Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Lost Art of Homemaking

A Sad True Tale

Once upon a time, not so long ago, relatives of mine lived in a country cursed with abject poverty. Blessed to have a greater income than most of their compatriots, the Williams* were fortunate enough to be have many household workers to do their every bidding, as labor wages were extremely low.

As often happens in places with extreme differences in financial demographics, people begrudged my relatives' wealth and took revenge against this perceived injustice. The head of the household was kidnapped and held in exchange for a hefty ransom.
Once dad came home safe and sound, fearful for their safety, my relatives decided to flee. They moved to another country, one not steeped in poverty as was their native country.

In this new place, my relatives could not function. No longer could they afford to have multiple servants to do everything for them. The Williamsons had become accustomed to opulence and simply could not function in a society where they were unable to have separate maids for every family member, where they actually had to do physical labor of any kind. Having always had an abundance of servants, my relatives had no knowledge of the most basic skills. Even boiling water was beyond their capabilities, let alone any housework or cooking.

After only a short time in their new home, my relatives decided that they must return to their home country, as they simply could not manage without all their hired help.
They picked up and moved back, and shortly thereafter, dad was once again kidnapped and this time no ransom could bring him home and he was killed. (Absolutely true story, no facts changed, and my cousins are still living there to this day.)

Knowledge is Vital

I shared this tragic tale not just to evoke sympathy, but to point out the danger in the lack of knowledge.
The Williamson family was unable to do even the most simple of chores, not even to boil water, and their reliance on others to do basic of tasks cost their father his life.

Sure, we all know how to boil water (I hope), but how many of us today simply lack the know-how to survive if we actually had to do everything for ourselves?
I consider myself a pretty capable person, but if I had to manage without ready made flour and pre-butchered meats, I'd be at a loss as to how to feed my family. Without a refrigerator and a washing machine, I'm not quite sure how I would manage.
For many members of today's society, if they couldn't buy prepackaged foods or takeout they'd starve, as they don't even have the most rudimentary knowledge of cooking.

We live in very privileged times with machinery and factories to do most of the tasks people once did by hand. While this is not something I want to give up so quickly, I do think it important to have the basic knowledge of how to manage without all these machines, whether because of blackouts or disasters on a greater scale, or even simply to be able to save some money by doing things by hand.
Fortunately, we still have some among us who can teach us these things that were once everyday living skills.

Knowledge From The Older Generation

I recently moved to a new home, and next door to me lives a sweet older lady. At more than 50 years my senior, this neighbor is a wealth of knowledge about life in the olden days.
Not Mrs. Saidani. Photo credits to
I have the privilege of being able to sit next to her on our shared porch and hear stories about life in Tunisia in the 1940's and 50's.

Mrs. Saidani* has told me stories about wagon drivers daily bringing chunks of ice for their ice boxes and about her family's large laundry rooms built separate from the rest of their house, where the hired help spent hours scrubbing dirty laundry on wash boards and boiling water in large vats to clean the whites.
I've learned about pickling things I'd never before considered; this lady fondly recounted her mother pickling carrots, turnips, lemons, roasted peppers, and small fish among other things in the middle of the summer so they'd have what to eat once winter rolled around. My neighbor has also shown me how to make various traditional Tunisian dishes, which I've replicated with much success. (And my own thriftier variations- Tunisian style eggplant with seitan stuffing, anyone?)

This afternoon, Mrs. Saidani is coming over to my home to teach me the nearly lost art of making couscous. No, not the instant kind from the bag. My neighbor will be teaching me to make couscous from raw semolina, the traditional (and much cheaper) Tunisian way. I'm really excited!

Adopt an older person. It could be a grandparent, neighbor, or even someone from a nearby old age home. Let them impress you with their knowledge, learn the older generation's ways of being more self sufficient in the kitchen and everywhere else. You won't be disappointed.

Have you learned any life skills or traditional food preparation or homemaking methods from the older generation? What knowledge have you picked up from your grandparents or other elderly people you know?

*Names changed for privacy reasons.

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