Perhaps it’s because I’m a bit of a romantic that whenever I’m in my kitchen I feel a spirited kinship with my domestic foremothers. It is the most curious reaction I think an identifying feminist can have: a deeply sympathetic response to the domestic needs of the family and a suspiciously naive enjoyment of the daily labors in attending to those needs.
Theories abound that the liberation of women depended on being liberated from domestic servitude, and within that genre of speculation is the idea that it was the invention of the modern appliance -in particular- that freed up the many women who made it out of their kitchens during the second half of the 20th century. This might make sense when you consider how hand-washing clothes can be a many days long affair. Consider also how time consuming growing a garden, canning fruits and vegetables, tending chickens, knitting, sewing, washing, drying, ironing and mending clothes could be, let alone cooking and baking, and how the larger the family, the more devoted hands there would need to be to keep the home clean, fed, and functioning.
Of course, the argument falls apart when we consider how many women, including those living in poverty and as slaves, have been managing duties both within and outside their own home for centuries. But regardless of whether you find the notion of the washing machine being the liberator of women appealing or appalling, I must admit that I often catch myself waxing nostalgic when thinking of getting up early and baking a loaf of bread or boiling whites on the stove or hanging clothes out on the line.
Equally troubling is that as I was earning my degrees in philosophy and literature, I would fill a bathtub with water, dump in a load of filthy children’s clothes and march around on them for an hour, my pants rolled up, with a book in one hand, leaving the other free to pat myself on the back at my ability to multitask. Of all the challenging experiences I’ve had in my short life, of working and going to school as a single mother, nearly equal is the pride I take in the fact that we survived during that time without a working washer and dryer. And we walked to school a mile. Uphill. Both ways.
In my more imaginative moments I’m not a best-selling novelist or famous feminist intellectual, I am merely an early morning baker. My fantasy goes like this: the house is cool and quiet. No patter of little feet or screaming toddler indignations. No teenage angst over clothes, cold showers and lost hairbrushes. I wake in the dark. I make myself coffee and preheat the oven. I have a handwritten bread recipe tucked into one of my cookbooks, so well-loved that the page is stained and the paper has worn thin. While the bread bakes, I might write a little or water the garden. I come back into the house where the smell of bread has me practically tap dancing toward the stove. Then the moment blossoms into reality: the bread, which I’ve been assured comes from a fool-proof recipe, which I’ve spent nearly a full day proofing and which has 20 more minutes of cooking time left, has barely risen. It already has a dark caramel-colored crust. I take it out of the oven and thump it a couple of times. It sounds hollow, like it has an airy crumb, and when I slice it open my doubts are confirmed. The bread has finished baking too quickly to rise. I’m not entirely surprised. The recipe called for the oven to 500 degrees and even though, knowing my oven as I do, I lowered it to 450 for good measure, my oven has a tendency to sleepily ignore the settings of the thermostat on occasion, according to its mood. No matter. I’m not deterred by this upset. I do more research on proofing and relative humidity and I try again.
I awake early, start the coffee, pre-heat the oven. I’m cooking the bread at a lower temperature this time, I’ve added a shallow pan of water to one of the lower shelves and continuing to be cautious, I check on the bread halfway through to see how it’s progressing. And halfway through, yet again, the bread is only 3 inches high and has a dark, hard crust.
At this point, a spoiler: this is not a love story about a woman and the perfect loaf of bread.
Since I was once a professional baker, I have to admit that while it isn’t perfection that I am seeking from the start, it needs to be, at the very least, something palatable. And if my dreams of good bread may have been thwarted, this is nothing compared to all the burnt batches of granola, charred cookies with doughy centers, overcooked and simultaneously rare chickens. And one night when I was pregnant, after craving chocolate cake all day: a dry, fragile, black loam was pulled out of my oven in lieu of cake and induced sobbing.
And this isn’t the only vindictive appliance in my history. In a kitchen off Lovejoy Street, while cooking with gas, I learned that the right side of that oven cooked more quickly than the left and therefore, cookie sheets and casseroles needed to be rotated halfway through. And on Beckett Point in Port Townsend, there is an oven that requires every dish to be cooked at 350 degrees, regardless of what the recipe calls for, and it will always finish five minutes early. Each oven that the home cook works with will inevitably have its own unique set of quirks and in some cases, bouts of malice.
My current oven is like a one of those muddy, oily cooks in the back of a dingy restaurant, who smokes too much and pushes the expiration date a few days. Spiteful. Vindictive. Passive-Aggressive. Socially inept.
I try to imagine, in the days of old when the oven was a new and unchartered experience for my grandmother—she having grown up in a depression-era shack with only a wood stove—how she must have adjusted to the many failures that come from learning to cook in a modern appliance. Perhaps this is one reason why she was so famously bad at it. My grandmother’s pork chops, and this is not an exaggeration, could kill a man. They were like Chinese throwing stars: dense, hard and sharp. Her banana bread was so dry you could choke on it. Pasta was always cooked to mush. It didn’t help that she was suspicious of fresh vegetables and so everything came out of a can.
Reflecting on growing up with her, I can, perhaps, trace my domestic daydreams to their origin. I’m in my grandmother’s kitchen heating up a TV dinner. I revel in peeling back the cover and transferring the potatoes, peas, steak and gravy to a plate, assembling it to mimic a real homemade meal. As I carefully spoon out each item from its cardboard compartment and arrange it lovingly on my plate, I explain all the steps from an imaginary recipe to an invisible audience. In this moment, I am the Julia Child of Salisbury steak explaining made-up cooking directions and secrets of the trade to the adoration of my family and friends.
Before she died I got the recipe for one dish my grandmother made that I enjoyed. It was for chicken and dumplings. I remember how the request made her smile, “get some Swanson’s chicken broth and put in your chicken pieces”
“Bones and all?” I asked.
“Bones and all. Mix up some Bisquick and drop it in big spoonfuls. That’s it.”
“Maybe add some salt.”
My grandmother, a housewife for most of her life, if not the role model for domestic bliss, lived according to a salt of the earth philosophy. There was little mirth or joy in the small pleasures my grandmother took day to day, but she delighted in the smell of her homegrown tomatoes and in keeping towels around until they were threadbare. Being raised by her instilled in me pride in hard work, thriftiness and grit. Is that where this hope for quotidian joy comes from?
Perhaps this is, after all, just a gentle desire to return to my childhood, the way we warp the past to fit into the small, childish view of the world we once had. Perhaps I’m just trying to find the balance between how adult life was presented to me then and the one I’ve discovered since growing up, with the all the complexities of unintended consequences and unexpected failures, the way seemingly simple things are corrupted by all the gadgets and gears and machinations that were supposed to make life easier. And if it’s true that in attempting to bake a loaf of bread from scratch I’m trying to –dare I say it- get back to a simpler time, it’s equally true that at the center of my attempt is the perfect antagonist. Progress.