Thursday, August 25, 2011

Domestic Economy

Summer is slowly, almost imperceptibly winding down; I can feel the change in the air though the workload is still as heavy as it ever was. We finally finished canning green beans, but the corn and carrots are far from done. We try to do a few canner loads every day and that way it isn't overwhelming and the jars do add up little by little. I'm thankful for the ease and convenience of having home canned foods on the shelf, meals can be made in a hurry and I know they're wholesome. I want to can some corn with red and green peppers in it, we'll add that to cornbread sometimes and we really like it that way. I also want to make a batch of salsa using all Green Zebra tomatoes, green salsa will be different and I do get tired of the same old things all the time. Home canning is a relatively recent invention, at least canning as we understand it today is- though people have been preserving food for later use since time immemorial. Our understanding of cooking has also undergone a radical change in the last hundred years. It’s rare today to find a woman who cooks meals for her family at home, much less a woman who has the knowledge of how to cook from scratch. We’ve gone from a nation of self reliant women to a nation of women who don’t cook or can’t cook anything more involved than Shake-n-Bake chicken and Stovetop stuffing. Obviously there are multiple nutritional benefits to cooking wholesome food from scratch, but there is also the satisfaction of knowing that you aren’t relying on Proctor & Gamble or SaraLee to decide what your family ought to eat.

By the same token, relying on a lot of "labor saving" devices might prove unwise if you are unable to cook without them. My "modern"kitchen equipment consists of a blender and a Victorio Strainer (we just got the Victorio this summer). That’s it. All of the canning/preserving we do is done with those 2 tools, we dice all fruits and vegetables by hand and cut corn from the cob with a knife. We've canned 430 jars this summer so it is feasible to do all this without a lot of extra gadgets. Our philosophy has been to learn to do jobs the old fashioned way with the least sophisticated equipment and only then switch to more modern methods/equipment. If nothing else this certainly makes us appreciate how easy we have it!
I think that it's a beneficial exercise to study old cookbooks and try to cook sometimes using these receipts and ingredients that our Foremothers would have used. Maybe we will never find ourselves in the position of needing to rely on these books and methods, but it's certainly better to be prepared and never need the knowledge than to find ourselves in a desperate situation with "if only" on our lips. Several receipt books that I enjoy perusing are Miss Beecher's Domestic Receipt Book 1850, The Great Western Cookbook 1857, The Frugal Housewife 1830 and The New England Economical Housekeeper 1845 . In addition to the usual recipes you will find directions for cutting up and preserving meat, keeping flies out of your house, remedies for illness, how to choose a domestic servant and other quaint advice. My plan is to print these books out and put them in pages protectors in a 3 ring binder, I prefer browsing through an actual printed book rather than on a computer screen. Today is the day to turn our energies toward acquiring useful skills that will serve our families whether it be canning or cookery, sewing or knitting, animal husbandry or gardening.


  1. A perfect end of the summer posting. (Yes, I do consider this the end of the summer - our fore-parents (like that word?) originally felt that August, September, and October were the true months of autumn).
    I am very proud that we in my household are (ever-so) slowly depending less on sarah Lee and more on Patty G!
    By the way, I am stealing a line from here for my facebook page.

  2. Great post! Although I do rely on my Kitchenaid gadgets (which save me so much time), I have often done things by hand, since our family is small. It's ridiculous to use a food processor to grate a handful of cheese. :) But I enjoy them while I can. I know the day may come when I turn back to the ol' slicing and dicing by hand. (Although I bet I'll eat a lot less salsa!)

  3. Fabulous post! I never 'cook' anymore, not in the traditional sense as I am almost never home anymore...

    But I am getting ready to try my hand at home canning for the kitchen rooms of the house museums I curatorially assist. We've got the typical reproduction cans and labels, but in my mind, no respectable impression of a mid 19th century kitchen would be complete without a vast array of home canned goods. Just doesn't make sense, even for the family of a merchant. They'd still have a vegetable garden, we know they had fruit trees, and I finally found a canning recipe for Mrs.Whaley's spiced at least this work experience will force me to learn some basic cooking skills and I'm very excited about it!

  4. I love this post. We just got a food processor. I hate it and my boyfriend loves it. I think it is just so much easier cutting by hand. I'd love to start canning. Unfortunately it is hard to do when my family refuses to eat anything that I make. I love making old recipes. Many are fat heavy but it is healthier than the chemicals we eat today. Thanks for this post!

  5. I recently bought a fantastic old cookbook published in the 1940's by the Appalation Historical Society. It has old home remedies, recipes to cook on your fireplace, and plenty that have been adapted to stove use. I am very interested in the ones that use fermentation as the levening. It also tells how to make your own dry yeast if you have hops.

    Compared to most of America, I am self sufficient and do things the old fashioned way, but I rely on my freezer for preservation and I have all electric appliances.