When I was in school, the girls studied Home Economics. It was mostly cookery, baking apple crumble, rhubarb pie, scones, and on Shrove Tuesday – pancakes. I remember the mad scramble to get the ingredients together the night before. My Mum worked, so it was often late when we ransacked the kitchen cupboards for basic ingredients. A visit to the shop in the morning was often necessary. That evening, I bestowed my valiant effort upon the household, where my offering took pride of place at the tea table.
Although we baked at home, it was probably in school that I learnt the technique for making pastry, for “rubbing in” the hard fat into the fingertip-soft, always-white flour, adding just a pinch of salt. It was certainly there that I mastered rock cakes and developed my gift for creating sweet, sticky, oaty flapjack remains to this day.
I never gave much thought to the term “Home Economics”. To me, it was a cookery class and as I progressed through school, it became obvious that this was simply a ruse to keep women in the home. They even taught us how to wash up, first taking the glasses through the hot, soapy hot water, then the cutlery, then the plates, and finally the pots and pans. It’s a lesson I learned well and I still wash up in that order today. Why did boys not learn to cook and wash up? While we were “slaving over a hot stove”, they got to play with wood. When I was thirteen, I challenged the system and demanded to be accepted into the metalwork class. I wanted to do woodwork, but as it happened, they were doing metalwork that term. I gritted my teeth and took the teasing which went along with my presence at the workbench. I can’t say that my ashtray was the best in the class, but I got some satisfaction from finishing the exams in third place! Of course, this has now become the norm, with boys everywhere making pizzas and girls turning bowls, but then, I caused quite a storm.
I recently visited the small holding of David Holmgren, co-founder of permaculture, and his partner Su Dennett. They live in rural Victoria, near the sprawling city of Melbourne in Australia. Su and David walk the talk. Committed to a life of organic homesteading, they grow vegetables, keep goats and recycle their waste products (including humanure). They live a life which to some, might look frugal, but which is in fact, abundant. Su calls herself a radical homemaker and takes care of the food creation. Using the natural glut of the land, she bottles fruit, which she stores in her underground larder. Down there in the darkness, rich red succulence lurks under tightly screwed lids. Pears, nectarines, cherries. All preserved under her intrepid care. Bottles of cold pressed apple juice sit waiting patiently and pickles and chutneys of onion, beetroot and artichoke glisten lustily.
The business of Home Economics is, for Su, a reality. “I like making food. I love the sense of where the food comes from, that you’re getting everything that you eat locally…Food is a connection. It’s the centre of life, really.”
We share lunch out in the cool of a veranda shaded by curling grape vines, their fruit hanging temptingly in neat, tight bunches. We are joined by Su and David’s son, Oliver, and a pal of his and soon the conversation is flowing merrily as we pass around fresh goat cheese, home-baked bread and salad grown not six feet away.
“If you’ve got friends, you will often invite them around to dinner and what better than to offer them something that you’ve grown yourself, or that’s come from your local community.” says Su.
“I’m very happy to be the main cook and bottle washer and I think that the household arts have actually been maligned and that the place of the woman in the home has also been very badly maligned. It’s not that the woman should do this and nothing else, that’s not the case, but to take away the value of the household economy is very sad.”
David speaks even more vehemently about these ideas. In an essay published in 2010, he writes about what happened to the home economy after the industrial revolution.
“Women joined the workforce to help pay rising mortgage debts and support expanding personal consumption habits. The almost total collapse of the household economy followed. Much of the growth in fast food, home services, child care and entertainment industries simply reflected this shift of activity from non-monetary household self-reliance to the formal taxable economies dominated by corporations. Mounting psychosocial dysfunction expanded the need for the helping professions of health, social welfare and education as well as those of control from police and security services to deal with addiction, family violence and social fragmentation, both real and imagined.”
In these times when sauerkraut is the new pavlova, and “home-made” seems to be the ultimate hipster prerequisite. And at a time when social isolation is almost the norm, perhaps the Home Economy has something to teach us about a new (old) way of being.