Thursday, August 22, 2013

Hand wash only (II)

A few days ago, I started thinking about the difficulties of looking at the past through rose-colored glasses. Let's face it: life without electricity, equal voting rights, or antibiotics would be way harder. To explore this point further, let's look at life without two rather nice appliances (albeit just for the two weeks that we were on vacation in Canada).

1. Life Without a Dishwasher

At the island, we usually use two big enamelware basins for washing, one with hot rinse water and one with warm soapy water. We take turns, going two at a time, one to wash the dishes and one to dry. There are fun things about this. For as long as I can remember, we've sung old camp and vaudeville songs while drying dishes after dinner. (My grandfather is a big fan of Cole Porter.) I have fond memories of my cousins harmonizing over "Lida Rose" from The Music Man. And when you're not singing, it's a good time to chat with your dishwashing partner.

But those dishes add up: this year, we had six people up for two weeks, plus two visitors for several days. That's six to eight sets of dishes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, every. Single. Day. Sometimes the mice get into the silverware drawer and you have to wash every fork, knife, and spoon. Your hands get dry from the soap. I've lived in apartments without dishwashers, but cleaning the dishes of two people is way different from doing the dishes of six or eight.

2. Life Without a Washing Machine

This is where the real pain lies. And funny enough, we used to be more modern when my mom was growing up. My grandmother and great-grandmother would haul a freestanding washing machine onto the rocks and set the thing going to wash clothes. Apparently it made an awful racket, but it did the job. Now that we no longer have such a handy appliance, we wash clothes by hand.

It's an inexact science. We need three or four big tubs, depending on the amount of clothes. The biggest tub we fill with warm, soapy water for washing; a smaller one with warm water for rinsing; and often one with bleachy water for serious stains. After letting the clothes soak in the soapy water, we (and by we I mean my mom, who always takes this on) use a clean metal plunger to mash them around and make sure the soap really gets in there. Stains you have to scrub out by hand. After a few rinses and some vigorous wringing, they're ready to hang on the line behind the cabin. Again, it's not all bad; it's a great time to catch up with my mom or talk through some teaching ideas.

Still, this is one of the most physical domestic activities I've ever seen. What with the plunging and the scrubbing and the wringing, you get a real workout. And we actually have it easy with running water, hot and cold, coming out of the pipes at the back of the house; there's no hauling of water up from the lake or pumps.

Imagine doing these chores for the rest of your life, lady readers. Laundry you could do once a week, but dishes every day. Is it any wonder that when 19th-century women had a little extra cash, they hired out their laundry before purchasing any other luxuries? I'm not dismissing the value of doing things by hand; certainly my family gets some enjoyment out of it, or we'd have invested in some appliances by now. But boy, do I love the 21st century.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Hand wash only (I)

It's easy to wax nostalgic about the "good old days," that halcyon golden age when kids didn't do drugs or drink underage, and life was simpler, without cell phones and social media complicating things. (Yes, I'm guilty of this!) There are a few things wrong with this kind of thinking, though: first, the "good old days" never truly existed. Kids have always gotten into trouble and American life has always been complicated, just in different ways (think about the extreme social demands of the Gilded Age, or the sweeping poverty of the Great Depression). Second, this kind of rose-colored thinking always glosses over the hard parts of living in the past, like chores done without modern conveniences, attitudes towards marginalized groups, and a lack of equality.

In particular, I have trouble remembering the second reason. Who knows why; I'm a proud liberal feminist and there's no way I'd give up my right to vote. And each summer, living rustically on vacation reminds me how much I love modern conveniences. But there's something about that image of a simpler life, uncomplicated by technology and consumerism, that gets me every time.

So this week, let's take a closer look at one of the reasons why yearning for the simpler days is actually counterproductive. We're going to examine life without two modern domestic conveniences: the dishwasher and the washing machine, both of which my family does without when we're on vacation in Canada. While we do enjoy "getting back to the land," each summer I sort of wish we'd installed both machines when we wired the cabin for electricity thirty years ago. Why? Check in on Thursday to find out.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Blueberry picking (and muffins)

It's been two weeks since we returned from vacation in Canada, and I can't stop thinking about it. Even though I've since joined my parents for a weekend in upstate New York. Even though Josh and I have entertained and seen friends and gotten thoroughly back into the Providence swing of things. Even though school starts soon (gah!). There's just something about vacation that grabs you tight and doesn't let go.

This year's visit, more than anything, was defined by blueberries. Blueberry bushes run wild over the island, bordering paths and leading into the woods. If we're making pancakes for breakfast, my mom will often step outside to pick a handful of berries from the bushes behind the cabin. We usually go blueberry picking at least once on vacation, hoping to put the produce towards a fresh pie. If we're lucky, we'll pick enough so we don't have to supplement with "store-bought," a phrase that gives my grandfather heart palpitations when we're up at the island.

No such worries this year. My sister, Josh and I picked enough for a pie just from the bushes outside the cabin. Venturing farther afield, the whole family picked enough for a double portion of blueberry cobbler. Then we had berry muffins. Then we picked enough for another pie. We ate blueberry pancakes three times during our two-week visit. And we certainly left enough for the next visitors.

Needless to say, we had a bumper crop.

There's something so peaceful and zen-like about picking blueberries. Cup or pail in hand, you can hike as little or as far as you want until you find a good patch. The best berries are fat and round, like little blue stars, and if you brush them with your fingers they fall right into your hand (or onto the ground, as so often happens). It's easy to work longer than you're expecting; each time you pause or talk about heading back, you'll spy the perfect bush a few feet to the right. "Just one more," you'll think, reaching for the fruit. Sometimes you might mistake a dark huckleberry for a blue, but that doesn't matter, since they're both edible, and you're on vacation, and who's really counting?

blueberries (L) and huckleberries (R)

These muffins are one of the better ways to consume a cupful of fresh blueberries, should you find your lucky self in possession of some. Light and barely sweet, tasting of milk and butter, muffins are a great vehicle for fresh fruit. Especially when you've tried out all the other ways to eat blueberries.

Blueberry Muffins
(adapted from The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book by Fannie Merritt Farmer, 1930)

2 cups all-purpose flour
4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp sugar
1 cup milk
2 tbsp melted butter
1 egg
1 cup blueberries, picked over and rinsed

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Line a muffin tin with liners, or brush with oil or butter. In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar, and whisk to mix. In a separate, medium bowl, combine the milk, butter, and egg. Don't worry if the butter clumps when you add it.

Quickly add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir a few times. Before it's fully incorporated, fold in the berries. Stir a few more times until just combined. Drop the batter into the prepared tins and bake at 400 F for 25 minutes, or until golden brown.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Afternoon Adventure: Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village

As a teenager I went to an all-girls school, one steeped in tradition and programs that recalled English prep schools. One of the big ones was chapel, where we heard guest speakers and senior speeches. Before the program began, we often sang a community song, with sheet music left on every other chair for students to share. The director of the music department would accompany us on the organ or piano, and it felt a little like church, though our school was determined to remain secular.

The regular rotation included "Simple Gifts," a traditional Shaker song about community and dancing. I bet you know it: "Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free..." I can sing it by heart now, we returned to it so often. Once, in the middle of a rather serious speech, our head of school took a break to perform a traditional Shaker dance. She raised her arms and turned around, all while singing the song alone, which is probably why it's forever emblazoned in my brain.

Anyway, all that is to say that I have a passing acquaintance with the Shakers. So I jumped at the chance to visit Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village when I was in Maine with Josh and his family. While there used to be a number of Shaker communities throughout New England, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky, very few remain, and those that do are usually historical recreations. Sabbathday Lake, located in New Gloucester, ME, is different: it houses the three remaining Shaker believers.

Three. In the world.

Originally founded in England in the 1780s, the Shakers were an offshoot of Protestantism that focused on celibacy, hard work, and communal living. Dance formed an integral part of their weekly worship, so outsiders began to term them "Shakers" for their vigorous movements. They quickly spread to the United States and built a number of communities, which reached their height in the early 19th century. But because of their belief in celibacy, the only way to add members was through conversions and fostering children. So membership began to decline, especially as religion became less and less important in mainstream society. Yet three believers remain today.

The tour at Sabbathday Lake reflected this reality in a lot of ways. Only 6 of the 18 buildings in the village were open to us, since the three members still work on the farm and produce crafts and herbs to sell. At the beginning of the tour, our guide gave us a brief history of the Shakers and mentioned that the members of Sabbathday Lake were still accepting new converts. So if any of us were interested... Maybe it's just my sentimental side, but I thought I could sense some sadness behind her joking tone. Yes, the Shakers represent a dying way of life, for a good reason. But it's unfortunate that this lifestyle will pass on.

Most of the rooms we visited felt like part of a museum. There were the period rooms above the meetinghouse, spare and neat, with examples of Shaker furniture and innovations in arranging a house. (The Shakers invented practically everything, it turns out, from "button chairs" that allow you to tip back in your seat to flat brooms.) One room displayed the history of processing apples (again, rife with inventions). On the whole, it didn't feel very much like a place inhabited by real people, doing real work.

What got me thinking that day, besides the quiet rooms and the knowledgeable tour guide, were the constant reminders that this represented the last vestige of a unique lifestyle. That Shaker song I knew? One of thousands composed by early believers, many passed on orally (though many have been written down). The three surviving members spent their early lives apprenticing to the jobs they really wanted, like baking, until they had mastered them. Summer people can join them in their Sunday worship at the 18th-century meetinghouse, where they can participate in a traditional Shaker service. But sometime not so far in the future, only tours will pass through that meetinghouse.

If you're at all interested in the Shakers, Sabbathday Lake is worth the trip. It's a fascinating glimpse into another world.