by Randon Billings Noble
Editor's Note: This month we are happy to present a review-essay by Randon Billings Noble. Randon doesn't review, so much as take on, Emily Matchar's Homeward Bound and goes from there on a culinary journey toward Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal. You can find more of Randon's fine reviews and essays at her website.
I had been a stay-at-home mother to twins for nearly three years when I read Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity by Emily Matchar. Instantly I became both fascinated by and hostile to the ideas of “New Domesticity,” which Matchar defines as a movement away from the pressures of the workplace and towards the more controlled environment of the home where you can grow your own vegetables, bake your own bread, sew your own clothes, and school your own children.
My own return home was not so straightforward – or philosophically motivated. After some long conversations with my husband, and a keen look at our finances, I had quit my teaching job to write full time. But after finishing a collection of essays, signing with an agent, breaking up with that agent, and casting about aimlessly for a few months, I found out I was pregnant. Then I found out I was pregnant with twins, and my life went into freefall.
After a difficult third trimester and the blur of the twins’ first year I had a reckoning. I might be a parent. I might spend the majority of my daylight hours finding tiny stray socks and cutting the crusts off peanut butter sandwiches and holding hands at crosswalks and singing every possible variation to “The Wheels on the Bus.” I might spend my nighttime hours split between complete, exhausted unconsciousness and repeated bleary soothings of toddler nightmares. I might do all of these things, but I was also, fundamentally, a writer. So, with the support of my beloved spouse, frequent visits from the twins’ grandparents, my staunch writing friends, and a streak of superhuman determination (read: stubbornness), I started writing again. I wrote essays about lost loves, snipers, stretch marks and Stonewall Jackson’s missing arm. I reviewed books about zombies, mass extinctions, Alaskan whale scientists and Terry Tempest Williams. And then I read Homeward Bound .
Even as I chafed against the ideology of New Domesticity (and its stereotypes of post-punk crafters and placenta-eating homeschoolers and hip urban homesteaders) I realized that I was practicing its principles in earnest. I was trying to live simply (now that we were down to one income for four people) and feed the twins nutritious, whole foods while also exposing them to different tastes and textures. I also had a bit of a Little House on the Prairie fantasy going on, where my days would be clean and orderly and I would use everything I bought from our grocery list without any spoilage or waste. But my mother was not Ma Ingalls (or her ma, Charlotte Quiner) and I lacked the intergenerational training to make headcheese or render lard. So I read books to bolster me – starting with Homeward Bound. As I read, my kernel of unacknowledged anger at being trapped – bound – at home with the twins sprouted into an amber field of rage.
After Homeward Bound with its descriptions of organic vegetable gardens and home-canned tomato sauce and urban chicken coops, I read Make the Bread, Buy the Butter: What You Should and Shouldn’t Cook from Scratch; from this I started baking bread (which, if you follow Jennifer Reese’s recipe, is both ridiculously easy and very tasty). I read Jenny Rosenstrach’s Dinner: A Love Story and made enough soups and stews to short out our freezer. When my husband came home from work one day and found me dumping the frozen carcass of our last roasted chicken into a furiously boiling stockpot he asked mildly, “What’s up?”
“I’m fuckin’ homesteading,” I replied, adding the more aged and questionable vegetables from our crisper. He laughed (a bit guardedly – he knew how I felt about what I was reading) and, progressive feminist co-parent that he is, asked, “Can I help?”
I made pumpkin chocolate chip muffins and zucchini chocolate chip cookies and apricot clafoutis and called it “revenge baking.” Revenge against whom – or what? I couldn’t then say. But the feelings I had while creaming and beating and preheating to 350 had an air of violence. In a confusing Mobius strip of emotion and action I was expressing my anger at feeling trapped as a stay-at-home mother by doing all the things I thought a stay-at-home mother should do (all while reaping the tasty benefits of my frustration: if you must gnash your teeth, doing so around a pumpkin chocolate chip muffin is rather a nice way to go). Revenge seemed to be best served piping hot, straight from the oven, by my two mitt-clad hands.
But this frustration – and the baking that accompanied it – was unsustainable. I would be home with the twins until they went to preschool. There was no financial way around it, and a frenetic stovetop and overflowing freezer weren’t helping. Besides, I was still finding time to write – on the weekends, in the evenings, during naptime. But then the twins stopped napping, and my writing slowed. It was summertime and my kitchen was hot and hostile. Finally, September came.
Two mornings a week I dropped them off and drove to a bookstore café to browse the shelves and eat what others had prepared – almond croissants and sour cream muffins and lattes served in a big white cup. I studied my fellow café goers. I did some journaling. And in this newfound time and space I started reading books that are more about food than domesticity or frugality or even family. I’ve found a level of peace with Tamar Adler’s book An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace. Perhaps after six months of New Domestic infection my immune system started finding ways to fight back. Perhaps I was tired of chopping and whisking and stirring myself into a frenzy. But perhaps it’s because An Everlasting Meal is a book that expresses a love of cooking that isn’t particularly domestic. In her introduction Adler says it’s “a book about eating affordably, responsibly, and well, and because doing so relies on cooking, it is mostly about that.” No examining gender roles, no questioning the work/life balance, no debate about whether or not a woman – a mother – can “have it all.” I read the whole book in one sitting.
Now I like to make a big batch of Adler’s salsa verde (shallots and capers and parsley in olive oil) and dress up the whole-wheat pastas I feed the twins. Or spread it on sourdough toast. Or spoon it over some leftover cold chicken. Now I like to make a pot of rice in the morning and eat it throughout the day with a flat omelet for breakfast, or maybe some fried spring onions for lunch, or even in a coconut milk rice pudding at night. Now I like to take the twins to the farmers market and pick out candy onions and Honeycrisp apples, butterhead lettuce and bunches of leeks, loaves of marbled rye and cartons of eggs together.
So I’m still cooking, still practicing housewifely economics, still baking occasional muffins, and still spending most of my hours at home with the twins. But I’m feeling less vengeful and more hopeful, letting go of the “shoulds” from movements like New Domesticity, and cooking simply most of the time and only slightly more elaborately when I feel like it. The twins are well-fed and happy in their school and I’m feeling much the same way: well-fed in body and mind, and happier being out in the world – reading, learning, thinking and writing. With this new balance and fueled by my own cooking, we’re living – and eating – affordably, responsibly, and well.
|Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; Brain, Child; The Millions; The Georgia Review; Shenandoah; The Rumpus; The Los Angeles Review of Books; Fourth Genre and elsewhere. She is a nonfiction reader for r.kv.r.y quarterly and Reviews Editor at PANK.|