Wednesday, March 22, 2006

And the Blogger Rambled On-- A Post About Cooking, Sewing, Advertising, the Cult of Experts, and Possibly the Kitchen Sink As Well

You know how you occasionally read something that really strikes you and leads you to read something else and something else? PatternReview had an article (and follow-up discussion in the forum) nearly two weeks ago that was like that for me--and I don't even know why, since I didn't really learn anything wholly new from it. It was an article by Sarah Jacobs, called "Quick Cheap Sewing"; I almost didn't read it because I figured it was just a few timesaving and thrifty hints, but it turned out to be more interesting than that. (I'd link to it, but the articles are only available to PR members--to free members for 7 days only.) Basically, the article draws some analogies between cooking and sewing.

Most of us who do much cooking have sort of mental slopers (a basic design that more complex designs can be built on) or master recipes for various dishes. For example, we know basically what to do to get a casserole, so we can just look in the kitchen and cobble together a casserole from whatever we have on hand; or, even more simply, we know the basics of roasting a chicken, so we can follow those basics every time to get a dish that is recognizable as roasted chicken and doesn't give us salmonella, but by varying details such as seasoning we can make that dish have a wide range of tastes. For dishes that we seldom cook and so don't already have a mental sloper for, we can look in cookbooks at one or several recipes for the dish to get the basic proportions of ingredients and then build our own version, based on our own preferences and on which ingredients we actually have. This is my main way of using cookbooks--as general reference, rather than explicit directions--and I was pleased to see the article's author saying she uses cookbooks that way too. A more formal version of this practice--which led to a more formal (i.e. written, not mental) master recipe--would be the Tightwad Gazette lady's description of how she came up with her Universal Muffin recipe.

Ms. Jacobs talks about enjoying browsing cookbooks, especially the 1943 edition of The Settlement Cookbook. (I'd never heard of it before, being from the South rather than the Midwest, but the story of this cookbook is pretty interesting, as cookbooks go--you could see it as a womanpower success story. The earliest versions are public domain, and the 1903 edition has been reprinted by at least two different publishers and is available from Amazon and scans of the 1901 edition can be viewed online for free.) Ms. Jacobs said that as a girl she was amazed at the existence of recipes for things we normally buy, like marshmallows; nowadays, some people are amazed if you make cake, let alone marshmallows, from scratch. The Settlement Cookbook had recipes for plain, everyday sort of cakes, as opposed to a Martha Stewart sort of cake. Ms. Jacobs gave us her version--Quick Plain Cake--of a Settlement recipe called Cheap Plain Cake, which is exactly what both of its names say it is. I've already adapted it into a cranberry upside down cake that pleased me; I don't do much making of sweets because I discovered early in my marriage my husband prefers storebought candy, but this recipe is going in my file because it is so easy, quick, and adaptable. (I'd long been thinking of working out a recipe for a tiny cake--just enough for one big or two small servings--and this may become my basis for that.)

The point of the article is that, while many of us approach sewing like the cook who always looks up fancy recipes and follows them exactly, sewing can also be like this everyday kind of cooking. The author cites the early '50s Sewing Made Easy that told its readers how to take a basic commercial pattern and alter it to get many styles of skirts (like altering the flavoring of Plain Cake to get different cakes); people measuring hips and waists to make a skirt (you know the basic shape so you only need the details, like with making a quick casserole you only need to know what you have in the cupboard and how many people you need to feed); and the Jamaican woman who showed the author how to cut around an existing garment to get the pieces for a new one. This version of sewing or cooking can be plainer and quicker and cheaper than the close- following-of-recipe version--cheaper, if for no other reason than you buy fewer patterns. It will definitely reflect the creator's personality more, as she decides for herself which details she wants--from outer appearance to construction methods.

Perhaps most important is that this approach makes the seamster ("sewer" never looks right in print) less dependant upon experts. In the forum discussion of this article many people said that their grandmothers sewed this way, but that the method had not been passed on. Two people specifically said that, although grandma had done it, mother had not had the confidence to deviate from a pattern or recipe; the first said she wondered if the post-WWII advertising had been to blame. I read this right after reading in Crunchy Cons (book and blog) speculations about 1950s advertising convincing people that storebought convenience food was better--cleaner, more scientifically wholesome--than homegrown and/or homecooked food. I think the 1950s, even if it was a Golden Age in some ways, encouraged an over-reliance on "experts" and "convenience" that has only snowballed. Many traditional skills have been lost. I don't just mean obsolete skills (like, say, plowing with a mule) or nearing-obsoletion ones (shade tree mechanics have become relatively rare as cars have acquired more and more electronic parts that you really do need special tools to work on.) Utne Reader had an article a decade or so ago about the dying of food knowledge--many people with teen girls in the '60s and '70s didn't bother to teach their daughters how to cook or even how to select produce and meat, so that these girls had to learn for themselves or rely on convenience food as adults, then they generally had less knowledge to pass on the their teenagers, and so it goes. The Home Ec classes that in at least some cases tried to teach people to ignore the traditional peasant cooking of their Italian immigrant or poor Southern mother in favor of "scientific" cooking (a euphemism for upper middle-class WASP cooking?), then reliance on a basis of convenience foods, are now, it is my understanding, sometimes not taught at all, because why learn to cook when you can live on frozen dinners (or sew when you can go to a store or clean when you can hire an "undocumented worker"). Many people today not only don't know how to sew on a button, it's apparently never occurred to them that they could figure it out if they tried. Many people call a plumber or repairman for even simple jobs, without even asking themselves if they could fix it themselves; on TV much sitcom hilarity can be counted on if a character dares to think he can repair something himself. If you need some item around the house, the "right" thing to do is to go buy one, not figure out how to make the item or a substitute yourself; only an eccentric or a hick makes his own toilet paper dispenser. A mother whose small child received only homemade toys for Christmas would probably find her acquaintances muttering darkly about "abuse" because everyone knows children "need" new, storebought toys--i.e. toymaking is best left to the experts....Okay, I'm rambling now. And maybe this is being mitigated somewhat by the surge of interest in crafting, DIY television programs, and cooking programs, but I think the over-reliance on experts to feed, clothe, educate, and entertain us is still going strong. I think there's still a lot more people watching food programs than making food.

The person who has basic skills and, perhaps more important these days, the attitude that it is okay to figure things out yourself and do it your own way is less reliant on experts than people who don't have skills or this attitude. And that, as expert Martha Stewart might say, is a Good Thing. (Then again, she might not, because it might make you less likely to buy her magazine.) Rural (not to say backwoods) Southern women of my grandmothers' generation put pictures on their walls wherever they felt like it, but ones of my mother's generation learned they must place them artistically; the increased sophistication may have been a good thing overall, but I'll bet the earlier generation had more confidence in their picture placement choices--"I like it there, so it's good" vs. "Is this really the way the [women's magazine, Home Ec text, TV show] said it should be arranged? Maybe it should look more like that living room I saw in that movie." And that's not even getting into the fact that societies in which people lack basic skills--i.e. more highly specialized societies, i.e. societies in which experts hold sway--are more easily destroyed; ask a survivalist or possibly an historian.

It's also not touching on other things that came up in the article and subsequent discussion--even if only for me. Like how many people around the world don't use patterns for sewing: Indian tailors measure their clients and make salwar kameeze or other traditional garments based on those measurements and their own mental slopers; traditional kimono were sewn just from the person's measurements marked out on cloth; there are few patterns for home sewers in Africa or, it is my understanding, Asia; presumably there are no commercial patterns for pygmy loincloths, and so on. The history of patternmaking is actually pretty interesting; I've found interesting tidbits at the McCall's (or was it Butterick?) website, in a children's book called Design It, Sew It, and Wear It by Duane Bradley, and several adult sewing or clothing books. Thanks to the article & discussion, I have several additions to my mental "pick it up if you see it in a thrift store" booklist and I'm now rereading the Little House books. This little article may be reverberating in my mind for a while.

(Okay, so I didn't actually get in anything about the kitchen sink, but it's past midnight and I'm really sleepy--not to mention drained--so I'll have to get back to it some other time.)

1 comment:

Kalanna said...

Thanks for this post Suzanne. Many interesting thoughts! I have had to teach myself to cook because of an absent mother and still have a lot of learn, but so far the results are decent.

On the sewing front, I think I'm trying to stretch myself, bit by bit, to do my own thing with patterns that I have. Usually what hinders creativity is that I cherish fabric so much, and often I get it second-hand. Experimenting is risky when it could wreck the one piece of fabric you have that's just perfect for the one pattern you have.

In any case, it's an absolute dream to find another person who blogs about sewing and knows of Pattern Review.

I'll definitely be around. :)