Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: Beginnings
My Secret Life
I am a working woman with a secret life: I keep house. An off-and-on lawyer and professor in public, in private I launder and clean, cook from the hip, and devote serious time and energy to a domestic routine not so different from the one that defined my grandmothers as "housewives." When I want a good read, I reach for my collection of old housekeeping manuals. The part of me that enjoys housekeeping and the comforts it provides is central to my character.
Until now, I have almost entirely concealed this passion for domesticity. No one meeting me for the first time would suspect that I squander my time knitting or my mental reserves remembering household facts such as the date when the carpets and mattresses were last rotated. Without thinking much about it, I knew I would not want this information about me to get around. After all, I belong to the first generation of women who worked more than they stayed home. We knew that no judge would credit the legal briefs of a housewife, no university would give tenure to one, no corporation would promote one, and no one who mattered would talk to one at a party.
Being perceived as excessively domestic can get you socially ostracized. When I made hand-rolled pasta for a dinner, I learned the hard way that some guests will find this annoying, as they do not feel comfortable eating a meal that they regard as the product of too much trouble. When my son was in nursery school, I made the mistake of spending a few hours sewing for him a Halloween astronaut costume of metallic cloth, earning the disgust, suspicion, and hard stares of many a fellow parent who had bought a Batman or Esmeralda costume. When I finally had to begin disclosing to friends and acquaintances just what the long book was about that I had been working on for so many years, I got a lot of those stares. Many times my courage failed me when painful silences followed my confession, "No, not a history of housework, an explanation of it a practical book on how you make the bed and make a comfortable home," or "No, nothing about recipes, bouquets, gardening, monogramming, decorating, or crafts. It's about how a home works, not how it looks what different fabrics are for, pantry and refrigeration storage, laundering and ironing, tuning the piano, cleaning and dusting, household records, books, laws, germs, allergies, and safety." I managed to persevere partly because not everyone responded with that stare; there was enthusiasm as well. And I was struck that no one responded with bored indifference. The topic was clearly hot too hot for some people to handle, heartwarming to others.
Born Too Late
For me, too, the subject was actually something of a hot potato. I was raised to be a rural wife and mother, but I was born too late to find many openings for farm wives. Until I was thirteen, I lived in the Appalachian southwest corner of Pennsylvania, for most of the time on a working farm where I received an old-fashioned domestic education quite unlike the experience of the average girl in the 1950s. Early on, I learned baby care, housecleaning, laundering, gardening, cooking, embroidering, knitting, and sewing. I slopped the pigs, herded the cows, and helped out with the milking. I was proud to be able to pin a cloth diaper around a baby when I was six, and cook breakfasts of eggs, bacon, toast, and coffee for a large family and the hired help when I was nine.
Because housekeeping skills got respect in my world, I looked forward to keeping a house of my own one day. It was what I wanted, and part of me was confident that I could do it well. Another part doubted practically everything I had been taught. That was because my domestic education was a battlefield in a subtle war between my two grandmothers. These ladies, both expert in needlecraft, cookery, canning, and all the other arts of the home, each held an absolute conviction that there was a right way to keep house (the one she had been brought up with) and a wrong way (all others).
My maternal grandmother was a fervent housekeeper in her ancestral Italian style, while my paternal grandmother was an equally fervent housekeeper in a style she inherited from England, Scotland, and Ireland. In one home I heard Puccini, slept on linen sheets with finely crocheted edging rolled up with lavender from the garden, and enjoyed airy, light rooms with flowers sprouting in porcelain pots on windowsills and the foreign scents of garlic and dark, strong coffee. The atmosphere was open and warmly hospitable. The other home felt like a fortress secure against intruders and fitted with stores and tools for all emergencies. There were Gay Nineties tunes on the player piano and English hymns, rooms shaded almost to darkness against real and fancied harmful effects of air and light, hand-braided rag rugs, brightly colored patchwork quilts, and creamed lima beans from the garden. My Anglo-American grandmother taught me to knit American-style, looping the yarn around the needle with a whole-arm motion. My Italian grandmother winced at the sight of this tiring and inefficient method and insisted I do it the way she did, with a barely visible, lightning flick of the last joint on her index finger. My Anglo-American grandmother sniffed at the other's idea of a gored skirt. The Italian thought it unwise to make beds, which should, she said, be aired. In one home, brows were raised and lips curled at the very idea of redeye gravy; in the other, at the idea of garlic. The Italian scarcely knew how to iron and sent out anything that needed it. The Anglo-American thought ironing the queenliest of the household arts, had every ironing aid known to humankind, and beamed at me when I had ironed-in creases in the sleeves of my cotton blouses.
Convinced that her own ways were best, each scolded me for doing things the way the other one did it, and each shook her head over the poor food and meager comforts of the other's household. Seeing my future as a housekeeper and a mother yearning for the far-off joys of womanhood I was faced with the dilemma of figuring out which of them knew the right way of doing things. Love of my mother and my own aesthetic nature inclined me toward things Italian, but love of my father and the society I lived in inclined me toward things American.
By the time I reached young adulthood, these questions no longer seemed to matter. Modern suburbia, where I found myself, had little interest in housekeeping and even less respect for it. Gamely I concluded that if the world no longer admired girls who sewed and cooked, in either the Italian or the American style, I would be up to date. I threw myself into studying, writing, and an academic career, and, not one to do things by halves (and determined to give myself much to regret in middle age), I made a youthful marriage to a man who ardently disliked domestic life. But my upbringing was not so easily overthrown. After an enjoyable year or two of antidomestic posturing, my true nature began to reemerge. One day when I arrived home in a rainstorm to find three wet, muddy dogs (ours and two of his friends) curled up in our unmade bed, I cried. That was a turning point. There followed a stage of rational discussion of our differences. At one point, I remember, I desperately constructed a philosophical defense of dusting under the furniture; and things got considerably less rational before the all-too-predictable end arrived.
But there is nothing like law school to take your mind off a divorce. My grandmothers, who had lived long enough to be mystified by the idea of a graduate degree in philosophy, never witnessed the further anomaly of a granddaughter who would become a lawyer. Despite the strenuous studies, as a newly single law student I reverted to domestic type. I immediately made a cozy, orderly little nest for myself in which I could study, make dinner for friends, listen to music, nurse my wounds, and live, unapologetically, the way I had wanted to for a long time. My father, amazed at the transformation, relaxed in my ample second-hand wing chair and said with a sigh, "At last you have a comfortable place to sit."
My Golden Age of domestic singledom was inevitably short-lived because I was graduated and began working excruciatingly long hours. At first I succumbed. My apartment was like a hotel room; I slept, showered, changed, and left. I did not cook, listen to music, or knit. I hired someone to clean, put up with dust on the books and grime in the corners, and entertained by meeting friends at restaurants. I felt like a cog in a machine.
Then one weekend I had a second domestic reawakening when I found myself with weekend guests who needed to be fed. Not only was I amazed to rediscover how gratifying it is to have people enjoy your cooking, but I was precipitated into some serious thought about cleanliness, sheets, the state of my pantry, and kitchen equipment. I was still making do with my half of the graduate student gear from my former life. After this, I began to try to control my hours at the office and to get at least a little time at home. Even a few hours, I found, were comforting. I got a good reading lamp to go with the wing chair, and I started on a novel. I put up a Christmas tree and invited friends with a child to help decorate it. Before long, I had a home once more, and living in it made me feel like a new person. I thought about housekeeping and how strange my life would appear to my grandmothers, and I began to collect housekeeping manuals, both old and new but mostly old, like the one my great-grandmother had used. I pored over them at bedtime, looking for my grandmothers' and mother's habits in them or finding to my astonishment that my grandmothers, both of them so right and so sure about everything, had not always done things by the book.
But most of this was socially invisible, so much so that it took me a long time to convince my new husband-to-be, when I finally met him, that I could actually cook. My former boyfriend, too, had set me down for a total housekeeping incompetent, and I had not bothered to enlighten him. He cooked and cleaned. I helped with the dishes, sometimes. When I took it upon myself to do marketing one day and came back with a reasonable collection of foods and supplies, he was floored. But my husband had to know the truth; this time I was going to start things out on the right footing. I told him straight out that the three-hole paper punch, a complete run of PC Magazine, and several collections of literary reviews did not belong in the kitchen cabinets over the sink and that I could not live with this. He shrugged, and so I married him.
Dousing the Home Fires
"Each day I long for home,
long for the sight of home."
The idea of writing a book about housekeeping first flashed into my mind in the laundry room a couple of years later, when I found myself hopelessly frustrated by the obscurities of garment care labels and wondering whether my laundering methods would lead to disaster. I thought about my great-grandmother's housekeeping book, and wished I had a modern book that would tell me the real story about fabrics and laundering in this day and age. With nowhere else to turn, I did what any lawyer would do: I went to read the "regs," the FTC regulations governing care labels. After painful study I learned, among other things, that an instruction to "dry clean" does not necessarily mean that you should only dry clean and not launder a garment. But overall I ended up with more questions than I started with. Besides, I reflected darkly, you shouldn't have to be a lawyer to figure out how to do the laundry.
Around this time I found myself facing many more household puzzles. I inherited my beloved uncle's grand piano, which had meant to him something like what my husband, son, home, computer, and CD player, all rolled into one, meant to me. I wanted to play it and care for it well, but had no idea whether I should vacuum out the dust in its depths, how often I should have it tuned, or what other care it might require. My husband and I had just renovated our apartment and found ourselves relying on our contractor for housekeeping advice. How, for example, should we clean and care for our newly polyurethaned wood floors? The contractor was confident and adamant: clean only with a mop slightly dampened with plain water. He insisted that we do the same in the kitchen, where he had painted a sealant over our Mexican tiles. Not only was nothing else necessary, he said sternly, but the wood floor would be damaged and the sealant dulled by anything else. This advice, which I found hard to believe, was wrong in both cases; but, intimidated by any word beginning with "poly" and by the very idea of a sealant, whatever that was, I followed it until the consequences (really dirty floors) were unmistakable. We had no notion of whether we would be better off using fluorescent or halogen or incandescent bulbs, and were unable to find someone who could lay out the pros and cons for us. And now we had a toddler and had become more conscious of cleanliness and germs. Could it be true, as the newspapers said, that soft-cooked eggs were no longer a safe food? (Yes.) Could it be true that I should start buying all those new disinfectant cleaners and soaps? (No.)
There were also reasons outside my own home that gave impetus to the idea of a housekeeping book. Over and over I found myself visiting homes where the predominant feeling was sepulchral, dusty, and deserted, or even hotel-like, as my own had once become. Perhaps a book that tried to explain not only the hows but the whys and the meanings of housekeeping was something the world could use.
I first learned that housework has meaning by observing my grandmothers. The reason they made a fuss when they saw a granddaughter doing things in a "foreign" way is that they knew in their bones if not in words that the way you experience life in your home is determined by how you do your housekeeping. Just as you can read a culture in the way its people fold a shirt (or do not), little domestic habits are what give everybody's home the special qualities that make it their own and let them feel at home there. Understandably, each of my grandmothers wanted me to make a home in which she could feel at home.
This sense of being at home is important to everyone's well-being. If you do not get enough of it, your happiness, resilience, energy, humor, and courage will decrease. It is a complex thing, an amalgam. In part, it is a sense of having special rights, dignities, and entitlements and these are legal realities, not just emotional states. It includes familiarity, warmth, affection, and a conviction of security. Being at home feels safe; you have a sense of relief whenever you come home and close the door behind you, reduced fear of social and emotional dangers as well as of physical ones. When you are home, you can let down your guard and take off your mask. Home is the one place in the world where you are safe from feeling put down or out, unentitled, or unwanted. It's where you belong, or, as the poet said, the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in. Coming home is your major restorative in life.
These are formidably good things, which you cannot get merely by finding true love or getting married or having children or landing the best job in the world or even by moving into the house of your dreams. Nor is there much that interior decorating can do to provide them. Making a home attractive helps you feel at home, but not nearly so much as most of us seem to think, if you gauge by the amounts of money we spend on home furnishings. In fact, too much attention to the looks of a home can backfire if it creates a stage-set feeling instead of the authenticity of a genuinely homey place. And going in for nostalgic pastimes canning, potting, sewing, making Christmas wreaths, painting china, decorating cookies will not work either. I count myself among those who find these things fun to do, but I know from experience that you cannot make a home by imitating the household chores and crafts of a past era. Ironically, people are led into the error of playing house instead of keeping house by a genuine desire for a home and its comforts. Nostalgia means, literally, "homesickness."
What really does work to increase the feeling of having a home and its comforts is housekeeping. Housekeeping creates cleanliness, order, regularity, beauty, the conditions for health and safety, and a good place to do and feel all the things you wish and need to do and feel in your home. Whether you live alone or with a spouse, parents, and ten children, it is your housekeeping that makes your home alive, that turns it into a small society in its own right, a vital place with its own ways and rhythms, the place where you can be more yourself than you can be anywhere else.
Despite these rewards, American housekeeping and home life are in a state of decline. Comfort and engagement at home have diminished to the point that even simple cleanliness and decent meals let alone any deeper satisfactions are no longer taken for granted in many middle-class homes. Homes today often seem to operate on an ad hoc basis. Washday is any time anyone throws a load into the machine, and laundering skills are in precipitous decline. Dishes are washed when the dishwasher is full. Meals occur any time or all the time or, what amounts to the same thing, never, as people serve more and more prepared and semiprepared foods. And although a large, enthusiastic minority of home cooks grow more and more sophisticated, the majority become ever more de-skilled. Dirt, dust, and disorder are more common in middle-class homes than they used to be. Cleaning and neatening are done mostly when the house seems out of control. Bedding decreases in refinement, freshness, and comfort even as sales of linens, pillows, and comforters increase. It is not in goods that the contemporary household is poor, but in comfort and care.
These deficiencies of housekeeping can have serious effects on health. The decline of home cooking and regular home meals, along with the prevalence of the couch potato and television culture, coincide with skyrocketing rates of obesity and its related health problems. Allergy and asthma rates, climbing steeply in recent decades, are exacerbated by modern housekeeping practices. Those who live in disorderly and untended homes suffer higher accident rates. Inadequate cleanliness in the kitchen poses the danger of foodborne illness. Germs and mold anywhere in the home can cause infections and allergies.
Household activities of all kinds are becoming haphazard, not only cleaning, cooking, and laundering. Television often absorbs everyone's attention because other activities (such as music-making, letter-writing, socializing, reading, or cooking) require at least a minimum of foresight, continuity, order, and planning that the contemporary household cannot accommodate. Home life as a whole has contracted. Less happens at home; less time is spent there. Like the industrial poor of 1910, many people now, in order to work long hours with rare days off, must farm out their children for indifferent institutional care. People are tired, sleeping an estimated two hours less per night than people did a hundred years ago. There are fewer parties, dinners, or card games with friends in homes. Divorces break up countless households, and even in intact families frequent moves break ties to friends and neighbors. The homes that reemerge are thinner, more brittle, more superficial, more disorganized, and more vulnerable than those they replace. These plagues rain on the lives of both rich and poor. Many people lead deprived lives in houses filled with material luxury.
Inadequate housekeeping is part of an unfortunate cycle. As people turn more and more to outside institutions to have their needs met (for food, comfort, clean laundry, relaxation, entertainment, society, rest), domestic skills and expectations further diminish, in turn decreasing the chance that people's homes can satisfy their needs. The result is far too many people who long for home even though they seem to have one.
Obstacles to Housekeeping: Attitude!
Housekeeping is a subject that brings out attitudes. Generational issues are prominent, naturally enough, because we all associate housekeeping with our parents or children. Old fogies have always accused the young of declining competence. "You kids!" my grandmother's grandmother scolded her. "You don't even know how to make smoke go up the chimney." In times of great social or technological change, the young turn around and scorn the old. "Imagine saving string," my mother snickered, "or stretching the curtains on a stretching frame!"
And every generation makes the mistake of thinking that the next one will repeat its own experience. Many people in my parents' generation tried to avoid this mistake. They knew their parents were out of date, and they expected to be out of date too. They thought that they had nothing to teach us, their children, about housekeeping because our homes were going to be completely different from theirs. It is ironic, then, that in trying to be so very modern as to overthrow themselves before we even had a chance to, they made that same old mistake. They had experienced huge changes in housekeeping styles and technologies, but then, unexpectedly, we didn't. Although homes in 1955 were startlingly different from those of 1915, they would turn out to be remarkably similar to homes in 1995. This continuity matters. My feelings about my home are deepened by my perception that it is like my mother's; my hopes for our son are warmed by my expectation that someday he will find that his home is like ours.
By the 1950s most homes had long had electricity, modern plumbing, and heating, and the average home had a vacuum cleaner, a modern refrigerator, and an automatic washing machine and dryer. Automatic dishwashers were familiar to everyone, although not many people had one. Synthetic fibers, prepared soaps and detergents, and polishes were not new. Sewing and needlework of all sorts were already fixed in their new status as enjoyable leisure-time crafts, instead of the urgent necessities they had once been. Supermarkets sold packaged, sliced bread and chickens plucked and cut up. Compared with these changes, the innovations that came later, such as hand-held vacuum cleaners, microwave ovens, and a few computerized gadgets, do not save much labor or change the tenor of the home and its routines.
Other generational issues in housekeeping are harder to detect but can be emotional dynamite. Many middle-aged women of today had mothers who were dissatisfied housewives. These mothers taught their daughters not to get trapped but to get their degree and go out into the world and fulfill the mothers' frustrated ambitions. In droves, the daughters did just this overall, a good thing. But there was in some cases a troubling subtext to this story. Some mothers actually gave their daughters another, whispered message as well: "Housekeeping is my consolation prize; it won't be fair if you get this and the career too." This was simply an extension of the housewife's message to her husband: "If you get the job and the public world, I insist all the more on my prerogatives in the home." Many young women have confided to me, sadly, that they felt sometimes as though they were being driven from things feminine and domestic by mothers who would not let them help cook or teach them anything of the mothers' own domestic crafts, no matter how much the daughters wanted to learn them. All too often, such women, supercompetent on the job, feel inept and lack confidence when they find themselves wanting to make a home of their own.
Thus it came about that for a couple of generations there were more and more children who were taught little about housekeeping except indifference. Those who lacked grandmothers or mothers who wanted them to learn about housekeeping usually never did learn anything about it and continue to regard it as alien territory. As adults who want good, well-run homes, they may succeed in mastering some practical skills, although a surprising number do not. Far more, however, find themselves quite conflicted about attempting domesticity. Their thinking is: I may do this dusting or laundry, but this is not really me.
Unfortunately, what a traditional woman did that made her home warm and alive was not dusting and laundry. Someone can be hired to do those things (to some extent, anyway). Her real secret was that she identified herself with her home. Of course, this did not always turn out well. A controlling woman might make her home suffocating. A perfectionist's home might be chilly and forbidding. But it is more illuminating to think about what happened when things went right. Then her affection was in the soft sofa cushions, clean linens, and good meals; her memory in well-stocked storeroom cabinets and the pantry; her intelligence in the order and healthfulness of her home; her good humor in its light and air. She lived her life not only through her own body but through the house as an extension of her body; part of her relation to those she loved was embodied in the physical medium of the home she made.
My own experience convinces me that there is still no other way to make a good home than to have attitudes toward home and domesticity modeled on those of that traditional woman. But most men and many women do not want to identify themselves with homes that they create through their housekeeping and through which they offer of themselves to others.
Their attitudes may have been learned originally at home, but they are constantly reinforced by the media. Advertisements and television programs offer degraded images of household work and workers. Discussions of the subject in magazines and newspapers follow a standard formula. The author confesses either to hating housework or to incompetence at it, jokes about the childish and mischievous aspects of poor housekeeping, then produces a list of "timesaving hints." It is scarcely surprising, then, that so many people imagine housekeeping to be boring, frustrating, repetitive, unintelligent drudgery. I cannot agree. (In fact, having kept house, practiced law, taught, and done many other sorts of work, low- and high-paid, I can assure you that it is actually lawyers who are most familiar with the experience of unintelligent drudgery.) And I am convinced that such attitudes toward housekeeping are needlessly self-defeating. You can be male and domestic. You can have a career and be domestic. You can enjoy keeping house. No one is too superior or intelligent to care for hearth and home.
Domesticity does not take time or effort but helps save both. It is just an orientation that gives you a sixth sense about the place you live in, and helps you keep it running with the same kind of unconscious and effortless actions that keep you from falling when you walk down stairs. This sixth sense lets you do things fast and cut the right corners, and helps you foresee and forestall the minor domestic disasters spills, shortages, and conflicts that can make life miserable when they accumulate. When it is absent, you are like an infant negotiating a flight of stairs for the first time. It feels hard and complicated. You have to focus your whole mind on it, and it wears you out.
Modern housekeeping, despite its bad press, is among the most thoroughly pleasant, significant, and least alienated forms of work that many of us will encounter even if we are blessed with work outside the home that we like. Once, it was so physically onerous and arduous that it not infrequently contributed to a woman's total physical breakdown. Today, laundry, cleaning, and other household chores are by and large physically light or moderate work that doctors often recommend to people for their health, as evidence shows that housework is good for weight control and healthy hearts.
Seen from the outside, housework can look like a Sisyphean task that gives you no sense of reward or completion. Yet housekeeping actually offers more opportunities for savoring achievement than almost any other work I can think of. Each of its regular routines brings satisfaction when it is completed. These routines echo the rhythm of life, and the housekeeping rhythm is the rhythm of the body. You get satisfaction not only from the sense of order, cleanliness, freshness, peace and plenty restored, but from the knowledge that you yourself and those you care about are going to enjoy these benefits.
Housekeeping requires knowledge and intelligence as well, the kind that is complex, not simple, and combines intellect, intuition, and feelings. You need a memory good enough to remember how things are done, where things are, what the daily routine requires, what everyone in the home is up to as it affects housekeeping, the state of supplies, budgets, and bills. You have to be able to decipher insurance policies, contracts, and warranties, manage a budget, and master the technical language of instruction manuals for appliances and computers. The ability to split your attention in several ways and stay calm is essential. You need to exercise creative intelligence to solve problems and devise solutions: efficiency measures that save money or time; psychological or social measures to improve cooperation; steps to improve physical comfort; analyses of why and how some routines break down. Housekeeping comprises the ability to find, evaluate, and use information about nutrition, cooking, chemistry and biology, health, comfort, laundry, cleaning, and safety. Above all, housekeeping must be intelligent so that it can be empathetic, for empathy is the form of intelligence that creates the feeling of home. Good housekeepers know intuitively what needs to be done in their homes because they know how their homes make people feel.
We should not overlook the relation of personal style and character to the character of a home. These are complicated subjects, but we can at least remind ourselves here how deeply they are involved in the subject of housekeeping. We can all observe for ourselves that warmhearted, reasonably well-organized people, not surprisingly, tend to keep well-functioning, cheerful, and welcoming homes, while people who live from one crisis to the next have homes filled with crises and chaos. Inconsistent people do housekeeping by fits and starts. People who think badly of themselves take these feelings out on their homes. Just as they have spots on their ties or runs in their pantyhose, their homes have stopped-up drains and a general air of disorganization. Alternatively, just as they may put excess stress on personal appearance in an effort to overcome self-doubt, so they may make their homes look forbiddingly perfect in an attempt to impress themselves and others.
Everyone knows chic, cool people whose homes are filled with striking furnishings but offer no place to be comfortable. At dinner the portions are fashionably small. Once you've admired the dish, its purpose is served whether or not you are still hungry. Some people are control artists or smotherers: five minutes in their homes and you need oxygen. You are asked if you are comfortable, and before you can answer you are offered pillows, told to try a new chair, and generally harassed to the point where you can't relax or think or talk. If you live with them, they are always doing more for you than you want, piling your bed high with blankets, cooking five-course breakfasts, and creating an uncomfortable sense of indebtedness.
Then there are those who are personally slatternly but keep immaculate houses, and the reverse. The pattern of a disheveled home and pristine person can reflect different sets of mind. Sometimes it is the way of the merely spoiled, who think everything should be done for them. But it may also be a single person's way of saying that he or she wants a mate: "I need someone to take care of me," or, perhaps, "It's not worth doing it just for me." In other cases it reflects a sense of being secretly contemptible.
But the housekeepers who have done the most to give housekeeping a bad name are those who are compulsive about it. Compulsive housekeepers clean houses that are already spotless. They arrange their shoes along the color spectrum in a straight line and suffer anxiety if the towels on the shelf do not all face the same way. They expend enormous effort on what they think of as housekeeping, but their homes often are not welcoming. Who can feel at home in a place where the demand for order is so exaggerated? In housekeeping, more is not always better. Order and cleanliness should not cost more than the value they bring in health, efficiency, and convenience.
Guilty housekeeping is another common style, almost as prevalent as compulsiveness. The guilt-ridden housekeeper always thinks that more should be done or that everything that has been done has not been done well enough. The floors were just swept? They look better, but I did not do a really good job on the corners and, besides, I neglected the closets. Moreover, I should also have spent time with my family and paid the bills. The guilt-ridden may eventually rebel against their own perception of endless duties in housekeeping and angrily let things go to hell.
In the modern world, it is easier to slide into neuroticism in housekeeping than it used to be. Thirty or forty years ago, compulsive housekeepers were easier to spot because there were generally accepted standards of what constituted adequate or good or excellent housekeeping, which they obviously exceeded. You did your wash on Monday, with sufficient skill to produce a certain range of results, and followed up quickly with ironing. Beds were changed on a certain day and made up by a certain hour of the morning. Vacuuming and dusting were done twice a week, serious baking once. Dishes were washed immediately after meals, and meals were made and served at home twice or thrice a day at regular hours. The Sabbath was marked with a more elaborate dinner.
Today, the disappearance of these social standards means that every household must invent for itself an ideal of a well-kept home and must choose its own standards of cleanliness and comfort. On the whole, this is a gain. No one wants to go back to the days of blushing over gray laundry and dirty dishes in the sink. On the other hand, the standards that operated in the past were grounded in practical reality. They balanced mental and physical comfort with the amount of effort required to achieve it, and they existed in a social world that assumed that life would include leisure and domestic enjoyment. They provided something crucial that the contemporary household lacks, which is a sense of entitlement to a recognizable standard of everyday living. Where standards are viewed as merely arbitrary and subjective, people come to feel that such comforts as fresh beds or good meals are not their right or are not worth working for.
Those of us who can gain some sense of the psychology of our own housekeeping will be freer to decide intelligently that some tasks are crucial enough to call for strenuous efforts while others are not. This book explores many kinds of pleasant possibilities in housekeeping without implying that anyone could, should, or must undertake them all. "Standards" are described, but they are offered as rights, entitlements, or suggestions for the sake of the reader's health, happiness, and enjoyment. The goal is always to pick and choose, to find the patterns and habits that work best for our own homes and that create the goods at home that we most value and need.
Setting Standards: When Is Good Enough Good Enough?
To the contemporary mind, the idea that happiness depends on good housekeeping might seem quaint or odd. A century or two ago, and in fact until the past few decades, it was taken for granted, and the quality of housekeeping was not beneath the attention of such great novelists as Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy. Several of Charles Dickens's novels present an interesting variation on the whore/virgin theme when they contrast good housekeepers, who are lavished with praise, and bad housekeepers, who are described with appalled fascination. David Copperfield's first wife, Dora, who ties a basket of housekeeping keys to her waist in a childish imitation of real housekeeping, all but wrecks their marriage through her infantile incompetence. And though David realizes that he must forgive and love her anyway, Dickens helpfully kills her off and remarries David to Agnes, a genius of a housekeeper who even in childhood brought order and cheer wherever she went with her own little basket of housekeeping keys. In Bleak House, the horrible Mrs. Jellyby serenely abandons her family to domestic squalor and confusion while she attends instead to charitable enterprises serving people a continent away. In contrast, Esther Summerson trips about creating comfort and order to the merry jingle of her little basket of housekeeping keys, and her guardian proves his good sense by appointing her his housekeeper within hours of meeting her.
Now, if you are a twenty- or thirty-something working person, you probably do not see yourself in Dickens's portraits of young ladies carrying baskets of keys (especially if you are a young man). But anyone can still respond to his portrayals of the chaos and unhappiness caused by defective housekeeping. Ruined and inedible meals, tools lost and broken, accidents, dirt, poor health, frustration, quarrelsomeness, shame all these, which Dickens paints with vivid colors, are still the outcome of household neglect.
But what constitutes neglect? What is the point beyond which housekeeping becomes inadequate housekeeping today? Common sense says that it is the lowest level at which health and safety can be preserved and enough comfort and order maintained to ensure that people want to spend time at home, feel restored there, and do not have that haggard feeling of homelessness that travelers sometimes have even when they are perfectly well housed. Much housekeeping is justified merely on such rational, functional grounds as these. But in every age, people also do things to care for their homes that have no justification in concrete benefits for safety and health. Our forebears were fanatics about ironing, for example. Around 1900, they insisted on ironing everything from sheets to underwear even though this cost horrendous labor from women (and most did it themselves without maids, or did it alongside a maid) who were already devoting enormous amounts of labor simply to ensure survival. They were quite as capable as we are of appreciating that this was a lot of trouble for the sake of something they could have lived without. Feminist historians, in fact, have complained that the 1950s woman foolishly wasted on superfluous "work" the time she saved by using technological innovations. In calling the work superfluous, they devalue the goals of that era's housewives, and I am not convinced that they are being fair. But a brief glance at the history of dusting shows you why they might grumble.
In 1842, Catharine Beecher (Harriet Beecher Stowe's sister) thought that sweeping the parlor carpet and dusting all furniture, books, and knickknacks once a week was good enough. She mentions walls only with reference to spring cleaning (with the exception of kitchen walls, which need cleaning "often"). In 1908, Marion Harland called for daily dusting, weekly attacks on floors and carpets, and rubbing the dining room table with a drop of oil once a week. Walls and ceilings were to be attended to during "house cleaning," as both spring and fall cleaning were called. Around 1950, the authors of housekeeping books commonly recommended a dusting regimen of astonishing rigor for middle-class homes. You were supposed to dust all woodwork and furniture, including window frames, screens, and blinds, every day; dust the floors with a dust mop daily; vacuum carpets daily; brush all exposed surfaces on upholstery every day (or, if you had clean air in your area, two to three times a week), and do a complete brushing with an upholstery brush or vacuum, getting under pillows and in crevices, once or twice a month; vacuum wood floors once a week; dust walls and ceilings daily or weekly (as required by the air quality); and rub all furniture long and hard, with the grain, once a week. Whether people actually did all of this is open to question, but if they did, can this much labor be justified in terms of health benefits? Comfort? No doubt the dusting provided some of these benefits (and maybe partly explains the lower rates of asthma and allergy back then), but, equally doubtless, the amount of dusting outstripped such benefits. The point is that our mothers or grandmothers knew this as well as we do and thought it worthwhile anyway.
By midcentury my paternal grandparents, like most of their contemporaries, had acquired all the modern conveniences and gloried in them: vacuum cleaner, automatic washer and dryer, hot running water indoors, tiled bathroom and flush toilet, clean, modern heating system, enameled sinks and tubs, floors and walls that were not filled with dips and gouges. They enjoyed all these things in a house that sat yards away from the one in which my grandfather grew up, where my great-grandmother still lived without them. Modern supercleanliness represented to them and their peers deliverance from the dreary problems that had plagued their mothers' houses: chamberpots, smoke, grease, soot, grime, smells, ashes, bedbugs, fleas, mold and mildew, mud, stained porcelain and fabricsall were fresh in their memories. Their excessive cleaning was rarely what it has sometimes been called: the neurotic behavior of bored women who could not think of anything more useful to do. It was a celebration of their release from centuries of a losing struggle with dirt, a celebration of new possibilities for comfort, beauty, and peace of mind that had so recently not existed even for the rich (who had always had their furniture dusted every day). For women who were domestic to the core, winning this war was comforting in a way we can hardly imagine.
It is difficult for us, who never experienced what my grandparents had so recently left behind, to realize the oppression of dirt, with its associations of death, discomfort, shame, and danger, and the free, light feeling that the modern home gave to those who remembered the labor its cleanliness had once cost. Cleanliness of this kind was the chief luxury that ordinary people gained through the new household technologies. So although all their cleaning and dusting was not entirely justified by its concrete benefits, it offered meanings and satisfactions that people wanted urgently. It gave their homes dignity and their lives an extra measure of contentment. Half a century later, few of us who grew up in the light, modern, clean homes of the 1950s and '60s have any such feelings and associations to motivate us. So we do not iron sheets, most of us do an unambitious dusting and vacuuming once a week, and in many other respects, too, we are willing to live with housekeeping that is merely "good enough." We understand better than people used to that it should be a matter of discretion whether we do anything more than that.
We should also understand, however, that we can permit ourselves to seek better than just "good enough" when it comes to our homes. It is just as important for us now as it was for people in 1800, 1900, and 1950. Dusting standards may have changed since the 1950s, but our homes still have to be to us what our grandfathers' homes were to them. Our homes are the center of our lives, and we should allow time and resources to make the most of them that we can, and to care for them in a way that consolidates and elaborates their meaning for each of us. At a minimum, we should avoid thinking that time spent on our homes is wasted time, or that our goal should always be to reduce the time and effort we spend on them.
Much housework is discretionary, but not all housework is. Minimum standards of cleanliness and order are inescapable necessities for health and happiness. It is up to each of us how to choose the dimensions of "necessary" in our own case. If this means that we can jettison without guilt a mother's or grandmother's idea of adequate dusting, it also means, on the other hand, that we still have to figure out just how much dusting represents the rational compromise between health and comfort and available time and resources. It is as true as ever that a dusty home is unpleasant and unhealthy to live in.
The ideological and economic fashions of each age provide masks to hide behind. When the message was "Stay at home and keep house," a woman who gave in to fears that kept her from doing something else could rationalize that she was doing her duty. Today, when the message is the opposite, "Go out and work," both men and women may rationalize the deficiencies of their home lives as necessary and unavoidable, saying that they do not have the time. Some people really are extraordinarily pushed and pressured. They need all the help they can get, and I hope this book will offer some. Other people are simply not cut out for domestic life, cannot avoid hating housework, and would perhaps be happier living in a hotel, barracks, ship, or monastery. But because it is true that whoever loves the end also loves the means, all of us who really do enjoy living in a well-kept home can come to enjoy the rituals of its care. The act of taking care of our homes brings comfort and consolation both in the enjoyment of the fruits of our labor and in the increasingly rare freedom to engage in worthwhile, unalienated, honorable work.
Using This Book
In writing this book I have constantly held two different audiences in mind. The primary one consists of beginners in housekeeping, especially young adults first setting up house or thinking of marrying or raising children. Also in this group are mature readers who for one reason or another have come to housekeeping late, as well as those who might be expert in one area but not others skilled housecleaners, for example, who want to know more about food storage or fabrics. For the sake of this audience, I have included many basic details that will be obvious to experienced hands.
The other audience I have had in mind consists of those experienced hands. The members of this group will already have their own systems and methods in place (and I hope will excuse the didactic tone found here and there) but will be interested in learning more and keeping their knowledge up to date perhaps on such subjects as lighting, safety, or newer materials and fabrics. Or, like me, they may simply enjoy reading about what someone else thinks and does about housekeeping. For their sakes, I have gone into more detail than beginners will need on some topics, such as the care of wood, fabrics, and laundering.
The brief summary of contents at the opening of each chapter, the table of contents at the beginning, and the ample index at the end of the book will help both groups navigate their way through the materials and find what they want. Readers should notice that many topics bleach, disinfectants, and textile fibers, for example are taken up in more than one chapter.
The parts of this book, listed in the table of contents, correspond to basic kinds of work that go into keeping up a home. Each kind of housework answers to some need that is satisfied in our homes: for order, neatness, food, clothing, cleanliness, activity, sleep, safety and an understanding of laws and business matters affecting our homes. The chapters contained in each part generally stand alone and can be read in any order. In some cases, however, you are better off reading two or more related chapters together. If you want details on laundering, for example, it will be helpful to read not only the chapter on laundering itself (chapter 21) but also those on fabrics, fibers, and care labels. If you are concerned about holiday safety, you will find relevant materials in the chapters on fire safety and electrical safety (chapters 60 and 61), and in other chapters as well, as indicated in the index and chapter summaries. If you have elderly houseguests, look at chapter 62, "Slips and Falls"; if there are or will be children in your home, look at all the safety chapters and pay special attention to chapter 65, "Additional Safety Measures for Children." Often, the text in one chapter refers you to other sections of the book that deal with related matters.
I hope all readers will keep in mind that what I have included here is one way of doing things, and, as I long ago learned so well from my grandmothers, in almost every aspect of housekeeping there are at least two good ways of doing things and surely, if your grandmothers' ways were also considered, it would be many more than that. Wherever I thought it not self-evident, I tried to give the reasons why I use my own methods and systems. I hope this will help readers decide whether they wish to give them a whirl or whether they prefer something different.
Copyright © 1999 by Cheryl Mendelson
HOME COMFORTS ARCHIVE
Q: Is Spring Cleaning really necessary?
A: from Chapter 2: Easing into a Routine
Setting Up Schedules, Standards, and Goals. People used to be fond of the old saying that a housewife's work is never done, but you do not hear it much anymore, perhaps because today, so often, the housewife's work is never started. In any event, this maxim, like most, is only half true. Yes, you can always think of something else that could be done, and yes, you will do more tomorrow, but in fact there really is an end to what your routine calls for this day or week or year. You, however, are the one who sets limits. Beginners should recognize the importance of setting plausible and explicit goals in housekeeping so that they know when they are done. In my experience, the most common cause of dislike of housework is the feeling that the work is never done, that it never gives a sense of satisfaction, completion, and repose.
To avoid this, you have to decide what ordinary, daily level of functioning you want in your home. There ought to be a word for this level, but there isn't. When I was a girl, my mother used to say, when everything was on schedule and as she wanted it, "The house is done." Whatever words you use, you need to create end points that will let you, too, say to yourself, "Finished!" Otherwise you will feel trapped and resentful, in danger of becoming one of the many unfortunates who hate taking care of their own homes.
Another trap to avoid is that of inflexible standards and unrealistic expectations. You need different goals for ordinary times and times of illness, stress, company, new babies, long working hours, or other interruptions of your home routine. People with large houses, many children or guests, active households, or invalid parents will have to spread themselves more thinly and should not expect to be able to keep house like the Joneses. Also, the fewer your resources of all kinds money, help, appliances, skills, time the more modest will be the level of housekeeping you can realistically hope for.
When you cannot have everything, establish priorities. Health, safety, and comfort matter more than appearances, clutter, organization, and entertainment. A jumbled closet may distract you, but it is much less urgent than clean sheets, laundry, or meals. Excessive dustiness can be unhealthy as well as uncomfortable; smeary mirrors (usually) aren't. Clean the rooms you spend the most time in and those where cleanliness is urgent (bedroom, kitchen, bathroom); let everything else go. Polishing gems and organizing your photographs can be put off indefinitely.
When you fall below your ordinary standards of housekeeping, a backup plan can help prevent the fall from turning into a free fall. Planning how you will engage in a housekeeping retraction at such times and return to ordinary standards when the crisis is past keeps you in control. The goal during these hard times is to adhere, more or less, to some workable minimal routine. If you can still cook simple meals and food preparation areas are safe and sanitary, if everyone has clean clothes, if the bedrooms are dusted, vacuumed, and aired and the bedding is fresh, you are doing well.
Text Copyright © 1999 by Cheryl Mendelson
Q: What are some suggestions for shortening housekeeping?
Pare your routines. Do only the essentials. Keep the kitchen clean, the dishes washed, food and other essentials stocked. Dust and vacuum only the bedroom or other areas where anyone sleeps or spends large amounts of time. Keep the beds in fresh linens. Take a few minutes to wipe down the bathroom and its fixtures with a good disinfectant cleaner.
Stay as neat as possible! Put things away as you go so that a sense of chaos does not develop.
Rely on foods that take little or no cooking. Use dishes you have frozen.
If you can afford to, hire help. If you do not usually hire cleaning help, have a bonded maid service come in for a day or half a day to do your weekly cleaning. If you can manage to keep up with the weekly chores but not with the less frequent ones, periodically hire help for them. Hiring someone to help with the heavy work of spring or fall cleaning is a particularly good idea and generally affordable. Find a neighborhood teenager whom you can pay to go to the grocery store or shopping center for you.
Send out the laundry or hire someone to come in and do it. Try to create less laundry.
If the situation is serious (illness, a new baby, a death), call on relatives and close friends for help.
Text Copyright © 1999 by Cheryl Mendelson
Q: What are dust mites and how can I get rid of them?
A: Controlling Dust Mites. The presence of dust mites does not imply dirtiness, and they are a normal part of environments that offer favorable physical conditions for their survival. However, they can be controlled by effective housekeeping. To some extent, you may choose your level of caution. If you are allergic, you already know that you must go to great lengths to preserve your health and comfort and that you must follow the cleaning advice of your allergist, which may be more rigorous than that given here. Likewise, anyone who has an infant or child in the home may wish to be careful about dust-mite allergens so as to avoid sensitizing him or her, or aggravating the symptoms of any child already sensitized.
Text Copyright © 1999 by Cheryl Mendelson
Q: What are some of the precautions I should take when lighting my fireplace?
A: Building the Fire.The standard fireplace measures about 36 inches wide, 28 inches high, and 16-20 inches deep. Its inner walls angle inward toward each other somewhat, and often the back wall is sloped forward. To build a fire in a standard fireplace: Open the damper. Place two logs a few inches apart on the fireplace grate. Put crumpled pieces of newspaper between them. Cover the newspaper with kindling. When laying the kindling sticks down, crisscross them to leave plenty of air spaces. Prime the flue to get air flowing up the chimney. Light the paper. When the kindling is burning, add a third log across the top and more logs as necessary.
The Rumford fireplace is less common. Invented in the eighteenth century by Count Rumford (Sir Benjamin Thompson), it is designed to transfer more heat to the room and less to the chimney. It has a shallower firebox and a taller opening, and the sides are much more angled inward than in the standard fireplace. To build a fire in a Rumford fireplace: Place a sheet of newspaper against the fireback, and prop it up with a bundle of half a dozen pieces of kindling leaning on the fireback in the form of a narrow tipi. (You do not need a grate.) Place the logs in an outer tipi leaning against the inner cone of kindling. Make the tipi tall in proportion to the height of the firebox. Prime the flue to get the air flowing up the chimney. Light the newspaper behind the kindling bundle near the top. As the fire burns down the kindling, it will be necessary to adjust the logs and possibly add more newspaper to the top of the fire or under the kindling.
Text Copyright © 1999 by Cheryl Mendelson
HOME COMFORTS FACTS
Too Late to say You're Sorry
Pets.In certain circumstances, you will be liable both for injuries and for property damage caused by your pet. (Damage caused by livestock or farm animals is not discussed here.) If you live in an area where there are no leash laws or other ordinances governing pets, your liability is determined by common-law principles. Most cities and suburban areas and some rural areas, however, have enacted statutes or ordinances that alter or override common-law principles, either wholly or partly. Both types of law are summarized briefly below.
Dangerous Animals.In most jurisdictions that follow the common-law rules, as well as some statutory jurisdictions, your liability for injuries or damage caused by your pet depends on whether the pet is considered a dangerous animal that is, whether it is likely to inflict serious damage or injury. The general rule is that a pet owner is "strictly" or "absolutely" liable for injuries or damages caused by a dangerous animal, so long as the owner knew or had reason to know that the animal was dangerous. "Strict liability" means that you are liable regardless of whether you were careless or negligent or somehow at fault. Even if you were careful to restrain and control a dog with a tendency to bite, you would be liable if it escaped through no fault of yours (for example, its pen was destroyed in a tornado, a third party set it loose, or you sprained your ankle while out walking it and could no longer control it) and caused an injury. The law says that the person who insists on keeping a dangerous animal, and not his or her neighbors, should bear the burden of the inevitable risks. This rule usually applies even if the injured person was a trespasser on your property.
It is not necessary for your dog actually to bite someone before you are put on notice that it is dangerous. If you have seen it straining at the leash or otherwise trying unsuccessfully to attack people or other animals, that might be sufficient for a court to deem that you should have known it was dangerous. In some states Arizona, California, and Florida, for example the owner need not have had warning of a dog's vicious tendencies to be liable. You are especially likely to be found liable if the animal is considered inherently dangerous a wolf or shark for example.
In some jurisdictions animals can be legally considered dangerous as a result of doing things other than biting or attacking. A dog that jumps up on people could be considered dangerous because it might knock them down and injure them. A dog with a tendency to destroy crops or gardens might also be considered dangerous. Or it might be deemed dangerous if it chased cars or bicycle riders, barking furiously, potentially causing accidents for those who swerve to avoid hitting it or those who are distracted by it.
Watchdogs. Some people keep ferocious watchdogs; in doing so, they are taking a legal risk. A rule that is commonly followed with respect to watchdogs is that you are liable for any injury caused by your watchdog that you would not have been allowed to inflict in person or to cause the dog to inflict at your command. This means you would be liable if your watchdog attacked a mere trespasser (one who threatens no harm beyond his or her unlawful entry), because you yourself would not have been permitted to inflict injuries on the trespasser. In general, however, liability on your part is less likely to be found by the court when factors justifying the use of more force are present: the trespass occurs at night, evidence exists that the trespasser intended to commit a crime or posed a danger to you or your family, and so forth. Liability is also less likely to be imposed if a clear warning, such as "Beware of the Dog," is posted in an obvious place or if the dog is chained or otherwise effectively restrained. "Less likely," however, does not mean "impossible."
Nondangerous Animals. The general common-law rule regarding a nondangerous pet is that you are liable for damage or injury it causes if the damage or injury occurred through your negligence in controlling the animal. (Most well-populated areas, however, have statutes or ordinances that override the common-law rule and impose strict liability on owners for their pets' misdeeds; see below.) If the injury or damage was not foreseeable, you will not be liable; what is foreseeable is partly determined by your pet's character and your knowledge of it. Thus, if you live near a busy highway, you might be liable if you let your dog run loose, if you knew or should have known that the dog would try to cross it; it would be foreseeable that the dog could cause a serious accident. Similarly, if you know that your dog loves to dig up people's gardens, you could be liable for damages if it does so. You might be liable, too, for failing to restrain your vivacious pet around those who are frail or elderly it is foreseeable that it might knock them off balance and leave them injured by a fall.
You will be held responsible for knowing the harm that perfectly well-behaved pets can do under special circumstances. For example, you should know that bitches with puppies and cats with kittens may bite those who touch their litter even though they are otherwise entirely gentle.
Statutes and Ordinances. The common law has been altered by statutes or ordinances in most areas. Frequently, a mix of common-law and ordinances or statutes operates simultaneously. In urban and suburban areas, leash laws are all but universal, but they vary widely in content. Some rural and suburban ordinances require restraint only of vicious dogs. But most cities require restraint of all dogs, and under some statutes the owner of an unrestrained dog may be prosecuted for maintaining a nuisance. Some leash laws create civil liability for injuries or damages arising out of violations; some do not. Penalties vary widely, fines being typical. In many cities, ordinances require cleaning up one's pet's droppings in public places.
If you have a pet, you should be sure to learn whether you live in one of the many jurisdictions with laws that create strict liability for injuries or damage caused by various domestic animals, dangerous or not. In these places you are potentially liable when your pet hurts someone no matter what you knew or should have known, and no matter how gentle your pet has always been. There are sometimes defenses against liability under these statutes, the most important being that the injured party somehow teased or provoked the animal.
Text Copyright © 1999 by Cheryl Mendelson
From Chapter 16: The Natural Fibers
Hand-washing. Before washing a sweater or other garment, draw its outline on a piece of sturdy paper or cardboard. To control shrinking, use cool water (but not icy-cold water) with a mild, neutral soap or detergent suitable for wool and for cool-water laundering.* You might try lukewarm water if the item is heavily soiled. Soak for three to five minutes. Then lift from beneath the article and gently squeeze suds through the material. Leave the garment in the water for as short a period as possible; the longer it is in, the more its fibers swell and weaken. Since wool loses strength when wet, wool fabrics should never be pulled, twisted, or wrung while wet. Rinse the article thoroughly in clear, cool water. To dry, roll it in a towel and squeeze gently. Then, using your drawing as a guide, block the garment to its original shape. If you need to, pin it to the shape. Let it dry flat on a towel or other clean surface away from direct heat or sunlight.
Machine-washing. Most wool blankets require dry cleaning. Some wool blankets, afghans, and certain wool sweaters and other garments can be machine-washed. Be sure to check the care label before proceeding, however. And before machine-washing a sweater or other garment that might lose its shape, draw an outline of it on a piece of paper or cardboard. Test for colorfastness before laundering any colored wools, especially prints.
"Superwash" indicates a 100% wool fabric that can be machine-washed and -dried because it has undergone chemical and resin treatments that eliminate felting and shrinkage. The Superwash treatment is permanent.
To reduce pilling from abrasion during laundering, use plenty of water. Set the machine on "gentle" or "delicate" for agitating, but use a fast spin; you want slow agitation, but you want to get the wool as dry as possible. Use cool wash water (lukewarm if the item is heavily soiled), and a mild detergent safe for wool and suitable for cool water and machine washing. Dissolve the detergent before adding the wool item. Fabric softeners are unnecessary. Wash each item briefly. Never leave wool to soak for more than a few minutes; keep the wash as brief as possible. Rinse with cool water.
Dry flat, blocking as for hand-washing, unless the care label instructions permit machine drying, in which case you will probably be instructed to use a low temperature. Superwash wools can be tumbled dry; be careful not to overdry. When you have air-dried blankets, sweaters, and other soft wools, you may then wish to put them in the dryer for a few minutes on the air-fluff cycle, which uses cool air, to fluff them up.
*One acquaintance recommends using shampoo on wool. This course is a bit risky, however, as some shampoos are quite alkaline and some contain medicines, colorants, conditioners, and extras that could harm or discolor your wools. However, it is true that a neutral or slightly acidic, gentle shampoo that contains no colorants or additives might clean wool nicely. Be sure to test first, and avoid products that look milky rather than clear, that contain conditioners or other additives, or that have bright or unusual colors.
Copyright © 1999 by Cheryl Mendelson
From Chapter 49: Some Quiet Occupations
How to Pick a Cookbook
Those who are setting up house will need at least one basic, comprehensive cookbook such as Joy of Cooking, or The Good Housekeeping Cookbook. This sort of cookbook includes all basic techniques and dishes and a variety of ethnic dishes that are widely enjoyed. Most people also want a set of narrower cookbooks that address their particular tastes in ethnic cookery, vegetarian cookery, low-fat cooking, and so forth. Books on nutrition and diet are particularly important in homes where someone has health or weight problems.
Read newspaper and magazine reviews. They are not always right, but they often give good tips on useful new cookbooks.
When in doubt, go for authors or books that have enjoyed long popularity or have become classics Marcella Hazan on Italian cooking, Julia Child on French, Rick Bayless on Mexican, and so on. If a book has gone through two or more editions, that proves at least that it is a survivor.
Read a few recipes. Do they sound appealing? Do they require exotic ingredients you are going to have a hard time finding? Are the instructions clear? Are you looking for something more sophisticated? Easier? Quicker?
Has the book won any awards? Books that have won prizes are often good bets.
Watch out for glossy, expensive cookbooks with lots of colored photographs and few recipes. They take up room on the shelf, and you will not use them very often.
Watch out for gimmicks, theme books about one ingredient, dish, or food; celebrities' cookbooks; and jokey cookbooks. They are mainly money-making ideas by people without deep interest in or knowledge of their subject. But there are exceptions, of course.
If you are trying to learn about some kind of ethnic cookery, look to see whether the author provides suggested accompaniments and menus. If you are not used to Italian or Indian or Japanese cooking, you might need help planning a meal as well as cooking individual dishes. Look also for tips about how a dish is perceived and used in its native land: Is it for holidays? Casual occasions? Is it a seasonal dish? A breakfast dish?
Copyright © 1999 by Cheryl Mendelson
Chapter 57: Beds and Bedding
Durability in Sheets
Thread Counts. Do not be deceived into thinking that the higher the thread count, the better the sheet. This is an oversimplified and mistaken idea that is frequently purveyed by merchandisers and fashion writers. It may lead you into paying far more money for a sheet that will not last as long, feel as good, or launder as well as one with a lower thread count.
Until recent decades, most sheets sold were muslin, a cotton plain-weave cloth with a thread count of about 140. Hospitals and other institutions used muslin sheets exclusively because they were inexpensive, comfortable, and very long-lasting. Most people used them at home, too, especially on children's beds. The next grade of sheet was percale, with a thread count of 180. It felt finer and was also quite durable. In all middle-class homes until lately, there were no aspirations to any sheets better than 180 thread count percale. But in the 1980s increasingly higher thread counts in cotton sheets began to appear 200, 220, 250, 300, and upward and these typically had ever finer, softer, smoother hand and were made of ever better cotton Egyptian cotton or pima cotton. Some of these, therefore, were and are good buys. Using fine yarns, high thread counts, and high-quality fiber, they achieve a good balance of durability, launderability, and improved hand. My favorite type of sheet for ordinary home use is a resin-free all-combed-cotton percale with a thread count of 200 to 250 and a care label that says merely "Machine wash."
But super-fine, super-soft, high-thread-count cotton sheets that are somewhat delicate are now on the market. For example, sateen sheets (cotton sheets in satin weaves), which have a slippery, sleek feel and a high luster, are popular today. These sometimes have high thread counts of 300 or 400 or more; yet they are less durable than plain or twill weaves because they use looser twists and floats in the weave, and they are very light and thin. They cannot be bleached; they soon acquire the grayish or yellowish tinge of aging cotton. They wear holes faster. They are costly. Of course, if they suit your fancy and your pocketbook, you should have them; and if you are on a budget, you can reserve them for special occasions, guests' beds, and the like. Just be sure you are not under the impression that you are necessarily getting a long-wearing (or highly launderable) sheet fitted for hard, everyday use. This will depend on many more factors.
Weave and Weight. Most sheets are plain-weave; a few are twill, in general the most durable type of weave. Both twill and plain-weave sheets tend to be more durable than satin weaves, because the latter contain threads with floats and low twist, which are vulnerable to abrasion and tearing. Cotton knit sheets tend to be less durable than woven ones. Heavier weight fabrics tend to be more durable than lighter.
Some of the high-thread-count cotton sheets in plain weave are very sheer and light. They are, therefore, quite lovely and cool, but they are not likely to wear as well as heavier sheeting, particularly if subjected to vigorous laundering and heavy use. You may wish to keep them for special occasions.
Copyright © 1999 by Cheryl Mendelson
From Chapter 11: Cold Comfort
General Guidelines for Good Pantry Storage
A collection of pantry lore, old and new, follows. These are good habits that will keep the pantry orderly and pantry foods fresh and safe.
Guidelines for the Pantry
- Keep your pantry and pantry shelves clean! Dust and crumbs contain molds and microorganisms, which can spread to foods kept in the pantry, and they cause stale and sour odors. They also attract pests.
- You do not need shelf paper if you have washable shelves that are neither painted nor varnished. The purpose of shelf paper was to prevent things from sticking to paint or varnish. But well-chosen shelf paper looks fresh and cheery, and if you like it and have the time to replace it periodically, by all means use it. There is also a mesh shelf liner that helps prevent chips and breakage.
- Arrange your pantry in an orderly fashion. This is attractive, efficient, and safer. When you store like things with like, you know what you have on the shelf and you do not overbuy or drive yourself wild looking for things. Moreover, unless you have an orderly pantry, you cannot properly rotate your foods in the manner described in the next paragraph. Date foods that lack label dates when you purchase them, so that months later you know how old they are. Just scribble the date with a marker as you unpack after marketing.
- Rotate foods in the pantry; when you buy new canned or packaged goods, store them behind older cans or packages of that type of food so that you use the old ones first.
- Keep foods tightly wrapped in air-proof and moisture-proof wraps and containers. Make sure your canisters are air- and moisture-proof and also opaque.
- Make sure packages are sealed and unbroken. If holes or tears appear, check to see that the contents are in good shape and pest-free; then rewrap or repackage.
- Once you have opened cookie, cereal, or other packages or boxes, fold over the inner bag tightly and reclose the outer package tightly. You can resort to rubber bands or tape if nothing else works.
- If you find on your shelves any cans that have rust or serious dents, throw them away. (A slight dent that is not on a rim or a seam is probably all right.)
- Throw away any bulging cans, and don't use food that spurts from the can or looks or smells funny. The bulging and spurting is caused by gas building up inside, and it means that the food is dangerously spoiled. Do not taste the contents of such cans (not even a tiny touch on your tongue), and throw them away. (See chapter 13, "Safe Food.")
Guidelines for Storing Various Types of Foods On the shelf life of foods, refer to the Food Keeper, pages 131-41.
- Bread that you are going to use soon should be wrapped and stored in the pantry, on the counter or shelf, or in a bread bin, at room temperature. Wrapping prevents the bread from drying out. However, if you leave the wrapping a little loose around the bread, this may help prevent moisture from condensing inside and thus help prevent molding. To keep Italian or French bread crusty, use a paper wrap or bag, and be sure to use the bread quickly. Do not store bread near bananas, onions, or other odorous foods; it readily takes on flavors.
- Remove some of the bread from the package and freeze it if you think you will not be able to use it before it goes stale. Commercial breads with preservatives keep fresh at room temperature for three or four days or even longer; bread that lacks preservatives may go stale in as few as one or two days. If bread is sliced before it is frozen, you can generally remove as many slices of frozen bread as you need and thaw them on the counter or in the microwave or toast them if you are in a hurry. Bread preserves its quality through the thawing and microwaving and toasting well.
- You should not refrigerate bread, even though you can freeze it, as it goes stale rapidly in the refrigerator. But there are no absolutes. Bread that does not contain preservatives (and, in hot, humid weather, even bread that does contain preservatives) will mold quickly at room temperature. Once a little mold forms on bread, you must throw it all out. Thus refrigeration might be better than pantry storage at very warm temperatures. But freezing bread is always a better alternative than refrigerating it.
- High-acid canned foods, such as tomatoes and foods made with tomatoes, fruits, sauerkraut, and any foods containing vinegar, should be kept on your shelf no longer than twelve to eighteen months. Keep low-acid foods (which include most canned meats and poultry, stews, soups that are not tomato-based, and vegetables such as corn, potatoes, green beans, spinach, peas, pumpkin, and beets) no longer than two to five years. If you tend to keep canned goods for long periods, write the purchase date on the label of each can so you can keep track of its age. After the desirable storage period has passed, throw the can away.
- Canned beets and asparagus do not store as well as other vegetables. They retain top quality for only six months or so.
- Produce in glass bottles usually has a better flavor than that in cans but is subject to light deterioration. Keep glass jars in the dark.
- Dried mushrooms can be stored in the pantry for about six months before opening and three months after opening.
- Turn cans of evaporated milk top to bottom every month or two so that the solids do not collect in a hard-to-remove mass at the bottom of the can.
- Keep spices and dried herbs (other than paprika, red pepper, and chili powder, which should be refrigerated) tightly sealed in light-proof containers, and store them in a cool, dark place. Fresh spices that you grind yourself are best. Air, heat, and light cause deterioration, especially the loss of the essential oils in spices, which largely carry their flavor.
- Store tea in an airtight container once the package is open. A real tea can of some sort is a good thing to have.
- Store flour and meal in airtight containers. You can put the whole package of flour or meal into a jar or canister, or you can pour out the contents into the canister. (Remember to store whole-grain meals and flours in the refrigerator.)
- Follow instructions on the labels of ROP and vacuum-packed foods. Many of them require refrigeration, or refrigeration after opening, and are not safe stored on a cabinet shelf.
Pests in the Pantry
Your local extension service may give you advice on this subject that I have never been able to bring myself to follow. If you open your flour or cornmeal and find an association of beetles, weevils, meal worms, or other small creatures enjoying life there, you are not to panic and throw it out, unless the insects are numerous; these types are not harmful. Instead you are to get out a fine-mesh strainer or sifter and sift them out. Next put the flour, meal, or whatever had been infested into an air- and moisture-tight container and freeze it. (This gives you insurance that no progeny are left alive.) Then use the flour or meal with confidence.
I have experienced three such infestations in my housekeeping life, two limited to a single box or package and one that affected several packages. What had happened was that I had bought items that were already inhabited at the market, and, in the third case, the infestation had spread from there at home. I could never manage even the straining or sifting, let alone eating food made of the flour or meal afterward, and so I simply threw all the infested foods out. Perhaps you will be more rational. The advice, in any event, does not apply to cockroaches, which can carry harmful or dangerous microorganisms.
Whatever you choose to do about the infested package, take steps to protect your other foods against infestation. Remove everything from the cabinet and wash it thoroughly. One cooperative extension service I spoke to says you can use a pesticide approved for food areas in cracks and crevices that are difficult to clean. Without using pesticides, I successfully cured all three of my infestations with no recurrence. But your situation may be different, and you may find that you need pesticides.
After you have washed the cabinet, examine all the boxes and packages that were stored in the vicinity of the infested one to be sure there are no insects in any of them. I found insects in a few packages that had never been opened; the insects either had bored through the paper side of the package or had managed to squeeze through a seam somewhere. If the packages are free of insects, replace them on the shelves when the shelves dry. Otherwise, throw out or sift, then freeze, as before.
Remember that cross-infestation can be avoided if you keep vulnerable packages in plastic containers with tight lids. Most important, remember that bugs in the flour or meal have nothing to do with cleanliness, only with your luck. They are in no way due to your housekeeping.
Copyright © 1999 by Cheryl Mendelson