My mother-in-law’s first gift to us as an engaged couple was a culinary torch. Talk about intimidating! It may as well have been a ratcheting box wrench; I had no idea people used torches in the kitchen. My grandmother was a model and showgirl. When my mom left home, she didn’t even know how to make scrambled eggs. My parents left their first church when it decided that Paul’s injunction against women speaking in church ought to be taken literally. Needless to say, I come from a family with unique traditions when it comes to gender roles.
Don’t get me wrong. I was raised to be a rebel, not a stereotype. My mother enraged her female friends in the 1980s by insisting on being a stay-at-home mom (‘homemaker’ was her job title and she refused all others) at a time when society demanded a woman to prove her independence by sending her children to daycare. I pride myself in being a Hill woman – we’re descendents of Texas revolutionaries, we live forever, and we don’t take crap from anyone. Not knowing our way around a kitchen, wearing shoes, and choosing to have babies on our own schedules are our badges of honor. Fortunately, I found a man who knew that and still wanted to marry me.
But you marry a family as well as a spouse. I knew that my mother-in-law, the woman who makes Martha Stewart look like a no-talent hack, would expect me to pick up where she left off. My culinary repertoire consisted of 30 minute meals of no more than five ingredients, most designed for the food stamp budget my parents followed when I was young.
Imagine my surprise when I found that my rebel sensibilities melded with traditional feminine arts. It started with the gift (from my mother-in-law, of course) of a cookbook. My husband and I teach at a private school. For the uninitiated, private school teachers tend to make far less than their public school counterparts. Low teacher pay for public educators is something of a joke already, so you know where our finances are. The idea of making my own pasta sauce for a fraction of the cost of a jar of Prego appealed, so I decided to give the book a try. I was shocked to find that I loved cooking. Pasta sauce led me to other cuisines, which eventually led me to that culinary torch. And after reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, then researching the connection between human trafficking and our food sources, our resolves were strengthened. We signed up for a local CSA box, dedicated ourselves to cooking from scratch, and have never looked back.
But my search for social justice led me down other roads as well. What about other industries? Other than food, the clothing industry might be the most outrageous violator of human rights in modern consumer society. In addition, I love flipping through the catalog for Anthropologie, but to buy the items I love, I’d need to quit my teaching job and do something that has profit as a goal for a living.
And so I ended up asking for a sewing machine for Christmas. Yes, me. The daughter of a non-traditional feminist. The granddaughter of a model for Seventeen who rejected society’s restrictions on her behavior. The great-granddaughter of a woman forced to quit high school, her one great dream, to be forced to marry an unfaithful man for monetary reasons. I’m only the second woman in my family on my mother’s side to earn a college degree. If my own mother hadn’t beaten me by two months, I’d have been the first to earn a graduate degree. And here I am, passing the time by crocheting a hat.
What happened? The same thing Michael Pollan observed in his recent book In Defense of Food. Liberal and conservative forces can align, every once in awhile, to bring us to the same conclusion. I’ve seen women make their own clothes and cook dinner for their husbands because that was expected of a woman. I do these things too, but the path that led me here is different. I love my husband and want to cook him delicious food, and take pride in it, too, but he far outranks me in the culinary arts. He had an excellent teacher.
The long and short of it is that I hate the term ‘domestic goddess’ and yet I find myself chasing it. My search for fairly traded goods, nutritious food, and personal responsibility led me to the activities I’ve mocked all my life. But instead of chasing them for their own sake, or for the sake of some outdated icon of feminine idealism, my rejection of those things led me back to them. That leads me to believe that there’s not really quite so much difference between the two competing ideologies as I thought. ‘