Cunningham's Fannie Farmer Baking Book.

When my daughter was in 10th grade and had her Humane Letters seminar for the first two hours of school every morning, I took a lot of pleasure in sending her off with a loaf of freshly made quick bread or muffins for her teacher and classmates to enjoy with their seminar coffee. (She went to Trinity School at Meadowview.) I rearranged my kitchen counter so that all the measuring cups, measuring spoons, and mixing spoons along with the flour and sugar canisters were alwayson the counter in front of me with baking powder, baking soda, spices and herbs, and oil in the cabinet above. In this way, I was able to whip up these morning items in no time flat.

I started using the crock pot. My daughter likes meat and potatoes, and it was easy to make a stew or a pot roast with potatoes in the morning and have the meal ready when we got home. I also made salmon or cod cakes that I could freeze and take out at the end of the day to cook. Mrs. Cunningham's cobb salad was a big favorite with my daughter and her friends.

Beef stew in a crock pot compliments of Audrey's Favorite Recipes.

Soon of course my daughter was off to college, and home cooking is more humdrum. Even so, yesterday morning I made a shrimp and rice dish based on Margaret Cunningham's "Sara Tyson Rorer's Spanish Rice with Chicken" in The Supper Book and looked forward all day to coming home, scooping some on to a plate, zapping it in the microwave, and sitting down to a decent home meal.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Lost Book: Booth Tarkington's Gentle Julia

Summer Girl by Robert Lewis Reid, 1896 (Julia spent a lot of time on the front porch.)

I intermittently read lost American books, which pleasant pursuit brought me to Gentle Julia by Booth Tarkington (1869-1946). I remembered Tarkington as the author of the Penrod books--Penrod and Penrod and Sam--that herald the antics of a boy of 10 or 11 and his buddies in a suburban neighborhood in the 1910s. I laughed hard at these books, which were read out loud in our classroom by my fifth-grade teacher, Miss Doolan (and a great teacher she was). Tarkington also wrote the books upon which the movies Alice Adams and The Magnificent Ambersons were based. So I picked up Gentle Julia, which is about a young woman who lives in a small city in Indiana, thinking that perhaps it would involve domesticity as well.

In fact, Julia is just the foil for a story about her niece, 11-year-old Florence Atwater, a very active young lady, who is constantly sneaking around and trying to bend Julia's marital outcome to her (Florence's) own will. The sweet and beautiful Julia has many suitors.

A sad note in this entertaining book, written in 1922, is the character of the maid at Florence's house, Kitty Silver, who is portrayed in the stereotypical way that many African Americans were in the twenties and thirties of the last century: uneducated, good-hearted, and funny, and often consorting with children, with whom they apparently have so much in common.

Otherwise, as in this scene, Tarkington is a precision writer of comic dialogue:

(From the window of her home, Florence is watching her cousin Herbert and his friend who are sitting on a fence down the lane writing in notebooks.)

And seldom in the history of the world have any such sessions been invested by their participants [Herbert and friend] with so intentional an appearance of importance. The important importance of Herbert and his friend was so extreme as to be all too plainly visible across four intervening broad back yards; in fact, there was sometimes reason to suspect that the two performers were aware of their audience and even of her goaded condition; and that they deliberately increased the outrageousness of their importance on her account. And upon the Saturday of that week, when the notebook writers were upon the fence the greater part of the afternoon, Florence's fascinated indignation became vocal.

"Vile Things," she said.

Her mother, sewing beside another window of the room, looked up inquiringly.

"What are, Florence?"

"Cousin Herbert and that nasty little Henry Rooter."

"Are you watching them again?" her mother asked.

"Yes, I am," said Florence; and added tartly, "Not because I care to, but merely to amuse myself at their expense."

Mrs. Atwater murmured, "Couldn't you find some other way to amuse yourself, Florence?"

"I don't call this amusement," the inconsistent girl responded, not without chagrin. "Think I'd spend all my days starin' at Herbert Illingsworth Atwater, Junior, and that nasty little Henry Rooter, and call it amusement?"

"Then why do you do it?"

"Why do I do what, mamma?" Florence inquired, as in despair of Mrs. Atwater's ever learning to put things clearly.

"Why do you 'spend all your days' watching them? You don't seem to be able to keep away from the window, and it appears to make you irritable. I should think if they wouldn't let you play with them you'd be too proud----"

"Oh good heavens, mamma!"

"Don't use such expressions, Florence, please."

"Well," said Florence, "I got to use some expression when you accuse me of wantin' to 'play' with those two vile things! My goodness mercy, mamma, I don't want to 'play' with 'em! I'm more than four years old, I guess; though you don't ever seem willing to give me credit for it. I don't haf to 'play' all the time, mamma; and anyway, Herbert and that nasty little Henry Rooter aren't playing either!"

"Aren't they?" Mrs. Atwater inquired. "I thought the other day you said you wanted them to let you play with them at being a newspaper reporter or editor or something like that, and they were rude and told you go away. Wasn't that it?"

"No, Mamma, it cert'nly wasn't."

"They weren't rude to you?"

"Yes, they cert'nly were!"

"Well, then--"

"Mamma, can't you understand?" Florence turned from the window to beseech Mrs. Atwater's concentration upon the matter. "It isn't 'playing'! I didn't want to play being a reporter; they ain't 'playing'---"

"Aren't playing, Florence."

"Yes'm. They're not. Herbert's got a real printing press; Uncle Joseph gave it to him. It's a real one, mamma, can't you understand?"

"I'll try," said Mrs. Atwater. "You mustn't get so excited about it, Florence."

"I'm not!" Florence returned vehemently. "I guess it'd take more than those two vile things and their old printing press to get me excited! I don't care what they do; it's far less than nothing to me! All I wish is they'd fall off the fence and break their vile ole necks!"