Guest Post: Book Club Friday Betsy-Style!

Friday, May 6, 2011
Of Woods and Words

Note from Ada: This week I'm asking some of my bloggy friends to help fill the Of Woods and Words soundwaves. Last year, my dear friend Betsy from In the Past Lane, suggested I check out Made from Scratch, a book by Jean Zimmerman, after reading my post about baking bread. Instead, I grabbed Made from Scratch by Jenna Woginrich, which fueled my desire to have a backyard filled with vegetables, chickens, and bees and which I have no regretted reading one little bit. But to set the record straight, here's Betsy talking about the book I was supposed to read! 

Last fall, I meandered my way to the library of the small-town Minnesota university at which I work, for their annual book sale. Library book sales are a thing of beauty – there’s always some sort of treasure waiting to be picked up for ten cents. That day, I stumbled upon Made From Scratch: Reclaiming the Pleasures of the American Hearth by Jean Zimmerman. The jacket appealed to me – hey, I like crafty things! I like knitting and baking and cooking! Why not?

I thought the book would be an “all girls together” celebration of all things domestic. In a sense, it was – but it was so much more. Zimmerman is an author who has made her name writing books about the challenges women face in the modern world. In this book, she looks backwards – all the way to Ancient Greece, where Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, was the symbol of the strength of housewives and hearth-keepers. She traces the history of domesticity all the way up to the late 19th century. At that time, home economics became A Thing. Instead of domestic arts being consider an art, they were turned into a science, homogenized and sanitized. Instead of making bread the way your mother taught you, you made bread the way your textbook explained to you, because it was healthier and cleaner and neater and my God, don’t you want your children to grow up clean and healthy and neat? This leads into the wild and crazy sixties and the women’s lib movement, which gave women more freedom to look outside the home for fulfillment, at the cost of degrading and vilifying the domestic arts.

These are hardly conjectures or speculation on Zimmerman’s part. She backs up her statements with solid research into historical artifacts and documents, along with her own experiences of growing up in the seventies and subsequent abandonment of homemaking. At the same time that she cites studies and anecdotal research that show us how the loss of domesticity has affected us as a culture. We flock to museums that show us how people used to live, with a nostalgia for how “simple” life was back then. The Food Network is one of the fastest-growing cable channels, yet many children have never tasted homemade bread. We refer to the feeling of “coming home” when something makes us feel whole and complete, yet we neglect the art of making a home. We thrive on fast-and-easy fixes – Easy Mac, Homestyle Bakes, food that fills us but doesn’t really satisfy our souls.

This book resonated with me in many ways. I’ve always had a nostalgia for the past, as evidenced by my hobby of living history (or as others refer to it, historical reenactment). I’m what you would call a crafter – I annex crafts like they are territory to be conquered, leaping from sewing to quilting to embroidery to knitting at a rate that makes my mother roll her eyes. A child of the eighties and nineties, I never learned to use a sewing machine until I sought it out myself; when I did, I felt that “coming home” feeling, of something that clicked and felt right.

I used to think I was born in the wrong century, that I should be ashamed that modern Betsy with a college degree would actually rather bake cookies and knit a sweater. Zimmerman’s book showed me that there were centuries of homemaking traditions alive and well today. After reading the book, I was inspired to learn to bake with yeast, a task that had previously given me fits as it was too scientific. I learned to bake a cake from scratch, and when a friend served himself a third helping of my homemade old-fashioned strawberry shortcake, I beamed with pride. I came home.

The best part of it all is that Zimmerman offers no blame, points no fingers, offers no judgment. She freely admits that her own house is messy, she rarely has enough time for everything, and her kids do eat Poptarts for breakfast. As she states, “The only way forward is for us as a society to relearn to value work in the home without falling into reactionary traps about ‘proper’ roles for men and women”. Domesticity isn’t about being perfect, nor is it about stifling one’s potential. “We owe it to ourselves to live our lives fully,” Zimmerman insists, “to reap the pleasures that present themselves to us as humans.” And the most basic and fulfilling pleasure is coming home.

I’m certainly no messiah – I haven’t got further than baking kolaczys and bagels with yeast, and I still have an affinity for the occasional frozen pizza. But when that little domestic voice inside me starts begging me to knit or sew or bake a cake, I can satisfy it with pride, knowing that I’m doing my little part to keep the ancient hearth fires alive. Hestia would be proud.


  1. Betsy, what a wonderful, thoughtful post about what sounds like a great book. I might even use this post or parts of the book in a class I am teaching on gender this fall.

    Historically-minded crafting forever!

  2. Emily, I highly recommend you read this book. It will have you screaming "YES THANK YOU FOR UNDERSTANDING ME AND VALIDATING MY CRAFTINESS JEAN ZIMMERMAN." If I were to teach a gender studies course, I would for sure be using this book - and the best part is that the chapters really could stand alone, so you could certainly take excerpts.


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