Domesticity: or, Kitchens and Contradictions

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I recently made a short trip home to see my family. In the summer every year, the Gravitt’s go to Holbrook Campground and sweat our little butts off making food and going to church. As someone who considers themselves a hardline feminist, I have had a hard time over the years embracing some of things I have been expected to do as a southern woman. Though my parents in particular never forced me to do the dishes or help in the kitchen (anymore than my brother), whenever I was with my extended family there was an expectation. Every family gathering – holidays in particular – the extreme pressure to always be in the kitchen reared its divisive head. The men would be in the living room or somewhere else sitting, watching tv, or playing outside, while the women would be constantly frantic, moving dishes from one table to the next, letting the men and children eat first, and half the time never even sitting down to the table. I didn’t feel comfortable in either the living room with the men or in the crowded kitchen with the women. It’s particularly interesting, then, that I’ve taken to cooking as much as I have. Campmeeting specifically is a place that brings these debates and contradictions to the surface for me: most of what the preacher spouts at the altar doesn’t jive with my own moral sensibility, and the women in my family – whether it was my grandmother growing up or my mother now – cook and look after everyone the whole time. Not exactly a feminist utopia. But, I still love being there. I like cooking for my family, and though I don’t normally go to church, I don’t mind sitting on the porch and listening from afar. The place has a specific sense memory that I can trace through all of my 27 years. It’s one of the only times of the year when I see my cousins. It’s weird, and crazy, and a little bigoted and closed minded, and also special.

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I think that some of my interest in 19th century domestic novels comes from my love of cooking, gardening, even freakin’ knitting and cross-stitching. I want to resurrect these activities for myself as things that I choose to do; not that I am pressured into. Also, these aren’t the ONLY things that I like to do. I have a choice. I will work full time and cook for myself and others. When I don’t have time though, I won’t. The ways that women in domestic guides and novels of the nineteenth century find power and energy in the work that they do goes beyond conservative notions of separate spheres and the expectations of gendered roles. These damn beautiful vegetables go way beyond the gender of the person who cut them.

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We used to carry water balloons around in the bowls hanging on this wall. My grandmother worked those bowls to the bone. These bowls carry with them memories of labor.

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That clock still works. It’s still ticking away the time in a place where everything and nothing has changed for me. Though I don’t think I’ll ever fully reconcile my feelings about Campmeeting, I will embrace food, and embrace the “feminised” labor of cooking at home. I will grow food, I will prepare food, and I will eat food in the best way that I can. And, at least for now, I’ll continue to come home during the summer, sweat my butt off cooking at the Campground, and even occasionally listen to a sermon (maybe). But I’ll also sit on this porch, listen to the crickets and the treefrogs, and read about how other women express their contradictions.

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Also, while I was at home, I made several batches of fridge pickles to the general excitement of those who tried them. I decided to share the actual recipe I used for the cucumber pickles here, so that people can come back to it if they want to make them. My two-year old niece, Audrey, for one, really enjoyed them (though I think she would eat any old pickle). The recipe for the brine is from the Smitten Kitchen’s Pickled Vegetable Sandwich Slaw which is also an amazing way to use some of the summer vegetable surplus. I thought this brine worked great with cucumbers. Here’s the recipe:

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Refridgerator Pickles

Brine:

– 1 cup white vinegar

– 3 tbsp sugar

– 2 tbsp kosher salt

– 2 tbsp mustard seed

– 1 cup water

Vegetables:

– ~4 small to medium cucumbers, sliced (2 per jar)

– 4 small cloves of garlic, cut in half (2 per jar)

– 4 large sprigs of fresh dill (2 per jar)

– 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (1/4 per jar)

1. Combine the vinegar, sugar, salt, and mustard seed in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring until the salt and sugar are dissolved. Take the mixture off the heat and pour in the cup of water to cool the brine down slightly.

2. Meanwhile, pack the vegetables into two regular sized canning jars. [I cut my cucumbers into rounds, because I like snacking on them, but I think this recipe would work fine with spears as well. Whole pickles I think would be hard to achieve with this method – they would basically be vinegary cucumbers.] Layer the garlic, dill, and red pepper flakes in with the cucumbers so that the ingredients are somewhat evenly distributed.

3. Pour the brine over the cucumbers until they are completely covered. Try to evenly distribute the mustard seed as well. Put the lids on, and into the fridge they go.

They will be lightly pickled in an hour, and perfect the next day. They should keep about a month in the fridge. Makes 2 jars.

– Bryn

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