The Feral Modern’s Guide to Beginning Homemaking –By Caitlin Walsh
I should start this by letting you know I didn’t grow up domestic at all.
If I don’t miss my mark, most of us didn’t, mind–too important to attack the glass ceilings and the implicit biases and all of those things. The idea that you should prepare for a future centered around marriage or children (or, frankly, even be able to exist as a bachelor without a stack of Hungry Man or Michelina’s dinners) was fossilized thinking.
…well, it was a pretty picture they sold us and all, but I’m probably not the only one for whom the dream didn’t quiiiiiite work out that way. And, you know, thank the heavens for that, because I am having a lot better of a time focusing on keeping a household and raising two children than I *ever* did working a string of temporary jobs. It’s to the point I’m not sure how folks missed it: you HAD children, how on EARTH did you miss the idea that THIS was the important work you were doing?
(of course, mine are still two and five; I get the impression the Sheer Magnitude Of It All diminishes a bit when they’re not leapfrogging milestones on a monthly basis or trying with all of their might to ensure their premature demise (for which only Your Heroic Actions could save them). But still. This is frickin’ WILD.) [No. It doesn’t diminish. It only gets bigger all the time. – SAH-from the other end of the process.]
(And yes, I’m sure being a Broadway star or whatever my mom wanted to be would have been amazing, too. But it didn’t happen. Can we please compare against what you actually did instead of the Perfect Unrealized Reality that was never actually going to happen anyway?)
…so everything I learned about What Was Important, What Was Real or not was completely wrong. Of course. Most of us here, we probably figured out ten of those before we reached adulthood, and keep finding new ones at alarming rates despite our general cynicism and ennui regarding the Big Message. What else is new?
Well, what else is new is learning how to live with it.
I know stay-at-home homeschooling moms are supposed to do an awful lot of things. They’re supposed to keep their houses neat (and teach the children to do the bulk of it, in time), they’re supposed to keep the children up on their learning (which more and more seems to be something they do almost despite anything I actually manage or not… nevermind), they’re supposed to keep the family fed with meals better than you can get at a restaurant on a fraction of the Totinos Pizza budget, and only on rarest occasions decide Everything’s Gone Wrong And Just Order A Pizza.
…but, come on. The pizza shop literally called our house to make sure everything was all right when my older sister didn’t order dinner. My dad took all of us children out to a restaurant every bleeding week as a way of staying connected in spite of a divorce. As a young adult I was so unfamiliar with what was involved in putting a meal together that I was *sad* when I stopped being able to find macaroni and cheese with little bits of dehydrated broccoli because I didn’t realize there was a more effective way to have broccoli included.
(…also, it turns out the dehydrated broccoli basically added salt and nothing else. Felt a little betrayed by that, too. Add Reading Labels to the list of things I needed to learn.)
WHERE WAS I SUPPOSED TO LEARN THIS STUFF!?
Well, mostly I haven’t, I’ll admit. I spend more than I should, go out more than I should, and still haven’t quite gotten the hang of planning meals that everyone will eat that also provides the vitamins and minerals growing bodies need.
But I’m much BETTER, and I figure I can encapsulate this in a few tips for other people in my situation. Because as dire as I think I painted the picture there… I think there’s a lot of us. We’re in the third generation of acting as though a home and hearth aren’t really things that need to be maintained. That’s going to leave a mark. [From the other end of this – we still eat out more than we should, and I never felt like I was a good housewife. You see, I was going to be an executive and have staff….- SAH]
So what have I learned? Let’s make a list:
This isn’t a FULL answer, mind you–I still needed to have someone “on the horn” to explain things to me like “What do they mean when they say ‘brown the hamburger’?” But it does go pretty basic! This book is basically aimed at newlyweds who themselves are trying to figure out how to cook for a household, and so it goes pretty far in its explanations, including substitutions, how certain things should be measured, things like that.
But more to the point, the “key recipe” system–where, at the top of the page, you’ve got a key recipe that just has the basic concept (it has a key icon next to it), and the rest of the page is filled with variants to make it the particular item you want. (Thus: Key recipe is “buttermilk pancakes,” and then you can look down for what you need to change to make “sweet milk pancakes,” “blueberry pancakes,” etc etc))–does a REALLY good job of teaching you what the heart of this foodthing is, and what can be changed without issue. And separating chapters by what KIND of food it is (quick breads, yeast breads, cookies, vegetables, meats) instead of by meal type or whatever also makes it a little trivial to understand what’s common about certain classes of food, and what you can mess with.
(Also, it just completely lacks the “trying to impress your friends” element that frustrates me so much about modern cook books. (Or at least keeps it to a few minor sections.) There’s an awful lot of basic ingredients that get reused over and over, and fairly few specialty ones. Symbol of a poorer time? For sure. But if you ARE looking to feed a family on the daily instead of having a fancy dinner party (let’s be honest, the food this book suggests for a fancy dinner party may well not go over right)… well, I think it’s rad.)
Downsides? It’s dated, and there’s a lot of things you’ll probably want to change due to how the price and availability of ingredients has changed. (Add more cheese to the macaroni and cheese recipes. They just don’t have enough.) And some of the terminology is confusing–apparently, when they say “American cheese” in this book, they mean cheddar.
BUT it completely changed my life for being able to cook for my family.
[ROFL. My first step was similar. Two picture books from a Portuguese TV cooking show. -SAH]
2) THERE IS STILL AN AWFUL LOT OF CHEATING YOU CAN DO WITHOUT FALLING ALL THE WAY TO MICROWAVE DINNERS.
Sandwiches are great. Sandwiches are awesome. (They’re also occasionally the only thing containing actual food the children will eat.) Feel a little bad about throwing something on bread and serving it? A minute of frying on each side makes it fancier. Throw a can of green beans on the side (OH WOW if you can find out a canned vegetable your child will eat without complaint YOU HAVE IT MADE. I buy green beans (Daughter) and carrots (Son) by the flat) and it’s even rounded. Hot dogs are probably more of a questionable call, but I’m pretty sure they still wind up both cheaper and taking up less space than a frozen dinner. (…I get free mutton, but kind of a lot at a time, so freezer space is a little dear for me.)
But more to the point, I tend to find if I’m thinking of things as I Must Do Things Right And According To The Plan Always, I tend to fall for my crutches the moment ANYTHING goes wrong. (And that’s one thing about having to share a house with other people: things are going to go wrong. You forgot about ballet class happening when you needed to start the breadmaker*, your husband’s in a grumpy mood and you don’t think the casserole you had planned will go over well, something came up and your husband isn’t going to be home for dinner at all. You can plan all you like, but you can’t eliminate the uncertainty.) Having an In Case Of Trouble backup instead can change things from “AGH EVERYTHING IS TERRIBLE I’M GOING TO GO GET HAPPY MEALS” to “okay, it turns out I didn’t turn on the oven when I was cooking the roast, guess we’re having hot dogs.”
(It turns out my kids love biscuits, actually, and I can turn them out in about half an hour from a handful of ingredients. (Also, Drop Biscuits are waaaaay easier than rolled biscuits.) So that’s made my list for Sudden Grumpiness Reducer Plan.)
* BTW, this is kind of ridiculous, but… if you have anything like the space, check your local thrift store for a bread maker. (Or yard sales, if there’s any in your area! Ours were a few months ago at this point, alas.) I don’t know if you’ll get as lucky as I did (there were THREE breadmakers for less than five dollars! Also, this is when Marie Kondo was REALLY popular), but if you arrange things so that there’s a loaf of bread almost finished when your husband gets home from work? The smell just completely hijacks the brain and says HOME, and all you did was dump a handful of simple ingredients in the jar three hours ago. Now, would it be better to have lovingly formed handmade loaves? Yes, and you wouldn’t even need a machine. But I’ll be honest, baking bread scares me a little and I think I’m not the only one. If you think this might be up your alley, see if you can get a used breadmaker for cheap.
3) PLAN TO USE YOUR LEFTOVERS.
I always thought leftovers were where you eat the same thing five days in a row, except that you get sick of it after two and throw the rest of the roast out. NOT SO! It turns out that people who are GOOD at this have a plan from when they buy the item for what they can turn it into over the next week or so. THIS NOT ONLY SAVES MONEY (by not throwing out half of the whatever and have to buy more) BUT VASTLY IMPROVES YOUR QUALITY OF LIFE.
No, seriously. Being able to turn your pork roast into stir fry, meat pie and soup means that you’re eating different types of food (if you’re like me, you tend toward “saminess” in the first presentation) with different foods with it (this also helps you use up your leftover veggies). It feels weirdly fancier to be able to pull the magic act. AND it increases your flexibility (when you’ve assigned a Brand New Meal For Each Day, all you can do is switch them around. But with leftovers scheduled in, particularly in meals with basic ingredients, you get to push things around at the last minute a great deal more.)
I’m also able to fit a lot more meals in a lot less space, if we compare Single Pork Roast And Other Ingredients I Keep On Hand Anyway versus the much more first-run items I’d have to buy without leftovers.
So, yes. Leftovers are awesome. Try and see if you can come up with good methods for using up basic meats and veggies you use a lot. (Soups, stir fries, and meat pies are my go-tos, and they’re pretty awesome. Flexible, too. Try it!)
And that is Feral Girl’s Beginning Guide to Keeping a Hearth And Home. Maybe I can write more as I find new tricks to actually trying to behave like a human being in a sane society! (I’m not sure if ‘fake it til you make it’ works with transforming the world, but it’s the best idea I’ve got right now.) And please-please-please let me know anything you-the-reader can teach us, add, or even ask about in the comments. (Most of my tips are obviously for the young mother–I think that there’s a bunch of bachelors here who could use cooking-for-one advice, too, if I don’t miss my mark. Empty-nesters as well.)
Thanks for lending me the stage, Sarah! Let’s all try to make the world a little more cozy tonight, huh?