"If someone had told me when I was 16 or so," I remarked to a friend while I was preparing to write this, "that one day I'd love shopping for groceries and would be casting longing glances at the beautiful but overpriced saucier they have on display at Sur la Table, I'd probably have slapped them."
I first became aware of the ideas of domesticity and homemaking when I was about 11 years old. The introduction could have gone better. In grade six, we were all required to take one semester of Home Economics and one semester of Wood Shop. Leaving aside my less-than-virtuoso performance in the latter, the former was taught by a woman who reminded me of nothing so strongly as a 1980s version of Cruella DeVille. She had dyed jet-black hair, thick makeup that simulated the pallour of a hypothermic cadaver, and blood-red lipstick. She wore her shirt collars turned up so that they reached her ears. Her demeanour made one wonder whether she might be in the habit of eating small children during her prep time.
She also had a truly traumatic recipe collection. For the first half of the semester, we slogged through such culinary delights as bagel pizzas à la Velveeta and some sort of odd oatmeal-chocolate chip cookie concoction that, prior to baking, looked a lot like excrement.
That I remained able to be in a kitchen without getting palpitations and breaking out in a cold sweat is truly a testament to human resiliency.
The second half of the class was dedicated to seeing whether sixth graders would be able to learn to sew in the absence of any real instruction. In my case, the answer was no. Our project for this portion of class, spread out over the rest of the semester, was to make the world's most useless pillows. In addition to being understuffed and too small to provide comfort to anyone larger than a hamster, they were required to be in the shape of our last initial. It was the only time in my life in which I wished that my last name started with a letter other than H. In the end, most of the sewing on my project was outsourced to the teacher.
While that semester alone would have been enough to put me off things domestic for life, it was compounded by the fact that I was aware that such things were commonly (and often disdainfully) called "women's work". Even at that age, I was becoming increasingly aware of the degree to which women were getting a raw deal in society, and if "women's work" included learning crappy recipes from a vaguely vampiric woman with all the warmth of an underground carpark, then that was Exhibit A.
Things changed when I was 17. My German host mother, a professor of French at a local community college who was aware of my affinity for pasta
, decided to make spaghetti one night. When I asked her what brand of sauce we'd be using, she was clearly amused. "You think we're going to have that jarred stuff?"I, who until that moment had no idea that anyone routinely made pasta sauce from scratch, spent the next hour or so helping her chop up garlic and onions, sautee
them in olive oil
, and mix in tomato paste and copious
amounts of water. The result was delicious, and I felt quite proud to have been part of making it, though I was never quite able to duplicate the sauce. However, apart from the addition of balsamic vinegar
(to which I was introduced by a friend I visited in Berlin
that year), that single recipe was basically the extent of my interest in things culinary.
By my early twenties, I had developed a very rigid, unnuanced brand of feminism born partially of the shoulder-padded image of the feminism of the 80s. It was in that mindset that I had developed my vision of what sort of woman I'd grow up to be. I was going to be the sort of woman who defied every stereotype. I was not only not going to do the traditional things just because they were traditional and stereotypical; I was going to not do those things specifically because they were traditional and stereotypical. I dreaded any kind of shopping that involved clothing and took more than thirty seconds including travel time, lived in a room decorated in an Early Self-Storage motif, bristled at the idea of anything resembling marriage, and steered clear of children to the extent possible.
Over the subsequent few years, however, I began to sense a change within me. When I thought about the apartment I had recently acquired the financial means to rent, I had detailed visions of the feeling of the place, and of the things that would give it that feeling. These were visions of a sort I had never experienced before. Unfolding, room by room (though I didn't yet have a specific place in mind) , was a place of warmth, of comfort, of coziness, of togetherness with my friends and my family, where we would spend countless evenings sitting around the dining room table, enjoying food I prepared and sipping wine, talking and laughing with each other all the while. In short, I was fondly dreaming of a near future in which I would do something at the top of my list of suspect activities: making a home.
Here I was, at 25, with a slightly more nuanced and experientially based - but still largely unchanged - view of gender and the world in general, feeling a resonance that was as deep-seated as it was shocking toward the world of things that I had long sinced declared taboo. It was the world of things that to me had always symbolised the societal subordination of women, and something that had suddenly begun emerging from inside me actually wanted to take part in it.
Now, slightly over a year after those initial stirrings, the home I saw in that first vision is where I live. Thinking back, it is quite hard to pinpoint which element of that is the most surprising, because there is not a single element that is unsurprising. I spent several hectic months going through every home and kitchen goods store I could think of looking for the perfect pots, pans, silverware, plates, bowls, coffee mugs, salt and pepper mills, microwave, dinette set, sheets, bookshelves, wall art, patio furniture, curtains, lighting, aprons, potholders, oven mitts, and accents. I have spent countless hours (with a good deal of help from friends and family) assembling and arranging it all until it was just so.
Even before the furnishing and decoration were finished, the other half of the vision had already begun to materialise. I started to have dinner get togethers - first with my sister, then with my best friend, then with my best friend, my sister, and one of her closest friends, then with my best friend and her best friend from back home, and, more recently, with my new girlfriend. Every chance I got, I put on my apron and spent hours running about in the kitchen in the service of making delicious, convivial meals for those closest to me; as I had begun to realise, I did not intend this place that I had noticed myself calling a home solely as my space, but also as that of my friends and family.
The emergence of these aspects of myself, which seem to have been dormant until awakened by the change circumstances, has required me to revisit the foundation of my views. The basic premise of my feminism (which is most likely not limited to my own view) has always been to free women from the restraints that have been imposed for centuries. When I began to notice this dissonance between the way I had decided that that freedom should be attained and preserved and these new desires within myself, I had to ask myself: can something really be freeing if it bars one from acting on feelings coming from deep within?
After over a year of soul-searching, I have thoroughly rethought my entire approach. Ultimately, it is not the act of homemaking in whatever form that is oppressive; it is the socially imposed obligation. No one comes any closer to freedom or equality by suppressing him or herself, any more than decolonisation can be obtained by affecting an East London accent, playing cricket, and eating Marmite. Feminism, if it is truly to be a philosophy of liberation, must be based on each individual woman seeking out those things about herself that truly come from within and separating them from all the myriad things that patriarchal society tells her she should be. No one can truly be free or equal without first claiming the right to express his or her self, whatever that self might include.