Saturday, November 21, 2009

Of Evolution and Suburbia and Anticooks and Kitchens

McGinley, Phyllis. Sixpence in Her Shoe. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1960.

I don't know why I find myself, time and again, so surprised by the fact that things never change all that much over time. I mean, I know perfectly well, and am very happy to inform anyone who will listen, that I have read Euripides, and Aristophanes, and Shakespeare, and Jane Austen, and the one conclusion I can draw for certain from all four authors is that human beings evolve at an incredibly slow rate, that we have barely changed at all since Aristophanes had audiences laughing at characters on his ancient stages. I can also tell you, though, that each time I picked up something written by one of these authors, I did not expect to draw this conclusion. Draw it, I did, nonetheless, and I try to remember that, really, when you look at the history of our species, a thousand years is not that long a time, so I should not be surprised. In fact, given how slow humans are, I really ought to be marveling that we ever managed to become bipedal.

One would think that, at this point, I would pick up any older book with the idea that it, too, will verify the fact that human beings just don't change that much over time. But no. Stick a book in my hand that is fifty or sixty years old, and I will expect it to be as old-fashioned as they come, full of quaint details and oddities (like references to the hi-fi and ladies wearing gloves even in summer) that I may vaguely remember from my childhood, but surely not much that we would recognize in our lives today. Time and again, I am astonished to find passages in these books that could easily have been written yesterday, so accurately do they describe what I am observing all around me today.

The most recent example of this is Phyllis McGinley's Sixpence in Her Shoe. This is a book I found while browsing the shelves for books for my TBR challenge. (It should have been added to the challenge list, but instead, it has become an "accidental read." I'm hoping you all know what I mean by that?) It was written in 1960 and is a book for housewives of that era extolling (humorously) the virtues and fun of having a home and family and caring for them. I immediately categorized it as a curious period piece from a time long past when most middle class women were doing just that: caring for hearth and home. That's certainly what my recently-married, young mother with her first-born child was doing the year it was published.

Sometime (I am presuming in the early sixties, it doesn't say), my father bestowed this book upon my mother with this inscription (which simultaneously appalls my feminist eyes while filling me with tenderness when I put it in its time and place to give it context): "To A., who is the personification of Miss McGinley's perfect mother and housewife with love from W." A couple of years ago, my mother wrapped this book up and sent it to me for Christmas. Added to my father's inscription is now one from her that reads, "& now this is yours, Emily, to enjoy! Love, Mom. (Dec. 2007)"

Curious period piece it was until I began to read it. In fairness to me, a lot of it really is a product of its time. It assumes the husband is the primary (if not the only) breadwinner. It assumes (while giving some lip service to those women who are happier holding down careers and who might be unhappy in the home) that most women are meant to be happiest in the home. A chapter titled "How Not to Kill Your Husband," instead of being all about keeping yourself from strangling your husband, because for two months he has promised to take that air conditioning unit that is sitting on the bedroom floor, and that is too heavy for you to lift, down to the basement and who tells you to quit bugging him about it every time you mention it, is all about catering to your husband and his specific needs, so that he doesn't die at a young age. The insinuation is that nagging, unresponsive wives are the ones responsible for the fact that men don't live as long as women do.

But then I got to the chapter on buying a house. McGinley describes the process of making the decision to move from an apartment in Manhattan to a home of their own in Westchester County, NY. Remember, the book was written in 1960, and I found myself assuming she was talking about buying a house in the mid-1950s, so it wasn't really all that surprising that her description should sound so familiar. I mean I think of the 1950s as the beginning of the "boom" years of suburban house-buying. She and her husband eventually settle on an old Victorian house, much too large she says for their little family of three (at the time) and in need of lots of repair, but so much more affordable than all the newer homes in pristine condition. That's all very understandable and familiar, isn't it? It's made even more so by passages such as this one.
No suburban landscape is complete in late April or May without its band of searchers, addresses in their hands, trudging from listing to listing...they are innocents, for I know the image each carries in the mind's eye. What they are looking for is The Perfect House...Death and taxes are no more certain for them than disillusion. (pp. (54-55)
You know them, don't you? Perhaps you will be one soon. If you own a home in the suburbs, you certainly have been one at least once in your life. If you are me, it's an experience that taught you that you are one of the most picky people on the planet. Things haven't changed all that much since 1955, have they? Read on with me to the end of the chapter, though. Here you will discover that Ms. McGinley and her husband have been living in this house for 25 years. Do the math. Let's say she was writing this chapter in 1958 or 1959 (highly likely for a book published in 1960). That means they were buying this suburban home in 1933 or 1934. Really? That oh-so-familiar suburbia and house-shopper existed way back then? That was before World War II. My mother was a baby then. My God, this could have been my grandparents buying a house. How could it still be such a similar experience today, especially when that "old Victorian" (given how long Queen Victoria lived) might have been merely a few decades old, instead of the ancient old crumbling thing I envision when I envision a "Victorian home in need of repair."

As if all this weren't surprising enough, then I got to the chapter on kitchens. McGinley is most amusing when she talks about cooking and kitchens. One phenomenon she mentions that I was not surprised to find had not changed (after all established Laws of Physics don't tend to change all that much over time) is what she refers to as the Unwatched Pot or McGinley's Law:
You are stirring a mixture which obstinately refuses to boil, even to break its placid surface with a bubble. The phone rings. And in the instant between lifting your hand from the spoon and picking up the earpiece [okay, that is a curious oddity of its time, one that spell check doesn't recognize], the stuff not only will begin furiously to bubble like a witch's cauldron, but will boil over, trailing its sticky spoor down the freshly cleaned stove onto the floor. (p. 139)
To read about something that I am sure has been going on since the invention of fire and the pot made perfect sense, the same way Romeo and Juliet's, overly-dramatic, impassioned, young love makes sense when I read about it, but her descriptions of kitchens and what she calls anticooks (not to be confused with noncooks, who are merely those poor souls who can't cook despite a desire to do so) nearly had me dropping the book with surprise. Here's how she describes the anticook:
Gastronomically, they are Philistines; worse than Philistines, Puritans, who feel there is something sinful in owning a palate or cultivating the holy art of cuisine. They are the people who, when planning a meal, ask themselves (as does a friend of mine), not "which vegetable is freshest and tastiest this time of year"" but only, "what shall I serve for a carbohydrate?" (p. 148)
Then she goes on to describe the anticook's kitchen:
She owned a kitchen, which architects call the "heart of the home." But it was a heart which throbbed faintly and emanated no warmth. It was a room not to live in but to get rapidly away from.

I had no quarrel with her wish to get away...The emancipation of women undoubtedly began when they could leave sink and kettle and move into what seemed to them a larger world. But then why this emphasis on show-window gadgets? Why the shelves of cookbooks unspotted by use? Decorations merely, like Victorian antimacassars. Her kitchen was one way of keeping up with whatever Joneses she might care to rival. And it is her influence on the national kitchen which I deprecate. (pp. 150-151)
Huh? There were women in the late 1950s "keeping up with the Joneses" via elaborately impractical and unusable kitchens just as there are today? And then more women, like me, who were furious with them for influencing all the impractical fads that make no sense, and that yet, every kitchen now has (huge coffee makers that take up half the counter in order to make one cup of coffee, while you practically have to go to an estate sale to find a good-old fashioned percolator that makes a far better cup of coffee, or that breakfast nook that only seats two so that if you have children or house guests, you must eat breakfast in the dining room or at some island that takes up 3/4 of the kitchen, has uncomfortable bar stools you need a ladder to reach, and that affords 2 inches of leg room)?

I will never forget when a former colleague of mine was re-doing her kitchen. I was so envious, because at the time, Bob and I were newly-married and house poor, having put all our savings into buying our home. I was dying to re-do our kitchen, which I now understand had been designed in 1959 by an anticook, and I was living vicariously through my colleague. I dreamed that she was doing to her kitchen what I hoped to do to my own one day: getting rid of that impractical wall oven that was quite obviously taking up what could be more storage space and that would let me extend the minuscule counter space. I wanted to knock out the pantry and bar and get rid of the breakfast nook to make a larger room where I could put a kitchen table in the middle of the floor that even people who were not the size and shape of stick insects could walk by to get from one end of the room to the other.

I didn't pay too much attention to my colleague's descriptions of granite counter tops (I just wanted counter tops and a back splash that were not 1950s pasty-speckled, diner-bar-lookalikes) and custom-made faucet (I just wanted a faucet that didn't break and leak all the time, one that had two handles, "hot" and "cold", instead of one swivel handle that was determined either to scald or freeze my hands, but never to get a decent temperature for washing dishes). She seemed to have endless fights with workmen (if I remember correctly, I think they put in the wrong granite counter tops or some such thing). As the project dragged on and on, she began to complain ad nauseam, and I began to get tired of the whole thing, beginning to think that if kitchen renovations were this troublesome, maybe I could make do a while longer with my anticook kitchen. Finally, one day, after hearing another long litany of all that had gone wrong, I said,

"But won't it all be worth it when you can cook all those fabulous meals?"

She turned to me and said, very disdainfully, "Oh, this isn't a kitchen for cooking."

If, at the time, I had read Sixpence in Her Shoe, maybe my jaw wouldn't have bruised itself on the ("hard wood, certainly not Pergo") floor: I had just encountered a perfect specimen of the anticook. Had Ms. McGinley been in the room, she would have looked at me and said,

"Get over it, dear. I've been dealing with this sort for years. Yes, they really do spend that much time and money on a kitchen where they will never, if they can help it, cook. Let's go to Trader Joes and get some things to make a delicious dinner. I'm thinking lemon...and butter...and rosemary..."


litlove said...

I do like the bit about how not to kill your husband. Or at least, I like the way you put it, Emily, which sounds far more plausible to me than the scenario whereby I make him all his favourite puddings and expose him to a lingering carbohydrate-related death (not that this would happen anyway - he's fit as a fiddle!). No, I guess some issues surrounding domesticity are , and probably an awful lot more than we care to imagine in our self-consciously modern way!

Anonymous said...

Too funny. "Not for cooking." I'm a noncook,not an anticook, though I'm learning to make a few things now, and our new kitchen (small like our house) has lots of cupboard and working space courtesy of my insistence when we redid it.

Rebecca H. said...

It's fun to read older books and think about how they have dated themselves and how they haven't -- I get surprised, too, by things people wrote in the past that I thought nobody was writing about at that time. It's happened a number of times when I've read Victorian novels, and I've come to see I underestimated those Victorians.

Emily Barton said...

Dorr, oh yes, it happens to me all the time when I read Victorian novels. I adhere to such stereotypes when it comes to the Victorians -- I'm really quite unfair to them.

Litlove, I think my version made more sense, too, but you are right that there is probably an awful lot more than we care to admit.

Lilian, if you insisted on more storage and working space, you most definitely are not an anticook. I'm sure you will move from being a noncook to a cook in no time.

Stefanie said...

Perhaps it is time to update Ms. McGinley's book and include the revised chapter on how not to kill your husband in Emily's version. When we were house shopping ten years ago we had hoped to find a place that had a kitchen with lots of room for my husband to cook, but alas, in the city all the places we could afford had small kitchens. If he ever gets a kitchen with lots of room I don't think he'd know what to do with it!

Susan said...

What a really good review! I love how you describe your kitchen because i fantasize about redoing ours, on a weekly basis. I have no counter space because we have too few cupboards,and all the assorted cooking stuff has to sit on the counter. I think kitchens are designed by people who NEVER cook, thus imagine a 2x2 counter space is ENOUGH space to cook a dinner, never mind something like a Christmas meal!!! It's hard to realize this has been going on since Victorian times, but I guess it has. Thankfully I don't have to be a stick figure to get into my kitchen, which is why we bought our house!!!

Emily Barton said...

Stef, sometimes I think having to "make do" in a kitchen is what makes cooking even more fun (maybe I'm a masochist). I know that it's certainly helped improve my improvisational skills over the years.

Susan, kitchens are most definitely designed by people who never cook. Just like vacuum cleaners are designed by people who never vacuum. Glad you've at least got plenty of open space for non-stick insects in your kitchen, even if you don't have as much storage as you'd like.