Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sunday Eats - Home Ec Memories

How many of you that visit here remember seeing or taking  home economic classes in school in 70's and early 80's? After that it became gender neutral "bachelor living" where one learned how to make dip out of Velveeta and use Velcro. (I had to figure out Southern biscuits with peppered bacon gravy on my own).

The whole "home economics" idea, which in my day was only for female students, was not intended to make women a slave to the kitchen but rather came about from a change in how women shopped for their family.  Before the 19th century, except for the most privileged of the wealthy, women were producers of household items, including food and clothing, rather than consumers. So the early home economics classes focused on education for purchasing decisions, as well as health and hygiene in the home. What actual knowledge was imparted was often  limited  though, by school budgets and the quality of the teachers.  I have friends of my same age group that learned nothing more than how to make things out of hamburger and cans  Not in my home ec class. We learned to make things the way generations ago did.
I had the grand dame of home economic teachers, Miss Heidenreich. She was in her sixties, never married. She was sparsely thin and about 7 feet tall but perhaps that was just my recollection in 7th grade.  At first, we were all sort of afraid of her, she was so tall, straight and stern, she just loomed at the front of the classroom, there in a grey dress.  But then we watched, at least I did, as she moved as she talked, gathering raw materials of food or cloth, coordinating the efforts.  Then, when she demonstrated the finished product of what she wanted us to do, the look in her sparkling blue eyes was one of not just joy, but quiet triumph.

I recognized a bit of that.  Most of us were lucky in that we were raised by Mom's themselves raised in the 40's and 50's when money was tight and things were made to last. My Mom came through lean times in the Depression, her Dad killed in a logging accident, with no insurance, leaving a widow and three kids to feed. My grandma somehow got my Mom through college, unheard of in that day, wherein Mom got a job that paid enough to put her two younger brothers through, while Grandma worked full time as well.  She and my grandma both then, learned to work with that same efficiency of movement,  that might be considered detached would you not recognize it as simply being the beautiful efficiency of machinery.
My grandmother would not even recognize a grocery store of today and my Mom would be appalled at the quick and cheap clothing made that falls apart within a few months of wear.  She made all of her and my clothes herself, except for jeans and T-shirts, my sweaters hand knitted as well as an assortment of scarves and winter hats.  There was also an assortment of 70's crocheted vests that looked to be more for hanging a houseplant, than for wear, but that was the fashion.  Those clothes did not wear out but were cleaned, pressed and handed down to a younger cousin (except for that one dress that ended up with a bicycle tire track up the back, and no, don't ask).

If an item of wear, needed repair, Mom knew how to do it.  I, however, wasn't too keen on learning.

You see, I liked to cook, because, I like to eat.  I'd spend hours with my Mom, helping prepare the meal, if only to set the table while I watched her work. To me, cooking was like playing with the chemistry set, how fun to see how things are formed, how ingredients interact and take on whole other forms, and even better if you can eat the results.   But I had no interest in sewing, crocheting or knitting, making decorative pillows or embroidering a tea towel. I'd rather be out in the shop with my Dad or playing with model trains or control line aircraft. To say that I discovered that if you don't FEED your Betsy Wetsy Doll, she doesn't wet, gives you some idea of my mindset with "girl stuff".
I did make a valiant effort to knit a winter neck scarf for my Dad. But that was just because I loved him.  After several months, ripping inferior work out and starting over again, and again, I had a piece only 3 x 5 inches square.  I gave up, knitted the edges together and it became a tube dress for someone's Barbie.

Let's just say I was not too excited about Home Ec. that first year, though I respected my teacher as I was taught to.  I just kept quiet and sewed my silly pink apron with my name embroidered on the pocket.  I did buttons and hems, though I got a D in "snaps" just because I was obstinate.  I learned how to darn a sock.  I sort of giggled at that, as in my home you said "darn" instead of "damn".  Actually "damn" would have been the more appropriate word to what I did to those socks.

But Miss Heidenreich taught us all of the basics. Unlike other classes, we weren't learning how to make casseroles with soup or 101 ways to use canned Crescent Rolls. The cooking was not anything out of a can, and there were some things we learned to make that were not very popular with us.  What 8th grader wants to make and eat stewed prunes or unseasoned boiled chicken for meat and broth.  What about brownies and pizza? But later, many years later, caring for the elderly, such things came in useful.  I could cook for restricted diets, I could make bread, I could make a white sauce instead of an expensive can of cream soup. I could make a variety of economical dishes with just a bit of meat or eggs or beans for protein.  I could make a cake missing key ingredients, butter, milk or eggs. (but not all three, that is known as a hockey puck).
Miss Heidenreicht would watch constantly, bright but insulate, letting us make our way, only stepping in when flames were involved, or there was a need to staunch blood.  But she was not popular with all the students as she was a stern task-masker, expecting you to work hard, to listen and to apply what she had taught you. She taught like my parents taught, but not all kids had the benefit of that experience.

She frowned on idleness and those girls that wore jeans to school, instead of neat slacks or dresses.  She dressed plainly, her dresses unadorned but for a bit of lace or a small necklace of pearls, the fabric starched into submission.  But she was not unkind, not even batting an eye when one jean-clad girl came in with green hair from a "let's add some ash blond highlights at home" disaster, only offering her extra praise for her strudel to keep her from crying.  Based on Miss Heidenreich's age, I only understood as an adult, what hardships she may have seen as a  young woman, Depression-era families sometimes starving, only the strong, resourceful and skilled surviving and thriving. It made me think differently of her home economics class, and what I came away from it with.

She was my teacher just that first year, retired and replaced by Mrs. Potter, of whom I have no real memory but for a friendly smile and the "Dante's Nine Circles of Hems".  By Ninth Grade, I'd learned enough, I thought and put in a bid to take Auto Shop instead of Home Ec.  That was met with a resounding slam of a car door.

I made my case, I knew how to make dinner, I needed to know how to change my oil and pack a wheel bearing. I was told I needed to take the "girl" classes. Shop class was only for boys.  I was told I was stubborn, I believe the term "as a mule" was heard (to which I pointed out to the administrators that unlike a horse, a mule is too intelligent to break its leg for glory running in a brief, pointless circle).  I was shot down, though there was one female friend and classmate, now an engineer, like her father, who won out and got to attend the agriculture class where she castrated a calf in a moment which gave me hope for the next generation.
So I dutifully sewed my outfits, made taffy and tarts and finally in the last sprint for independence, opted out of most of my courses, taking them at the local college, going full time in the summer.I wasn't old enough to drive but I made it there by bike and by bus or Dad's trusty steed.  I was indeed the only college freshman in a "training bra" (don't get me started on how that term started, it's not like you train them for tricks or anything "Sit",  Stay!", though getting older, they do know "roll over").

My days of home ec were over.  At the time I was happy for that, yet now, I wish I'd paid more attention, as more skills of prepping and preparing as well as knowledge and the economies of the kitchen would have served me well as I entered my 20's and 30's.

This Sunday morning, I'll be lighting the fire of a 70-year-old stove that's DIY maintenance and upkeep. The house will be cold, extra blankets used at night instead of bumping up the heat.  As the stove puts heat into the back of the house, activity picks up as if propelled by the increasing warmth. After worship, prayer and thanks, there will be a plumbing project to finish, bread to be baked, and somewhere, a sock or two that needs damning.  Outside, branches scrape and rasp against the house, the frost on the window a portent to how cold it can be for the unprepared, as winter light lay upon the ground like a pale scrap of starched grey cloth.
But like many things in homes I've lived in before, I could afford to pay to have someone do all of this, buy all this. But I choose not to. I and my family would rather do more for ourselves, with minimal help from others, putting our money into tangibles which will keep us housed and safe, where days of struggle to survive, of sparse broken meals, do not threaten.  I  find such great satisfaction in saying "I made this"  or "I saved this much",  making something out of nothing, building not a house, but a home with pieces of the past, carefully mended, and always treasured
I look at all the blogs out there, many on my sidebar, of men and women, resourceful people, who have learned how to grow, store, can and prepare healthy meals for themselves or their family; manage land, tend a farm, some with help of other family members, some completely on their own, even as they teach these skills to others. Their skills aren't limited to the kitchen but include the field and the workbench. I have learned a lot from them, to add to what skills I grew up with.
Taking care of your family, your needs and safety, with no handouts and your own resources and skills is something to be admired.  All are things I wish were still stressed in school now.  Those that learn themselves, the men and women that do so and then pass on that knowledge to others, give me hope for the future.  I do think Miss Heidenreich would be proud.

5 comments:

  1. My mom was a Home Ec teacher so I learned to sew and cook/bake from her before I was in the 7th grade. I was lucky enough that by the time I was supposed to take Home Ec I had the option of taking Industrial Arts instead (my sister who is 2 years older wasn't so lucky). I'm glad I was able to learn the "boy" stuff since our Home Ec teacher was a bit wacky.

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    1. I wish I had that option - to this day I HATE to sew, but my husband, who has reupholstered a lot of our (curb find) furniture is quite adept at it. I think it was a carry over from some Eagle Scout training in making stuff out of burlap.

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  2. I loved your memories of Miss Heidenreich. I do think we would all be better off if we could do more things ourselves, says the woman who doesn't cook, and hires someone to clean my house. The reality is, I can cook (not my fave thing to do) and I can clean (this is buying back some spare time). I do hope to continue to acquire some skills to save me money and to give me the sense of accomplishment.

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  3. It astonishing to see all the younger people in my neighborhood who are constantly wanting someone else to do simple things they could well do themselves. Self sufficiency seems to be merely paying others to do it. 😕

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    1. So true - our neighbors were amazed that my husband actually does our oil changes and brake jobs, at a fraction of the cost and that I bake my own bread (saves a couple of hundred dollars a year).

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